On July 29, 1974, the singer and performer Cass Elliot died at the tragically young age of 32. In the immediate aftermath of her death, word got out – partly thanks to an indiscreet and ill-informed physician – that the entertainer best known for her singing with the 1960s pop superstars The Mamas and the Papas had choked to death on a ham sandwich. The story provided fodder for countless stand-up comics over the years, but the far more prosaic truth is that the severely overweight Elliot died in her sleep of a heart attack.
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Cass Elliot was born Ellen Naomi Cohen in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 19, 1941. Both her father and mother, Philip Cohen and the former Bess Levine, were the children of parents who had come to the United States with the great wave of Jewish emigration from the Russian Empire, post-1881. Philip was a small-business man, and struggled with a variety of different food companies, including a kosher caterer, before an early death in 1961. Bess was a trained nurse.
“Cass” is a name that Ellen picked up as a child, and she later took on “Elliot” in memory of a friend with that name who had died. For most of her millions of fans, however, she was simply “Mama” Cass, the epithet she picked up during the years she was singing together with John and Michelle Phillips and Denny Doherty in the Mamas and the Papas. And no amount of effort on her part seemed to persuade people to desist from calling her that.
Elliot grew up in communities in and around Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Her family was musical (Bess had been a professional singer, Philip had been a devoted operagoer), and she grew up determined to be a performer, in spite of her weight, which reached 136 kilograms (300 pounds). In 1962, in Washington, she began singing in a vocal group called The Triumvirate, which a year later evolved into The Big 3. (Another member of that ensemble, James Hendricks, became Elliot’s first husband, reportedly an arrangement meant to help him avoid the draft; the marriage was annulled in 1968.)
Later, Elliot and Hendricks joined up with Denny Doherty and Zal Yanovsky (later of The Lovin’ Spoonful) in a group called the Mugwumps, which is what finally led to the fateful meeting, in the Virgin Islands, of Cass and the other three singers who became the Mamas and the Papas.
They were together for only three years – 1965 to 1968 – but The Mamas and the Papas, with their lush harmonies, produced hits that are still staples of radio stations worldwide, songs like “I Saw Her again Last Night,” “California Dreamin’,” “Monday, Monday” and “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”
Of the 17 singles they released, six reached the top 10 in the American pop charts.
Elliot was the real star of the group. She had the best voice, she was very smart and funny and politically aware, and she possessed the confidence and style of a born entertainer. Her friends included David Crosby and Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Harry Nilsson, and she appeared regularly on television variety and talk shows.
She also was lonely and unhappy, and her weight fluctuated dramatically as she tried out diets that were often dangerous. She also experimented with different drugs. A second marriage, to an American journalist, Donald von Wiedenman – a descendant of Bavarian nobility and much later in life a maker of pornographic films – lasted less than a year.
By 1974, however, Elliot had her solo career under control. She also had a daughter. That summer, she had a sold-out two-week engagement at the London Palladium. After the final performance, on July 27, and 24 hours of parties, she returned to the Mayfair apartment where she was staying.
Early in the morning of July 29, she was discovered dead in her bed. A ham sandwich was found on a table nearby, but an autopsy revealed an empty stomach and clear airways. Unfortunately, the first doctor who examined her speculated to the press about the cause of death, and that’s the version that stuck.