‘The truth was just too painful’: the highs and lows of Mama Cass (2024)

One of the most famous stories ever told about “Mama” Cass Elliot was a complete lie. It didn’t help that the singer herself repeated it in scores of interviews. As the spiel goes, Cass became the last singer hired for the Mamas and Papas only after she got smacked on the head by a pipe during a construction project at a local club where they all hung out. “It’s true,” she insisted to Rolling Stone in 1968. “I had a concussion and went to the hospital. I had a bad headache for about two weeks and then, all of a sudden, I was singing higher.”

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The “new” sound she supposedly produced was what allegedly convinced group’s leader John Phillips to finally bring her into the fold, creating what became one of the most famous four-way harmony groups in pop history. In fact, the real reason Phillips didn’t initially want to hire the clearly gifted Cass was simply because he thought she was too overweight to be part of a viable pop group. “The fact that she felt she had to perpetuate a false story shows the depth of what she felt she had to hide,” said Owen Elliot-Kugell, the singer’s daughter who has written a new book titled My Mama, Cass. “The truth was just too painful.”

Even with that cover story to shield her, Cass experienced relentless fat-shaming throughout the group’s career, highlighted by the main refrain in their seminal hit Creeque Alley that read “no one’s getting fat except Mama Cass”. The snarky references continued into their legacy years when, in an acceptance speech for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, fellow “Mama” Michelle Phillips said: “I have personal knowledge that Cass is looking down on these proceedings wearing a size six Thierry Mugler dress.” The swipes about her weight even played into a widely believed, but false, story about the cause of her death. (The infamous choking-on-a-ham-sandwich bit.) The poignancy of it all forms a central motif in Elliot-Kugell’s book though it doesn’t overwhelm the main reason we care to begin with. The book also celebrates the singularity of Cass’s singing, the range of her creative talent, and the warmth of her character. The primary inspiration for writing the book came from a foundational trauma: Elliot-Kugell was only seven when her mother died. “When you lose somebody that young, they become a mystery to you,” she said. “Writing the book allowed me to put the pieces of the puzzle of my mom together in a way I hadn’t previously been able to do.”

Elliot-Kugell, now 57, began thinking about writing a book about her mother nearly two decades ago but, because her own experience with her was scant, she had to go on an extended journalistic mission to mine the memories of people with a far greater understanding of her life and history. “I was always asking people about her,” she said. “This book is a compilation of everything I’ve been told over the years.”

‘The truth was just too painful’: the highs and lows of Mama Cass (1)

The result strikes her as especially relevant today. “My mom was a forward-thinking woman-of-size who made it in an industry that was largely controlled by men,” she said. “That makes her story timely.”

Because her story ended too soon it gains special pain as well. “My mom was just 32 when she passed,” Elliot-Kugell said. “She didn’t live long enough to write a memoir that would have her side represented. I did this because she didn’t get the chance to.”

What she uncovered was a life in which others often set the agenda, and framed the narrative, for her mother. When Cass was just a girl, she contracted ringworm, a highly contagious disease. Because her mother was pregnant at the time, the family sent her to live temporarily with her grandmother, a product of the Depression who viewed food as both a cure-all and a source of love. “They fed her like crazy,” Elliot-Kugell said. “When my mom came home a couple of months later she was heavier and her parents became concerned. They did what they knew how to do, which was to send her to a doctor. And he did what he knew how to do, which was to put her on amphetamines.

“She was just eight!” the author exclaimed. “What does being on amphetamines do to a child’s developing brain? It’s not only altering chemically what’s going on, it’s sending a horrible message that there’s something wrong with you. And this pill will fix it.”

A bright spot in Cass’s early life was music. Even as a child, she had a voice that stood out, as well as an interest in acting that she avidly pursued in high school theatrical productions. Even there, she experienced judgment for her size. While behind the scenes she taught the other kids how to sing, dance and present themselves, she never appeared onstage herself. “She knew that other people were going to judge her for her looks,” Elliot-Kugell said. “I feel terrible that she had to go through that.”

After high school, she gained enough confidence to move from her family’s home in Maryland to New York to audition for professional parts in musicals. At that point, she ditched her birth name, Ellen Cohen, to fashion a moniker combining her nickname, Cass, with that of a friend named Elliot who died in a car crash. She earned a part in the touring company of The Music Man, but only as the “the fat girl” and, though she was in the running for the role of Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It for You Wholesale, she lost to another promising star: Barbra Streisand. At the time, she lamented to a friend, “There just don’t seem to be many parts for a 200-pound ingenue.”

Luckily for her, the folk music scene was then exploding in New York’s Greenwich Village, a demimonde that celebrated alternative voices and opinions. She helped form several groups there, including the Big 3 and Mugwumps, the latter including future Papa Denny Doherty and later Lovin’ Spoonful guitarist Zal Yanovski. They recorded just one album before splitting, which paved Cass’s eventual way into the burgeoning Mamas and Papas in 1965. By year’s end the new group already scored a Top Five smash with California Dreamin’, yet internecine intrigue threatened to kill them in their crib. Members Michelle Phillips and Denny Doherty had an affair, despite the fact that she was married to John and Cass had already made clear her deep crush on Doherty.

Cass’s thwarted pursuit of him emphasized a pattern in her life of going after unattainable men. Her first marriage, to Big 3 member James Hendricks, was arranged solely to help him avoid the draft. When she was 26, she became pregnant by a man who was fleetingly in her life, yet she decided to raise the child on her own as a way to insure she would always have someone in her life. (The identity of the father, a musician, wasn’t discovered by Elliot-Kugell until she was an adult.) “To me, one of the most profoundly sad things in my mother’s whole story is the fact that she never got to have a relationship with another human being on equal standing,” Elliot-Kugell said.

Several years later, Cass married another man, a German journalist named Donald von Wiedenman, whom she divorced within months. Elliot-Kugell makes no mention of him in her book because, she said, “he talked sh*t about her. And it wasn’t like their marriage changed her life. He was just another opportunist.”

Though romance eluded her, Cass became hugely popular as both a close friend and a trusted musical adviser. From her first days on the scene, she displayed an A&R director’s skill at understanding which musicians would sound right together. During her Mugwumps days, she suggested John Sebastian work with Zal Yanovsky, in the process midwifing the Lovin’ Spoonful. In the backyard of her Laurel Canyon home in 1968, she encouraged Graham Nash to harmonize with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, leading to the formation of CSN. “Denny Doherty used to refer to her as the puppeteer with the marionettes, putting everyone together,” Elliot-Kugell said.

When the Mamas and Papas broke up, the smart money was on Cass to become the solo star given the warm timbre of her voice, the intelligence of her phrasing and the sheer force of what Elliot-Kugell calls “that Cohen honk. It cuts through everything.”

On her early solo albums, the label insisted she stick with the name Mama Cass, though she wanted to be billed as Cass Elliot to distinguish herself from the group. A new recording contract with RCA in 1972 finally gave her the creative freedom to record under her own name and to cut more sophisticated material by the likes of Randy Newman and Judee Sill. Even so, none of her solo albums sold well. She earned more attention through live shows and TV appearances though, even here, the fat jokes followed. On a Friars Club Roast of actor Carroll O’Connor, Dean Martin introduced her as “a very big girl”. “Today, nobody would say that,” Elliott-Kugell said. “But, at the time, it was part of the shtick of who she was.”

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In those years, Cass was working so relentlessly, health problems began to develop that were, tragically, ignored. Elliot-Kugell’s book recounts at least five instances of her mother fainting or experiencing exhaustion that were not properly checked out by a doctor or seen as signs of something more serious. “It’s hard to sit here today and not say, ‘How can no one have seen this?’” she said.

In 1974, Cass was booked to an extensive, and very successful, residency in London. After completing the last show in July she retired to an apartment in Mayfair where, several hours later, she died in her sleep from a heart attack. In her book, Elliot-Kugell works diligently to uncover the origin of the ham sandwich story. She discovered it was cooked up by her manager, Alan Carr, just so no one speculated that drugs were the culprit. Well-meaning as that may have been, it turned her mother’s death into a punchline. The mere fact that people fell for it bold-faces the prejudice that surrounds weight. “It was easier for the public to accept the idea of someone being gluttonous when they’re heavy,” Elliot-Kugell said. “It made the story salacious.”

After her mother’s death, Elliot-Kugell was raised by Cass’s sister, the singer-songwriter Leah Kunkel and her husband, the famed session drummer Russ Kunkel. In her teen years, she pursued her own musical career by helping to form the group Wilson-Phillips (which combined offspring members of Brian Wilson’s and John Phillips’ clans). Unfortunately, she got forced out before they recorded a single song because, she said, her voice was too loud. Her experiences in the music business have helped her appreciate how rare her mother’s success was in that field. At the same time, Cass’s early death makes her wonder what she might have achieved had she lived. “I think she would have ended up on Broadway and would have done a lot of residencies in Las Vegas. She probably would have owned her own production company.”

She believes, too, that in the modern era of body-positivity, she would have faced less prejudice. Regardless, her legacy lives on. Recently, Cass has experienced an unexpected resurgence on TikTok, where the audio from her 1969 anthem of individuality, Make Your Own Kind of Music, has been used in 46,000 videos, amassing more than 32m views. According to Elliot-Kugell, even that dumb ham sandwich story has a positive side. “It’s just another way of remembering somebody,” she said. “It’s great to know that, even 50 years later, she’s still part of the conversation.”

This article was amended on 7 May 2024 to correct the spelling of Carroll O’Connor’s first name.

  • My Mama, Cass is out now

‘The truth was just too painful’: the highs and lows of Mama Cass (2024)
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