'Mama' Cass Elliott in London, 1969 (Getty Images / Popperfoto)
One of the most pervasive untruths of the celebrity world is the myth of how Cass Elliot died. The popularly repeated story, which asserts that she choked to death on a ham sandwich, pokes mean-spirited fun at the talented singer's weight and misses the tragedy of her early death at age 32. And, incidentally, it's a lie.
We're not the first ones to try to set the record straight about the ham sandwich story. But on the day when Elliot would have turned 71, we'd like to join the crowd as another voice of reason and offer more truths about Elliot, in celebration of her too-short life and awesome talent.
Truth: A blow to the head did not improve her vocal range – she was always that good. Elliot claimed that she was only invited to be part of The New Journeymen (the band that was later to become the Mamas and the Papas) after she gained three notes at the top of her range – thanks to an unfortunate collision between a copper pipe and her head. In Elliot's version of the story, she had a headache for two weeks after the accident and then, miraculously, she was singing higher. She could then hit the notes in The New Journeymen's songs, and the rest was history.
Except that the story is highly suspect. Not only is the idea of a head wound opening up one's vocal range very unlikely; friends of Elliot and the rest of the group have since asserted that her range was just as impressive before the accident as it was after – there was no change. The real reason she was kept out of The New Journeymen, they say, wasn't a limited singing ability – it was her weight. She didn't fit band founder John Phillips's image for the group, so she wasn't asked to be a part of it (though she hung around with the band members quite a bit). Eventually, Phillips realized how fantastic her voice made their songs sound, and he got past her appearance and made her a band member. Elliot made up the pipe story to cover for her embarrassment and Phillips's prejudicial attitude.
Truth: She was to thank for the name "The Mamas and the Papas." After Elliot joined the group, The New Journeymen needed a new name. They tried The Magic Cyrcle, but they didn't particularly like it. One evening while the band was sitting around watching TV and thinking of names, they saw the Hell's Angels on a talk show. When one of them referred to female bikers as "Mamas," Elliot was electrified, jumping up and yelling, "Yeah! I want to be a Mama!" Michelle Phillips joined in, and Denny Doherty and John Phillips figured they could be the Papas, and thus a legendary name was born. With it came Elliot's enduring nickname, Mama Cass.
But don't call her Mama. Once her time with the band was done, Elliot embarked on a solo career under her own name. Some early solo recordings billed her as Mama Cass, but she became more and more frustrated with the moniker that wouldn't go away – to the point of titling her 1973 TV special "Don't Call Me Mama Anymore." And truly, we don't call Michelle Phillips "Mama Michelle" or Denny Doherty "Papa Denny" – so the sticky nickname starts to feel like yet another comment on Elliot's size. Let's stick with calling her Cass Elliot, as she wanted (even if Sammy Davis Jr. couldn't manage to introduce her that way).
Truth: She didn’t choke. The unfortunate story of Elliot’s cause of death was started by a careless coroner called to examine her. He saw a ham sandwich and a Coke on a table next to the bed where Elliot's body lay… and he jumped to a very quick conclusion, stating that Elliot, not displaying symptoms of any other sort of trauma, must have choked while eating and drinking lying down. The story jibed with the general impression of Elliot as gluttonous, so it stuck.
But that examiner missed one pretty crucial fact: the sandwich was untouched. The investigating police officer noted that in his report, and a full autopsy showed that the actual cause of Elliot's death was a heart attack. She hadn't choked on anything.
Now that you know the truth about Cass Elliot, we hope you'll spread it around. If there's one thing that's even more fun than repeating a nasty rumor, it's proving that rumor wrong.
Written by Linnea Crowther