When Cass Elliot’s Mysterious Death Ended a Promising New Chapter
When Cass Elliot died in July 29, 1974, she looked as if she was winning a battle to put the Mama Cass persona behind her. If she’d been able to continue beyond the age of 32, it’s tantalizing to wonder what kind of a personality Eliot would have become.
Born Ellen Naomi Cohen on Sept. 19, 1941, she'd already made a significant contribution to American culture – and, importantly counter-culture, as the bearer of a voice with remarkable vocal range and tonic clarity. Crosby, Still and Nash first sang together in her Laurel Canyon home, which was also a gathering place for Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton and others.
She'd begun a sustained struggle with her weight at age seven, but argued that a high I.Q. – it was thought to be at least 165 – gave her the mental and emotional tools to deal with it. “She was overweight," former manager Bobby Roberts once said, "but she carried it off like she was a beauty queen.”
Elliot was known for her quick wit and cheery disposition, and neither seemed to be affected by drug issues – the details of which remained vague. She spread a story that an invitation to join the Mamas and the Papas, then known as the New Journeyman, came after she miraculously discovered three new octaves following an accident in which she struck her head on a copper pipe. In fact, Elliot was initially refused membership because of her weight. Co-founder John Phillips needed some time to accept that she was a powerful addition.
Listen to the Mamas and the Papas Perform 'California Dreamin"
By 1974, however, the Mamas and the Papas were behind her. Their chart-dominating run in the ‘60s ended in 1968 when she went solo. (She cited a feeling that they were losing focus and, as if to prove it, a contractually obliged 1971 album was their only release to bomb.) She endured a horrendous start to this new career in October 1968, in the form of a Las Vegas residency – the first time a counterculture artist had staged such an event – that was abandoned after two shows.
She suffered voice issues and fever in the days running up to the opening, partly caused by attempts to lose weight too quickly. Elliot had to apologize to the audience after her first appearance: “This is the first night, and it will get better.” When the second night was compared to the sinking of the Titanic in a review, she went home.
But after that stumbling start, Cass Elliot arguably did better than her bandmates as a solo artist, enjoying hit singles, becoming a TV personality and, most recently, delivering an ovation-winning run at London’s Palladium Theatre – a venue comparable to Carnegie Hall in the U.S.
“I believe that if you truly dig what you’re doing, if you lay it out that way, nobody can not respond,” Elliot once said. “I think my plans are to just build up, not relent for a moment. That’s what rock and roll is. Rock and roll is relentless.”
The Palladium engagement was a dream come true for her. As she completed that two-week run on the night of July 27, 1974, Rolling Stone reported that Elliot gazed at a picture of Judy Garland and said: “I know what it must have meant to that lady to be a hit here, because I know what it means to me.”
Lou Adler, her record producer, took in a Palladium performance and said Elliot “was really up. … She felt she was opening a new career. She’d finally got together an act she felt good doing – not prostituting herself, but middle-of-the-road people enjoyed it and she enjoyed doing it.”
Listen to Cass Elliot Perform ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’
Elliot’s moves on the night of July 28 have been reported differently over time. She attended a cocktail party hosted by Mick Jagger, where it’s been suggested that she departed early without drinking any alcohol – perhaps an illustration of new focus in her life. She was thought to have left alone, and it’s not known whether Elliot went anywhere else before returning to the apartment she was renting on Curzon Place in London’s exclusive Mayfair district.
It’s also not clear precisely when Cass Elliot died: Several friends and staff visited the apartment on July 29, 1974, but did not enter her room, assuming she was asleep. Her body was finally found when Dot McLeod, her secretary, went to visit after having failed to make contact by phone.
Perhaps the cruelest part of this tragedy was the rumor that Elliot choked to death on a ham sandwich. That turned out to be untrue: An early-responding doctor on the scene told the press that a half-eaten sandwich was found near the body and might figure into what had happened. However, an autopsy determined that Elliot suffered heart failure, almost certainly as a result of her weight. The sandwich hadn’t been touched.
She’d been reporting symptoms of illness, including regular vomiting for several weeks, which again possibly was the result of strict dieting. She’d already canceled a TV appearance after falling ill just before broadcast. A previous diet regime saw Elliot eating almost nothing for four days of every week, according to friends, and that may have done permanent damage as she tried to reboot her career in the late ‘60s.
Former bandmate Michelle Phillips called Elliot on the night of her death, and later recalled that Elliot “felt she had finally made the transition from Mama Cass.” Elliot's final album, released in 1973, was titled Don’t Call Me Mama Anymore.
In what’s thought to have been her final interview, Elliot said: “I’m independent. I value my freedom to live and love as I want more than anything else in the world.” She added: “I never created the Big Mama image. The public does it for you. But I’ve always been different. ... I got into the habit of being independent, and the habit became a design for living.”
Listen to Cass Elliot Perform ‘Make Your Own Kind of Music’
In 1999, 25 years after her death, British radio host Annie Nightingale paid tribute by saying: “[Elliot] opened the door for others like Janis Joplin and Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane. I adored her voice, you couldn't help but like her and she helped establish a genre of independent women. British artists were far more controlled, like Sandie Shaw, who literally felt like a puppet on a string.”
Richard Campbell, who ran Elliot’s official website, added: “It's one thing to be an earth mama letting it all hang out in 1967, quite another to have those attitudes in 1963 before it was really hip.”