The Tragic Death Of The Mamas And The Papas' Cass Elliot

The Mamas and the Papas was one of those '60s phenomena, soft rock rising out of the folk music era, four young people creating music that captured the public's ear and held tight. John Phillips, Michelle Phillips (yes, they were married), Denny Doherty, and Cass Elliot found their way into each other's artistic circle and soared, says Biography. Though each of the four members would go on to create art in one fashion or another — John Phillips and Doherty in music, Michelle more focused on acting — arguably, it was Cass who has had the longest impact on popular culture, even today.

The woman who would become "Mama" Cass Elliot was born Ellen Naomi Cohen in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 19, 1941, according to Haaretz. Her mother had been a professional singer, and her father was devoted to opera. By the time she was 19, Cass was performing in the Washington D.C. area. Cass eventually joined forces with Denny Doherty and others to form yet another group, The Mugwumps. When that band broke up, Denny began to work with John and Michelle, and Cass wanted to be part of what was becoming a solid singing group. She actually followed them to performances, and finally John, the composer and arranger, relented. Cass soared in their cover of 1931's "Dream a Little Dream of Me" and other recordings.

Cass Elliot soared as a vocalist with The Mamas and the Papas

In what our more enlightened times would call a cut-and-dried case of fat shaming, John was reluctant to allow Cass to perform on stage — great voice, but also, well, chubby. "I've been fat since I was 7," as Rolling Stone quoted her for her obituary. She might have proudly carried her weight, but it clearly bothered her. Cass was 22 years old when she discovered that the dress she was about to wear onstage wouldn't zip. "Sew two sheets together and let me go out there!" she cried, according to The Guardian, which goes on to quote Cass's daughter, Owen: "The National Association for Fat Awareness made my mom their diva. I don't totally agree with that. She accepted who she was, a sexy woman who was never short of boyfriends, but I think if she could have been thinner, she would have."

By 1968, the group had fractured, and Cass explored other opportunities. She went on to record as a single, producing a series of now-standard pop songs, including "Make Your Own Kind of Music". She toured and scored steady gigs on TV variety shows, both as a guest and as host. Throughout the success, her weight continued to trouble her. She tried to get slim, repeatedly, without long-term success. Cass tackled various dieting regimes, most of them ultimately harmful. She was 5'5", and topped out at around 300 pounds, says City of Edmonton News.

Crash dieting began to take a toll

When she booked a series of engagements at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, she set off on a six-month crash diet plan. She did manage to lose over 100 pounds, but she also ended up hospitalized. In the short term, she damaged her stomach and throat. The long-term damage was more subtle, and ultimately, more deadly.

Simply put, everyone in the scientific community agrees that crash diets work only very temporarily. Because of the sudden, extreme reduction in calorie intake, an individual's metabolism slows. It becomes harder and harder to continue to lose weight, sometimes driving a person to eat even less to maintain weight loss. Immune systems are compromised, and damage to the cardiac system is almost inevitable through the loss of muscle tissue as the body essentially goes into starvation mode, consuming itself in the absence of food intake. CNN quotes a nutritionist, Dr. Linda Bacon, who points out that long-term calorie-cutting can eventually lead to heart muscle loss. "Yo-yo dieting can also damage your blood vessels," she said. "All that shrinking and growing causes micro tears that create a setup for atherosclerosis and other types of heart disease." In the case of Cass Elliot, at least once she kept up seven months of fasting four days per week. Significant weight loss, but too quickly, and with too high a cost.

The first reports of her death were wildly inaccurate

She had just completed a concert series in London at the Palladium when she died on July 29, 1974. Somehow the press latched onto the idea that she'd choked to death on a ham sandwich — which was untrue. Said her daughter, Owen, "It's been hard for my family with the sandwich rumor. One last slap against the fat lady. People seem to think it's funny. What's so darn funny?" The simple truth was much more tragic, and even less humorous. The years of crash diets, fasts, and poor nutrition had taken their toll. Cass died of a massive heart attack in her sleep. "There was left-sided heart failure," as The Guardian quotes pathologist Keith Simpson. "She had a heart attack which developed rapidly." It's highly probable that the fatal weakness of her heart was a direct result of her severe dieting practices over the years — weight loss also meant loss of muscle, including heart muscle. She was just 32 years old.

Her recordings still get airplay today, and feature in commercials and film soundtracks. Cass is consistently described as funny, intelligent, informed, and thoughtful, committed to her art and committed to her daughter. When people remember Cass Elliot, it isn't because of her weight; it's because of a voice that continues to ring out nearly 50 years after her death.