The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Cass Elliot

Of all of the members of the legendary singing group, The Mamas and the Papas, Cass Elliot clearly stood out. What with her clear, distinctive singing voice, she brought out the best in the band. Little did anyone know that Elliot, born Ellen Naomi Cohen in 1941 in Maryland, would take the music world by storm. U Discover Music tells how Elliot got her nickname in high school and quickly cast her acting aspirations aside to follow her love for singing. By the early 1960s, she had been in some bands, including Triumvirate and the Mugwumps, before escalating to fame with the Mamas and the Papas.

According to Rolling Stone, Cass Elliot quickly became "the queen of LA pop society." She partied with the best musicians, and came off as lighthearted and carefree on stage. Posthumously, she was honored when the Mamas and the Papas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. In real life, however, Biography says Cass Elliot's life was fraught with heartbreak, the trials of being a single mother, her weight, and even a brush with the notorious Manson Family. For Elliot, fame came at a cost, right up to her early death in 1974. Read on for the tragic real-life story of Cass Elliot.

Cass Elliot's weight problems began when she was a child

A 1941 article confirmed that slow metabolism or hormonal deficiency can contribute to "obesity" in children. Cass Elliot herself once revealed, "I've been fat since I was seven, and being fat sets you apart," quotes The Guardian. Notable is that her parents worked at an ice cream fountain, according to the 1950 census. They also loved opera, and Elliot's mother played piano. Growing up, Elliot took piano lessons and learned to play the guitar, says Encyclopedia. In high school, she sang in the choir and also appeared in the school's theater productions.

After high school, Cass Elliot auditioned for parts in New York's Broadway shows. It was after she lost a part to another budding star, Barbara Streisand, that Elliot decided to pursue a singing career, according to Bustle. Wherever she was, Elliot conducted herself with style. "She was overweight, but she carried it off like she was a beauty queen," her former manager, Bobby Roberts, once said (per Rolling Stone). Yet Elliot was obviously uncomfortable. In 1969, she wrote an article for Good Housekeeping (via Hillstock), explaining that her weight "was an excuse so that I wouldn't have to compete with other women."

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, or know someone who is, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).

Cass Elliot had to push her way in to the Mamas and the Papas

Cass Elliot was playing with the Mugwumps when she met fellow musician Denny Doherty, who introduced her to John and Michelle Phillips, writes U Discover Music. The threesome was forming a band, and Elliot wanted to join the group. Besides, she was attracted to Doherty, but he "couldn't deal with the weight," according to The Atlantic. Neither could the band. Nobody could picture Cass Elliot performing next to the gorgeous Michelle Phillips. John Phillips especially believed Elliot's size would be a turnoff to their fans, says Biography. But Elliot remained determined to join the band and dedicated herself to following them wherever they went.

According to Rolling Stone, Michelle remembered how Elliot began "following us around. Everywhere we went. It got to be a sadomasochistic game." Elliot was willing to do anything, from waitressing at the nightclub where they were playing to rehearsing with them while they were on break. Then, Michelle said, "we'd say, 'OK, Cass, serve some f****** drinks, we're going onstage.'" When the group was kicked out of St. Thomas for drugging, says the Baltimore Sun, they wound up with no money and showed up at Elliot's Los Angeles home. Only then was she allowed to join the band.

The hit on the head with a pipe story wasn't true

Although she hadn't joined them yet, Cass Elliot was with the band in St. Thomas, writes the Baltimore Sun. There, said John Phillips, a pipe fell on Elliot at a construction site and hit her on the head. John claimed the injury changed her voice, allowing her to hit higher notes. Snopes, however, confirms that a blow to the head has nothing to do with voice change, and even quotes Michelle Phillips as saying she noticed no changes in Elliot's voice after the pipe hit her. Why would John say that the story was true?

The answer may lie with Michelle's brother, Russell Gilliam, who theorized that John did not want the public to know that Elliot was forced to traipse after the band, hoping they would hire her. John, according to biographer Eddie Fiegel, also didn't want it known that he outright told Elliot she was too overweight to join the band. Elliot had to go along with the story to save face, telling Rolling Stone, "I had a concussion and went to the hospital. I had a bad headache for about two weeks, and all of a sudden, I was singing higher. It's true. Honest to god."

Drugs and Heartbreak with the Mamas and the Papas

Despite hit songs like "California Dreamin'" and "Monday Monday" (which earned them a Grammy Award in 1967), the Mamas and the Papas were typical musicians of the time. "The first acid trip any of us ever took, we took together," John Phillips would later tell Rolling Stone. It wouldn't be the last time; Michelle Phillips would remember that when they were in the Virgin Islands, the group had "limited their drug use to psychedelics and alcohol," according to the Baltimore Sun, but "there was no cocaine around. Thank God. We would have gotten nothing done." As The Atlantic notes, "Before they hit the big time, the group dropped acid, smoked dope, and drank. After they hit the big time, the group dropped acid, smoked dope, and drank."

Then there were heartbreaks, starting with Michelle messing around with Denny Doherty, according to Musicoholics. That obviously did not sit well with Cass Elliot, who confronted Michelle. "You can have any man in the world," she told Michelle. "Why take the one man I love?" Yet somehow, Cass was able to forgive her bandmate. Michelle would also eventually have affairs with Gene Clark of The Byrds, as well as many of John's friends, according to Vanity Fair.

Cass Elliot's life as an overweight star

Fat-shaming was a real thing in the 1960s. Cass Elliot's weight, according to Eddie Fiegel, directly affected her love life. Not only did Denny Doherty spurn her advances, but also a drug smuggler named Pic Dawson – who feared that if he got involved with Elliot, he would eventually cheat on her. Even today, according to Vogue, Elliot's size remains a popular topic when people talk about her. The Guardian submits that while Elliot was able to act like her size didn't bother her, John Phillips remembered her reluctance to appear on stage next to Michelle Phillips.

In 1967, Cass Elliot made the papers for something besides her appearance: she was arrested. Upon the band's arrival in London for a performance, she was charged with the theft of some keys and blankets from a hotel on an earlier visit, according to Encyclopedia. But of course, there was more to the story: Musicoholics reveals that U.K. police were concerned about Elliot's relationship with Pic Dawson, however casual that relationship might be. Fortunately, the band had heard about Elliot's impending arrest, which also included skipping on her hotel bill, and dumped their drugs before docking at Southampton. Elliot spent a night in jail before the charges were dropped.

Her life as a single mother was tough

According to the Cass Elliot website, the singer wed twice between 1963 and 1971. Her first husband was Jim Hendricks; Ancestry verifies the couple was united in marriage at Fairfax, Virginia. By 1967 the couple had split, according to Courthouse News, when Cass gave birth to her only child, a daughter named Owen (pictured, with Michelle Phillips). At the time, unwed mothers were highly frowned upon. So Cass kept both her pregnancy and the name of Owen's father a secret, says Next Tribe. "She wanted me more than anything else in the world — she told people that," Owen told the magazine.

Why did Cass Elliot remain so secretive about her daughter? "She named me Owen because I was her 'own,'" Owen says. "She was responsible for one hundred percent of my welfare." She also remained as close to her daughter as she could, and was uneasy when Owen grew too close to her nannies. After Cass died, Vanity Fair confirms that her sister, Leah Kunkel, continued raising Owen. But it was Michelle Phillips who found Owen's father. In 1987, according to Encyclopedia, Michelle called Owen. "I found your dad," she said. "Here's a plane ticket. Go meet him." Not surprisingly, Owen's father was indeed Jim Hendricks.

Why Cass Elliot left the Mamas and the Papas

It was one thing to be unkind and disrespectful to Cass Elliot, including the time in 1967 when the Mamas and the Papas hit, "Creeque Alley," contained the insulting line, "No one's getting fat except Mama Cass." Now, here it was, 1968. According to Encyclopedia, John and Michelle's marriage was falling apart. Cass could also see that the band was losing focus, says Ultimate Classic Rock. John Phillips admitted that "Cass's idea of show business was really show business. We just wanted to f*** around, have a good time" (per Rolling Stone).

Although the band assured viewers on "The Ed Sullivan Show" that they weren't breaking up, the group was done by July. For Cass Elliot, the breakup was a new beginning. In October, she talked to Rolling Stone about the caliber of artists like Eric Clapton, David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills and others who could be found at her house on any given day. "Music happens in my house and that pleases me," she said. But Elliot's success as a solo singer would be hard, and although she would go on to release several solo albums (per Far Out magazine), an absolutely crazy and tragic incident would throw her into the spotlight in a terrible way.

John Phillips blamed Cass for the Manson Family debacle

In 1969, Charles Manson and his followers notoriously murdered actress Sharon Tate and others in Los Angeles. It was soon revealed that Manson's party circuit had previously included Cass Elliot's home. According to Biography, Manson was at least at one of the celebrity soirees Elliot became known for. And Manson's bus was also frequently seen parked at John and Michelle Phillips' house, according to The Brag. Tate, says Rolling Stone, was friends with Elliot and Michelle. And, alludes The Atlantic, Denny Doherty was supposed to go to Tate's house that night but didn't make it.

Interestingly, although Michelle once slept with Tate's husband, Roman Polanski, it was Cass Elliot whom John Phillips blamed for the mess. In his book about Sharon Tate, Ed Sanders quoted Elliot as saying, "John blamed me for bringing killers into our group, blamed me for Sharon's death, and said police were going to arrest me as an accomplice." He also convinced her that she would be murdered next. 

Naturally, the police got wind of all of this during their investigation, and in 1970 the San Antonio Express reported that both Cass Elliot and John Phillips were being subpoenaed to testify – in Manson's defense. Fortunately, however, they never appear to have been summoned.

Cass Elliot's new career was hard

Cass Elliot had already had a taste of solo stardom with her 1968 hit, "Dream A Little Dream Of Me," according to U Discover Music. Her first album of the same name got her booked at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Eddie Fiegel writes that Elliot's contract stipulated she be allowed to bring Owen. Dividing time between Owen and rehearsals, however, took its toll. When she took the stage on opening night, with Sammy Davis Jr. and Jimi Hendrix among her audience, Elliot had a raging fever. Ultimate Classic Rock confirms her show closed after just two performances.

By 1969, Elliot spun out her next album, titled "Bubblegum, Lemonade and ... Something for Mama." But she still struggled to overcome the 1960s stigma of being a single mother who was the sole support of her child, notes Next Tribe. When a reunion album with The Mamas and The Papas fell flat, according to Biography, Elliot left the band behind forever. Far Out magazine confirms that she decided to focus on her own career with vigor. She also married again, to Baron Donald von Wiedenman (per the Cass Elliot website). Unfortunately, that failed too. In February 1972, the Aiken Standard newspaper reported that Elliot had filed for divorce.

Shedding the weight of Mama Cass

According to Encyclopedia, Cass Elliot once said of her weight, "I simply learned that's the way I am and so I live with it." But as early as 1969, her article for The Ladies Home Journal (per Hillstock) revealed the star had once embarked on a crash diet that gave her "acute tonsillitis, hemorrhaging vocal cords, mononucleosis and a dangerous case of hepatitis." Her illnesses, she said, cost her over $250,000 in lost earnings. The Guardian explains Elliot had plunged into a diet of fasting for four days a week, which lasted seven months.

As her struggles continued, Cass Elliot grappled with something else, too: the infamous "Mama Cass" nickname she had earned with The Mamas and The Papas. Her 1973 appearance on "The Johnny Carson Show" announced that Cass's first television special and her next album both bore the same title: "Don't Call Me Mama Anymore." Elliot was indeed continuing to diet, to the extent that just before another appearance on Johnny Carson, she passed out backstage. During another appearance, on "The Mike Douglas Show," Cass explained that she had not eaten all day prior to "The Johnny Carson Show" – and was then coerced into talking about her love for Tastykake cupcakes.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, or know someone who is, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).

Cass Elliot's crash diets contributed to her death

On July 30, 1974, The Daily News in Pennsylvania was one of numerous newspapers that reported that Cass Elliot had died following a concert in London. The Santa Cruz Sentinel wrote that Elliot's secretary, Dot McLeod, had found the star sitting up in her bed at an apartment in London. She also claimed a ham sandwich lay nearby. Other newspapers followed, reporting that the singer had choked on the sandwich as other rumors ran amuck as to how Elliot really died. According to The Guardian, the bizarre stories included death via some weird FBI plot, "giving birth to John Lennon's love child," and choking to death on her own vomit.

For weeks, eager fans and others speculated over Cass Elliot's death as people ran wild with the sandwich story – which Haaretz verifies was mere speculation by the first doctor who examined the body before it was autopsied. The Albuquerque Journal said a pathology report confirmed that there were no drugs or alcohol in the singer's system, and that she had apparently eaten very little during the last hours she was alive. As the world pondered exactly what happened, Elliot's body was shipped back to California. She was buried in Mount Sanai Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills, according to Findagrave. Her family, including Owen (pictured), was in attendance.

The truth about Cass Elliot's death

As Cass Elliot was laid to rest in California, the rumors about the cause of her death continued as the story unfolded. According to U Discover Music, Elliot had just finished a two-week stint at the London Palladium. On Sunday, July 28, Rolling Stone reported she went to a party hosted by Mick Jagger but did not drink anything. She left early. The apartment she was staying in was owned by fellow singer Harry Nilsson. Also staying there was Elliot's road manager, George Caldwell. And although several people had been in and out of the apartment during the day of July 29, they all presumed that Elliot was just sleeping.

Sue Cameron, then a reporter for The Hollywood Reporter, told People magazine that she called Elliot's apartment upon hearing news of her death. The phone was answered by the singer's manager, Allan Carr, who frantically instructed Cameron to write that Elliot died by choking on the ham sandwich sitting on the nightstand. In truth, writes Vogue magazine's Emma Specter, the official autopsy report revealed several weeks later that Elliot had actually died from "fatty myocardial degeneration due to obesity." Carr, however, thanked Cameron for writing the story regarding the sandwich. "I was trying to save her reputation," he said.

The aftermath of Cass Elliot's death

Far more than it affected her fans, Cass Elliot's death affected her family. Encyclopedia says Michelle Phillips had to run magazine ads to find the father of Elliot's daughter. Also, the untrue story of Elliot choking to death on a ham sandwich literally became the lie that wouldn't die. "I never thought it would last as long as it has," writer Sue Cameron explained to People magazine in 2020. And then came the lawsuit over Cass Elliot's missing will.

In 2011, according to Courthouse News, Cass Elliot's brother and sister, Joseph Cohen and Leah Kunkel, filed a lawsuit against the singer's estate, which had been awarded to Owen. At issue was Elliot's will, which was allegedly drawn up for her but then suppressed after her death by the law firm of Mitchell, Silverberg & Knupp. The firm was accused of telling Elliot's mother, Bess Cohen, that there was no will, and failing to reveal that it "had a legal relationship with the bank that was the largest claimant to the estate." 

In 2022, Owen recalled watching old videos of her mother. "I cringe in pain," she told Next Tribe, "when I see the supposedly good-natured overweight `jokes'" people would make about Cass Elliot, right in front of her.