Tragic Facts About Mama Cass, The Folk Icon

May 7, 2024 | Brendan Da Costa

Tragic Facts About Mama Cass, The Folk Icon

Cass Elliot (aka Mama Cass) was an integral member of the 1960s folk-rock band, the Mamas & the Papas whose obsession with her weight tragically led to her downfall.

1. Her Real Life Was Tragic

Cass Elliot was the breakout star of the folk-rock band, the Mamas & the Papas. But her onstage talent masked her tragic true story—full of unrequited love, embarrassing career blunders, secret trysts, and dangerous diets. 

Her struggle with her self-image haunted her right until she sang her last note—with one mean myth that persists to this day.

mama cass

2. She Was Poor Growing Up

Ellen Naomi Cohen (aka Mama Cass) was born in Baltimore, Maryland in September 1941. Her family, who were Russian Jewish immigrants, struggled financially throughout her childhood until her father opened a lunch wagon (or, according to some rumors, an ice cream fountain). Despite her family’s hardships, she was always destined for greatness.

Mama Cass Elliot On Television in blue dressDavid Redfern, Getty Images

3. She Was Always Big

Cass had nothing if not a radiant personality and oodles of talent. But she also had her demons. Even from a young age, Cass struggled with her weight and the poor self-image that came along with it. “I've been fat since I was seven,” she once recalled, “and being fat sets you apart”. Thankfully, she put that uniqueness to good use.

Cass Elliot (1972)  in feathery clothesRCA Records, Wikimedia Commons

4. She Developed An Alter Ego

In high school, Cass found a community that allowed her talents to soar. She developed a love for theater and performing in front of audiences. She came up with a stage name, “Cass Elliot," by reportedly borrowing from the legendary actress Peggy Cass and a friend who had passed, to invent a more confident persona.

What she did with that newfound confidence was risky.

Forest Park High SchoolUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

5. Broadway Didn't Want Her

Having discovered her true talent, Cass dropped out of high school and moved to New York to pursue a career in acting. However, Broadway wasn't kind to her. After losing out a role to the as-yet-unknown Barbra Streisand, Cass turned to singing, hoping that music wouldn’t break her heart like theater had.

She was horribly wrong.

Barbra Streisand 1962  in blackAl Ravenna, Wikimedia Commons

6. She Bounced Between Bands

Breaking out into music, Cass met with moderate success. She formed two bands between 1962 and 1964, the Big 3 and, later, the Mugwumps. In fact, it was while singing with the Mugwumps that she met Denny Doherty, the man that she would follow to the ends of the earth. In the first cruel twist to her romantic life, however, she became unexpectedly unavailable.

Cass Elliot performing with bandMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

7. She Married Her Bandmate

Even though Cass was in love with Doherty, she ended up getting hitched to another one of her bandmates. In 1963, Cass married her Mugwumps guitarist, James Hendricks. Of course, there wasn’t any love between the two. The marriage was a simple arrangement to help Hendricks dodge the draft and the couple never consummated their union.

So Cass did the only thing she could think of.

Cass Elliot and James Hendricks performingMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

8. She Broke Up The Band

Because her marriage was a sham, Cass knew that her only real tie to Hendricks was their band. So, after eight months, the Mugwumps split up, and Cass struck out on her own, hoping that Doherty would follow her. Instead, however, he joined the New Journeymen, a band that consisted of the husband and wife duo, John and Michelle Phillips.

Cass was willing to do anything to get into the new band.

Singer Denny Doherty in jacketMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

9. Her Voice Was Too Deep

Doherty had, so far, rebuffed Cass as a lover because of her weight. But he couldn’t deny her talent and he knew that Cass was the missing ingredient in the New Journeymen. But John Phillips didn’t want to let Cass in the band. Apparently, he thought that her voice was too deep for his arrangements. In private, however, he was singing a different tune.

Mamas And Papas 1967 left-Cass Elliot (at back), Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty and John PhillipsABC , Wikimedia Commons

10. She Wasn’t Pretty Enough

Publicly, John Phillips stated that Cass’s voice wasn’t right for the New Journeymen. Behind closed doors, however, he was extremely critical of Cass's apearnce. Phillips believed that Cass was simply too heavy to join the group. Her already shaky confidence could barely handle the truth.

Mama Cass In 1973Unknown author, Wikimedia Commons

11. She Didn’t Want To Compete With Other Women

Throughout her life and career, Cass faced society's unfair beauty standards. In a society that celebrated wafer-thin women like Audrey Hepburn, Cass felt that she didn’t stand a chance. She even wrote that she used her weight as a defense mechanism, “as an excuse so I wouldn’t have to compete with other women”. 

Other women, however, were happy to compete against her.

Harry Stradling-Audrey Hepburn in My Fair LadyWarner Bros., Wikimedia Commons

12. She Was The Band’s Groupie Gopher

Despite John Phillips’ repeated refusals, Cass was desperate to join the New Journeymen to get closer to Doherty. According to Michelle Phillips, Cass even followed the band around “everywhere we went". What they put her through was downright cruel.

Michelle PhillipsMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

13. Her Luck Changed

As she followed them around, The New Journeymen treated Cass even worse than they would have treated an annoying groupie. They ordered her around, forced her to serve them drinks, and even teased her by allowing her to rehearse with them but not perform. However, fortunately for Cass, the tables were about to turn dramatically in her favor.

Cass Elliot 1973Rogers, Wikimedia Commons

14. She Made An Offer They Couldn’t Refuse

The New Journeymen had a habit of putting good times ahead of their music, spending more money on substances than on anything else. Eventually, however, they ran out of money and had to turn to the only person they knew who would take them in: Cass. Desperate for a roof over their heads, they turned up at Cass’s Los Angeles home.

She made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.

1967 Mamas And PapasABC, Wikimedia Commons

15. She Played Hardball

When the New Journeymen showed up on Cass’s doorstep, she saw an opportunity to finally get what she wanted. Reportedly, Cass took advantage of the group's dire situation. Whether he liked her size or not, John Phillips had to agree to let Cass into the New Journeymen or become homeless. But there’s an even more dramatic version of the story.

The Mamas And The Papas Ed Sullivan Show 1968CBS, Wikimedia Commons

16. She Had Serious “Pipes”

For years, the official story was that it was fate (and not poor money management) that brought Cass and the New Journeymen together. According to this version of events, Cass had accompanied the New Journeymen on a trip to St Thomas in the Virgin Islands. While there, she was walking under a construction site when a pipe fell on her head.

That’s when everything changed.

The Mamas And The Papas sitting at benchMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

17. Her Voice Changed After A Concussion

The falling pipe knocked Cass off her feet and into the New Journeymen. The alleged head injury caused Cass to sing in the higher register that John Phillips had been looking for. “I had a concussion and went to the hospital,” Cass later explained. “I had a bad headache for about two weeks, and all of a sudden, I was singing higher. It's true”.

But there was nothing honest about it.

Cass Elliot in white shirt and glasses with band matesMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

18. She Was Just Trying To Save Face

The crazy “pipe to the head” story was likely just Cass’s way of covering up the embarrassing truth. You see, decades later, sources close to the band revealed that John Phillips didn’t want it leaking out to their fans that he had essentially fat-shamed Cass out of joining. Michelle Phillips even confirmed that she heard no difference in Cass’s voice after the pipe incident.

But even more embarrassing things were just around the corner. 

MAMAS & PAPASRB, Getty Images

19. She Was The Outcast In The Band

Whatever the truth, Cass was finally in. After some late night inspiration, they renamed the band the Mamas & The Papas. Then the good times started to roll. With Cass’s vocals, the band recorded huge hits like “California Dreamin’” and “Monday, Monday”. But, even though she was in the band, the teasing about her weight didn’t stop.

In fact, it got worse.

The Mamas and the PapasMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

20. They Mocked Her

John and Michelle Phillips along with Doherty openly mocked Cass’s weight in the lyrics of their songs. For example, in the band’s hit song “Creeque Alley”, they wrote the lyrics “No one's getting fat except Mama Cass”. The insulting lyrics struck a chord with their fans and, much to Cass’s dismay, the nickname “Mama Cass” stuck.

Then one of her bandmates crossed a line.

Cass Elliot from The Mamas and  the Papas wearing sunglassesDunhill, Wikimedia Commons

21. Her Love Loved Someone Else

Cass had really only joined the Mamas & the Papas because of her unrequited love for Doherty. Sadly, even though they were hitting all of the right notes together, Doherty preferred to make sweet music with another one of their bandmates. The revelation of his ulterior interests shattered Cass’s already fractured heart.

The Mamas & The Papas , Denny Doherty singing Dunhill, Wikimedia Commons

22. Her Bandmate Stole The Love Of Her Life

While Cass had been pining over Doherty, Doherty had been lusting over someone else. In fact, the object of her affection had started up an affair with the object of her jealousy: Michelle Phillips. When Doherty told her that he was having an affair with Phillips, Cass was left utterly heartbroken—and full of envious rage.

It took all of her little self-respect to make her next move.

Michelle Phillips from The Mamas & the PapasDunhill Records, Wikimedia Commons

23. She Pleaded With Her Bandmate

Cass had always used her weight as an excuse not to feud with other women for men’s attention. However, Phillips had betrayed their already strained friendship by taking up with Doherty. The betrayal left her crestfallen. “You can have any man in the world," Cass painfully lamented to Phillips, “Why take the one man I love?”

In her sorry desperation, she did the unthinkable.

Michelle Phillips 1971 Golden GlobesBorsari, Peter, Wikimedia Commons

24. She Proposed To Her Bandmate

Even after Doherty had told Cass about the affair, she still held out hope that one day he might grow to love her. Decades later, Doherty revealed that Cass had proposed to him one night but that he hadn’t answered her because he had been too “stoned”. It doesn’t sound like Cass spent too much time licking her wounds, though.

Mama Cass In 1969  wearing a hatUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

25. She Had Tons Of Boyfriends

Even if Cass couldn’t win over Doherty, she didn’t exactly have a shortage of lovers. In fact, her comments on the matter suggest that she had guys lining up around the block. “It’s easy to find boyfriends,” she explained, “I buy them a motorcycle, a leather suit, and put them in acting school”. Another theory suggests that they wanted something else from her.

Cass Elliot in 1973 wearing a hatGlobe Photos, Wikimedia Commons

26. Her Boyfriends Used Her

Denny Bruce, one of Cass’s good friends and a drummer with the band, The Mothers of Invention, expanded on Cass’s string of lovers. “There were a couple of good-looking guys that were schtupping Cass,” he recalled. But Bruce gave a more sinister reason for their interest in Cass. “They were basically there for her [substances]”.

And Cass had a lot of substances.

Cass Elliot Johnny Cash 1969ABC, Wikimedia Commons

27. She Was Always High

Cass buried her woes with the Mamas & the Papas into her music—and a dangerous amount and array of substances. One publication described Cass’ and her bandmates’ shocking substance use: “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”.

All of her substance use led to some wild behavior.

Papa John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, Mama Cass, Denny DohertyGAB Archive, Getty Images

28. She Was In Big Trouble

In 1967, Cass traveled to London ahead of her bandmates for a scheduled performance. But, before long, she found herself on the wrong side of the law. The local London authorities detained Cass for having pilfered bed linens from the apartment she was staying in. There were rumors, however, that they really wanted her for something far more serious.

london 1960sLeonard Bentley, Flickr

29.She Fell In With The Wrong Crowd

One of Cass’s many alleged lovers was a man named Pic Dawson. But she wasn’t the only one interested in Dawson. So were the local authorities. You see, in addition to possibly being Cass’s lover, he was also her supplier. The authorities in London wanted to use the accusations against Cass in order to get to Dawson. 

She was in bigger trouble than she knew.

Cass Elliot 1973 television specialCBS, Wikimedia Commons

30. She Spent The Night Behind Bars

Cass spent a whole night behind bars in London, possibly facing serious charges. However, after she appeared before the West London magistrate, the authorities dropped the charges against her for lack of evidence. Nevertheless, the bad press forced the band to cancel their scheduled performance. Then Cass stunned everyone.

American singer Cass Elliot sitting on couch speaking to someoneMichael Putland, Getty Images

31. She Was A Bed Sheet Bandit

Down the road, Cass returned to London and made a stunning confession that left her fans laughing—and the authorities fuming. While playing at the London Palladium, Cass addressed the allegations of her past bed sheet banditry saying, “I liked 'em so I took 'em”. But her wild days with the Mamas & the Papas were coming to an abrupt end. 

London PalladiumElliott Brown , CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

32. She Was All About Business

With nothing but a broken heart and insulting lyrics to show for her time with the Mamas & the Papas, Cass thought about moving on. As John Phillips recalled, “Cass’s idea of show business was really show business. We just wanted to [mess] around, have a good time”. By 1968, however, the good times had come to an end.

Cass hoped even better things lay ahead.

Cass Elliot on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny CarsonNBC, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962–1992)

33. She Had A Las Vegas Residency

With the success of her solo recording of “Dream a Little Dream of Me," Cass left the Mamas & the Papas and struck out on her own. Shortly after the band’s breakup, she landed a major gig at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. It was a three-week, six-figure deal that would have made Cass the breakout star from the broken-up band.

She went to extreme lengths to prepare for her solo spotlight.

Caesars Palace Las VegasBernard Spragg, Flickr

34. She Dieted Too Hard

Now a solo act, Cass felt the pressure to slim down more intensely than ever before. To prepare for her big Las Vegas debut, she adopted a crazy crash diet. She fasted for four days a week for seven months and lost one third of her 300 pounds. Unfortunately for Cass, the consequences were painful.

Photo of Fountains show at BellagioBrocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

35. Her Diet Nearly Ended Her Life

Cass’s diet slimmed her down significantly but, in a cruel twist, it came at a terrible price: her health. In the weeks leading up to her first Las Vegas show, Cass developed “acute tonsillitis, hemorrhaging vocal cords, mononucleosis and a dangerous case of hepatitis” all thanks to her dangerous new eating habits. She was ill-prepared for what came next.

Cass Elliot on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny CarsonNBC, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962–1992)

36. Her Debut Was The Hottest Ticket In Town

Massive stars like Sammy Davis Jr, Jimi Hendrix, and Mia Farrow turned up in Las Vegas to watch Cass’s big debut. But, thanks to her health conditions prior to the show, she had barely even rehearsed a single lyric. However, when Cass finally took to the stage for her first performance, she left the audience gobsmacked.

Sammy Davis Jr. performing on stage 1966NBC, Wikimedia Commons

37. She Embarrassed Herself

The star-studded audience eagerly awaited Cass’ debut as a solo artist. Nervously, Cass took to the stage…then fumbled her way through the performance. She was so weak from her illnesses that her voice was barely audible. After the concert ended, she came back on stage and pleaded, “This is the first night, and it will get better”.

She was horribly wrong.

The Mama Cass Television ProgramABC, The Mama Cass Television Program (1969)

38. Her Fans Walked Out On Her

Cass’s contract stipulated that she would perform two shows a night. After a quick rest, she tried to salvage the show with her second performance but her voice only got worse—and the crowd only got less sympathetic. The disappointed audience “noisily” walked out and Caesars Palace had no choice but to cancel Cass’s contract.

Then they added insult to injury.

The Mama Cass Television ProgramABC, The Mama Cass Television Program (1969)

39. She Was Worse Than The Titanic Sinking

When the sun rose on her awful performances, the media was unforgiving. Newsweek compared Cass’s Vegas debut to the sinking of the Titanic. “Like some great ocean liner embarking on an ill-fated maiden voyage, Mama Cass slid down the waves and sank to the bottom”. Cass fell into a deep depression but, thankfully, she had one bright spot in her life.

Cass Elliot, 70sUniversal History Archive, Getty Images

40. She Had A Delightful Daughter

Just before she signed her Las Vegas contract, Cass had given birth to a healthy baby girl, Owen. “She named me Owen because I was her 'own,'” Owen later recalled. Despite the troubles in her love life and career, Cass was obsessed with being a good mother. “She was responsible for one hundred percent of my welfare”.

Her obsessive mothering even led to a long-kept secret.

Cass ElliotMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

41. She Kept A Dark Secret

Cass guarded her daughter fiercely, even firing nannies who grew too close. To protect her reputation and her child’s privacy, Cass kept the news out of the headlines. More importantly, when the media found out about her child, Cass staunchly refused to identify the child’s father. That didn’t stop the media from speculating wildly.

However, there were even darker rumors that followed Cass.

Cass Elliot Diahann Carroll Jack Lemmon Jack Lemmon Special 1973Rogers, Cowan and Brenner ,Wikimedia Commons

42. She Was Friends With Charles Manson

Throughout her career, Cass hosted legendary Hollywood parties with all of the biggest stars. Not to mention, some terrible ones as well. Legend has it that Cass had hosted—on at least one occasion—the notorious and noxious cult leader Charles Manson and his “associates” at her house. 

It’s not clear how close she was to Manson but she was close enough to make some people look at her differently.

Charles MansonCalifornia Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Wikimedia Commons

43. Her Friends Blamed Her For “Helter Skelter”

After Manson’s and his associates’ horrific and brutal massacre, John Phillips pointed the finger at Cass. He blamed her for having invited Manson and his band of ne'er-do-wells into their group. He even blamed Cass for the grizzly slaughter that ended Sharon Tate’s life.

Thankfully, the authorities didn’t agree with Phillips’ assessment.

Sharon Tate in Valley of the Dolls. ScreenshotLily Laurent, Flickr

44. She Wanted More Than Just Music

With her Las Vegas flop, Cass’s solo career stalled. But she spent the next few years making regular television appearances. She even had her own television variety specials, The Mama Cass Television Program and Don't Call Me Mama Anymore. In her heart, however, Cass longed for more than just a middling career. She wanted the one thing that had always eluded her: love.

When she least expected it, she found it.

The Mama Cass Television ProgramABC, The Mama Cass Television Program (1969)

45. She Married Royalty

In 1971, Cass finally found someone to call her own. It’s not clear how she met Donald von Wiedenman, a journalist and heir to a Bavarian barony, but it must have been love at first sight—and divorce at second sight. Their 1971 marriage lasted about as long as a song. After just two months, they got divorced.

Sadly, things did not get better.

Singer Mamma Cass, wearing a floral holly hobby dressWWD, Getty Images

46. She Fainted Backstage

Cass Elliot continued her dangerous dieting habits—but, by 1974, this caught up with her. While waiting backstage at the The Johnny Carson Show, Cass unexpectedly collapsed. Medical staff rushed her to the hospital but she waved the incident away as mere exhaustion.

Then she went right back to her bad habits.

Cass Elliot on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny CarsonNBC, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962–1992)

47. She Went To Mick Jagger’s Birthday Party

Cass ignored the warning signs of her waning health. After her collapse at The Johnny Carson Show, she wrapped up two weeks of concerts at the London Palladium. Then, without taking so much as a cat nap, Cass kicked off her post-show celebrations with Mick Jagger’s 31st birthday party at his place in Chelsea. 

That was just her first of many stops.

Torino, 1982, Mick Jagger performingGorup de Besanez, CC BY-SA 3.0 , Wikimedia Commons

48. She Was Having Trouble Breathing

Cass left Mick Jagger’s party and went to a brunch hosted by Georgia Brown in her honor. However, much to everyone’s dismay, Cass appeared unwell, “blowing her nose frequently, coughing and having trouble breathing”. Nevertheless, later that evening, she went to another party hosted by the American entertainment journalist Jack Martin.

Her appearance there, however, left everyone confused.

Cass Elliot at airportEvening Standard, Getty Images

49. She Looked Terrible

Wherever she went, Cass was always the life of the party. At Martin’s party, however, life appeared to have left her. Even though everyone commented that she seemed to be in good spirits, her sickly-looking appearance had everyone concerned. Cass, however, chalked it up to exhaustion (she hadn’t slept since Mick Jagger’s party) and decided to head home for the night.

It was, sadly, her final public appearance.

Cass Elliot on The Mike Douglas Show, 1972Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, The Mike Douglas Show (TV Series 1961–1982)

50. She Took Her Final Rest

Cass returned home to an apartment (Flat 12, 9 Curzon Place) owned by Harry Nilsson in the affluent Mayfair neighborhood. However, when Cass failed to emerge from her room as the night of July 28 turned into the day of July 29, her secretary became suspicious. When he finally opened her bedroom door, he was left devastated.

9 Curzon Square, where Elliot diedEgghead06, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

51. She Did Not Choke On A Ham Sandwich

Cass’s secretary Dot McLeod found her, deceased, in her bed of an apparent heart attack. But, predictably, the rumor mill concocted its own version of events. Before long, everyone was viciously reporting that Cass had choked while devouring a ham sandwich—an obvious smear against her long standing struggle with obesity. 

An even wilder rumor suggested that she'd passed while giving birth to John Lennon's love child. But these weren't the only rumors to outlive her.

Cass Elliot GraveArthur Dark, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

52. Her Daughter Found Her Father

After her passing, Cass’s daughter, Owen, went to live with the singer’s younger sister. It wasn’t until years later, however, that Michelle Phillips, of all people, finally solved the mystery of Cass’s unknown lover and the father of her daughter. “I found your dad,” Phillips said to Owen. “Here's a plane ticket. Go meet him”.

Michelle Phillips from The Mamas and The Papas in shirtDunhill, Wikimedia Commons

53. She Was Always “California Dreamin’”

Cass had done a good job of protecting the identity of her daughter’s father—all of the rumors had been horribly wrong. The father of Cass’ daughter was guitarist Chuck Day, the second guitarist on her hit songs “Monday, Monday” and “California Dreamin’”.

Daughter Owen Elliot and sister Leah Kunkel with her husband RussMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

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