Life & Culture

Fat-shamed in life and death, this is the truth about Mama Cass

Mamas and Papas singer Cass Elliot suffered abuse over her weight – and she didn’t die choking on a ham sandwich, says her daughter


Proud Mama: Cass Elliot with her daughter Owen Elliot-Kugell

Owen Elliot-Kugell, daughter of Cass Elliot, the Jewish singer of Sixties band The Mamas and the Papas, remembers being asked countless times as a little girl on playdates, “Did your mum really die choking on a ham sandwich?”

Best known as Mama Cass, her mother had a powerful voice that carried the Los Angeles band’s stunning melodies such as California Dreamin’ and Monday, Monday. Despite the enduring legend, it wasn’t a ham sandwich that killed her. Elliot had a heart attack aged 32, when Owen was seven — probably as a result of an undiagnosed condition. And this Owen wanted to put straight in her book about her mum, My Mama, Cass.

“I hated that rumour, mostly because it infers this gluttonous end to her life,” Owen says. “I hated having to defend it all my life. It did really torture me and I needed to find out why a story like that would have been out at all.”

What she discovered was that it began as an act of protection, of sorts. When Elliot died in her sleep in a London apartment, her friend and manager inserted the sandwich story into a newspaper obituary to prevent people jumping to the conclusion that her death had been caused by substance abuse.

The manager had actually spotted a ham sandwich in the room and it was this that inspired the story. “And it stuck because it was such a salacious rumour,” Owen says. “I don’t think my mum kept kosher, but it just turns out that it was a ham sandwich. That has always been the funny part about it, right?”

The suggestion of gluttony was not funny, however. Elliot was the last singer invited to join The Mamas and the Papas because of reservations among the rest of the group because she was overweight. The official line though was that, having rejected her initially, they changed their minds when her vocal range miraculously improved after she had been hit on the head by a pipe in an accident.

There’s little doubt that had she been performing today, Cass would never have been subjected to this level of fat-shaming. “No”, Owen agrees. “In those days, people thought it was all good fun. Certainly, my mum let it roll off her back and smiled through those jokes, and that realisation is not a fun one for me. I feel terrible she had to go through that.”

But she quickly reverts to the positive. “However, I also know that she’s part of why things are different today. She really paved the road for other women of stature and size.”

Elliot was ahead of the time, too, in having a baby without a partner, when she was in a marriage of convenience with musician Jim Hendricks. “It’s such a badass way of living,” says Owen with pride. “She just went ‘I have money. I don’t need a man. I want to have a baby and I’m going to do it.’ And she did.” Elliot told Owen’s biological father of her existence three years after her birth.

“Badass” women are in Owen’s blood. Her great-grandmother Chaya made the trip to America from Poland alone, in 1914, to make her fortune. When she returned to Poland to marry her boyfriend, he had married somebody else so she came back to the life she’d already begun in America and found love. She and her younger sister were the only ones in the family who left, the rest were killed in the Shoah. When the Holocaust museum opened in Washington DC, after Chaya’s death, a cousin discovered that the family had been marched into the forest and buried alive.

“The knowledge that her entire family had gone really destroyed my great-grandmother,” says Owen. “She had a lot of survivor’s guilt, and depression too, because who wouldn’t be depressed?

That strength of will continued through Elliot. She had wanted a baby so much, she named her “Owen” — her very own. “She said she wanted me to have an identity, to be able to be whoever I was going to be and she didn’t want to name me something ordinary.”

The topic of names is another source of sadness that Owen has highlighted in her moving memoir. Elliot had always hated the moniker of “Mama”, which she felt was a reflection of her size and warm personality, telling Rolling Stone in 1968: “It’s a stigma... I fought it all my folk-singing life.”

The memoir was a long time coming. Owen felt that it was her place to tell Cass’s story given that she was “blessed” to have this “wonderful legacy” in her mother. About 15 years ago, she opened her laptop and let herself write, in a stream of consciousness, the stories she had been told. “More than anything, I wanted to tell my mum’s story for her because she didn’t get a chance to do it for herself. I think she thought she was going to be around for a long time and would have chances to do things, like live down the moniker of ‘Mama Cass’. She was already starting to.”

In 2022, when Cass Elliot gained a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Owen felt that they had to include “Mama”, but did so with quote marks to indicate it was a nickname.

Owen’s most difficult discovery during her research for the book was that her mother never found romantic love. “That is such a profound tragedy as far as I’m concerned. And she would have wanted it more than anything. At night, when she was coming off stage to standing ovations, people screaming her name, and ‘I love you’, she was going home by herself.” Owen has kept her mother’s Jewish heritage. Elliot came from an observant upbringing and was the first girl to be batmitzvahed at her shul in Virginia.

“That was such a big deal. And she would have wanted me to have the same experience, and I believe if she had lived, I would have.”

Elliot sent her daughter to Jewish school in Los Angeles, and Owen knows that she would have continued her Jewish education had her mother not died. When raised by her aunt, she stayed at a Jewish school for a couple more years, but it was after marrying her husband, who is from an Orthodox background, that she began to celebrate the High Holy Days and understand more about her roots. “I was fascinated by it, and when we had our children I made the decision to give them a Jewish education, and made sure they had a bat and bar mitzvah.” Her mother would be proud.

My Mama, Cass is out now

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