The world thinks Cass Elliott died eating a ham sandwich. They’re wrong.
Hello, welcome to The Fat Lip, the podcast for fat people, about fat people. I’m your fat host Ash, and if you listened to our last episode about Queen Anne, you probably heard me say that I’m going to work on some episodes about fat people throughout history. So that’s what we’re doing today, and one of the first people I thought of for this project was Cass Elliott or Mama Cass.
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When I was a kid, my mom had one of those old console record players that looked like a piece of furniture. You know, those late 70s wood veneer ones where you open the top to get to the turntable and the speakers are built in? That’s what she had, and she only had a handful of random records that she had probably picked up at some yard sale or other. I loved that turntable, though, and there were two records that I played as often as possible: the Mamas and the Papas’ “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears” and the soundtrack from Xanadu.
I distinctly remember noticing that on the album cover one of the Mamas was fat, and I wondered if people thought I looked like her. People always seemed to think I looked like Ricki Lake, which I recognized even then was because I was fat and therefore clearly posessed no other distinguishing physical characteristics. I was fascinated by Mama Cass, though, and especially wondered if being called “big mama” had been a choice or a taunt.
Even if you didn’t have a console record player and a lot of free time, though, if you’re a fat person you likely know who Mama Cass is–she is one of the most famous fat people we have–but the one thing that most people think they know about her is that she died young when she choked on a ham sandwich. This is actually not true and the origin of this urban legend in fact a really disgusting story. But we’ll get to that a little later.
In an interview just before her death, Cass said that she had always felt different. She said quote “I’ve been fat since I was seven. Being fat sets you apart, but luckily I was bright with it.” She was also fiercely independent. In the same interview she said ”I value my freedom to live and love as I want more than anything else in the world.” Her independence in her early life sent her to college in the early 60s, a time when that wasn’t terribly common for women. She got her start in theater there, at American University in DC, and she began singing in bands shortly thereafter.
The origin of the band that made her famous, though, is pretty telling of the fatphobia of the time.
In an interview after the breakup of the Mamas and the Papas, John Phillips, one of the members, said this about how Cass came to be in the band. He said ”She and Denny were friends–well, she was madly in love with Denny. And she started following us around. Everywhere we went. It got to be a sadomasochistic game. Cass would get a job as a waitress in the nightclub ’cause we wouldn’t let her sing with us. She’d rehearse with us, and then we’d say, ‘OK, Cass, serve some fucking drinks, we’re going onstage.’ Finally, we let her join the group.”
That wasn’t the whole story, though. There was this strange rumor that Cass and other band members circulated about why it took so long before she was allowed to join. The story was that John Phillips initially didn’t think Cass’s vocal range was wide enough to sing with them. But then the story goes that Cass was hit on the head with a copper pipe in a construction accident, and her range was improved by 3 notes. Cass confirmed this rumor in a 1968 interview with Rolling Stone when she said “It’s true, I did get hit on the head by a pipe that fell down and my range was increased by three notes. They were tearing this club apart in the islands, revamping it, putting in a dance floor. Workmen dropped a thin metal plumbing pipe and it hit me on the head and knocked me to the ground. 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.”
However, this doesn’t seem to be the truth at all. In Dream a Little Dream of me, Eddi Fiegel’s 2005 biography of Cass Elliott, the author had this to say:
" Cass had in fact been angling to be let in the group since she had arrived..., but it was John’s group and, as far as he was concerned, Cass definitely didn’t fit the image he wanted. In the years to come, both Cass and John would go to extraordinary lengths to rewrite this episode in the group’s history. John would produce various excuses, maintaining Cass’s vocal range didn’t fit the group’s material — it was too low, he claimed, as well as admitting that he didn’t think her look was quite right. “Mitch, Denny, and I were three string beans and she was huge. The sound was off and the look didn’t fit either. So I kept her out,” he said. Denny, meanwhile, remembers there being no doubt as to why he wouldn’t let her in. “She was too fat! His ideal woman, he had: Michelle.” Michelle’s sister, Russell Gilliam, meanwhile, remembers John being straightforward with Cass and telling her the truth straight out. “John wanted to have a Peter, Paul and Mary-style rock-and-roll group and he had no compunction of saying, ‘Sorry, Cass, but you’re too fat,’ right to her face. But not in a mean way. He’d just say, ‘Cass, I’m sorry — you’re too fat.'” Once the Mamas and the Papas became famous, it is easy to see why Cass would have been as keen as John to gloss over some of these original facts. Rather than have to admit that her size had prevented John from letting her in the group, John’s original yarn about Cass not having the right vocal range was reinstated and when journalists naturally wanted to know how she had miraculously gained the necessary notes, the well-worn, but frankly ludicrous “pipe incident” story came to the rescue, and was vigorously defended. How many people ever believed this is questionable, and others who were there at the time dismiss the tale as the lie it clearly was. “All of that was such baloney!” says Russell. “Cass was following them around like a little puppy. Just everywhere they went, Cass popped up asking to sing with the group and John wouldn’t let her.” Nevertheless, once they were famous, everyone in the band seemed happy to go along with this revisionist version of events without so much as a glance back to the slightly more awkward truth. "
Ugh, I find it more than a little heartbreaking that Cass felt that she had to save face in this way and rewrite what was probably a very painful period–singing with this band and knowing that you’re good enough but not being allowed to be on stage with them because of your size. And the sister’s account that John Phillips told Cass that she was too fat, but quote “not in a mean way.” Ugh. I hate that so much.
What we know about Cass is that she WAS incredibly troubled by her weight throughout her life. Her peers and fellow musicians found her incredibly charismatic, and she threw amazing parties in her home in Laurel Canyon, the center of 60s folk rock. But Cass was also on one incredibly restrictive diet after another and at some points was even regularly using heroin instead of eating.
In late 1968 Cass was set to headline a show in Las Vegas. By this time the Mamas and the Papas had effectively broken up, and she was beginning her solo career. She spent the 6 months leading up to the Las Vegas show on a crash diet and managed to lose over 100 pounds–1/3 of her weight–but she was left very ill from the attempt.
In a 1969 issue of Good Housekeeping, Cass wrote an article called What a Way to lose 110 Pounds. She said quote
“I’ve invented a fabulous new diet. It costs only $2000 for each pound you lose. It also weakens your natural resistance to disease. I can’t guarantee it, but the Mama Cass Diet can give you acute tonsilitis, hemmoraging vocal chords, mononucleosis and a dangerous case of hepatitis. At least that’s what it did for me. I lost my health– and more than a quarter million dollars in earnings as a singer.
I lost weight alright–110 pounds. From a high of 285 pounds on my 5 foot 5 1/2 frame. I slimmed down to 175, but I wouldn’t recommend my diet to anyone. Mainly because I didn’t see a doctor. Why? Well I knew what I was doing was wrong. I knew no doctor would permit anyone to go on a crash diet like mine. But I was in a hurry to weigh 110 pounds, and I still am.
My diet formula was very simple: starvation.
For five months I fasted from Monday to Thursday, eating nothing and drinking only water plus an occasional glass of orange juice. On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays I limited myself to one evening meal of steak and a green vegetable (usually broccoli or squash.) Sometimes I’d also allow myself a half cup of cottage cheese in the morning. And that was it.
From May through October of 1967 I starved off 70 pounds. I tried the same diet again for 6 weeks in early 1968 and lost another 40 pounds.
It’s one way to lose 110 pounds in less than a year, but it’s also a good way to put yourself in the hospital, which is what happened to me.
I dont care what anyone says, it’s no fun to be heavy. I’m naturally a happy person, but there were times when I was so depressed about my weight that I’d stay at home so people wouldn’t see me.”
Now I’m…not a clinician, but this is definitely disordered eating, and while Cass doesn’t say explicitly, it sounds like she’s alluding to her drug use as well here. This was an incredibly dangerous attempt at extreme weight loss, and Cass did regain the weight. As we know now, nearly everyone who diets does. And it’s so heartbreaking that while she clearly acknowledges that this dieting had seriously damaged her health, she still makes it a point to say that she is still desperate to weigh 110 pounds.
Her efforts to be thin for that Las Vegas show also ended up seriously hindering her performance. She was confined to her bed for a full three weeks before what was set to be the first Las Vegas performance and was unable to rehearse with her band before the show.
In the Eddi Feigel biography, the author wrote that Cass had developed a high fever backstage immediately before the performance. Friends urged her manager to cancel the show, but Cass felt that it was too important and insisted on performing. Sick and having barely rehearsed, she began to fall apart during the course of her first performance; her voice was weak and barely audible, and the large crowd was unsympathetic. At the end of the show, Elliot returned to the stage to apologize to the audience; “This is the first night, and it will get better,” she said. She then sang “Dream a Little Dream of Me” and left the stage as the audience applauded half-heartedly. She returned later that night to perform the second show, but her voice was worse, and many of the audience noisily walked out. The show closed after only one night, and Cass flew back to Los Angeles, allegedly for “a tonsillectomy”.
Elliott later admitted to a boyfriend that she had shot heroin immediately before going on stage that first performance, and her failure in Las Vegas sent her into a deep depression.
David Crosby of The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, and Nash wrote the following about his heroin use with Cass:
“It was always the bad drug, always the worst. It got a little more open around the time that Cass and I were doing it, but it wasn’t something you told people [about]. It wasn’t anything you bragged about, you know. … Me and Cass Elliot were closet junk takers and used to get loaded with each other a lot. We loved London because there was pharmaceutical heroin available in drugstores. … Government dope, in these injectable tablets that you crushed and dissolved in order to shoot them. Me and Cass used to just mash them up and snort the powder. … Cass took lots of pills, usually from the opiate family: Dilaudid, Demerol, Percodan, downers of all sorts, and we did a lot of coke together.”
Much of Cass’s lifetime of pain seems to have centered on her body and others’ response to it. She had more to say throughout the years about her fatness.
About her crash diets she said quote:
“Members of The Mamas and The Papas noticed I was on a starvation diet, but they never said anything. My best friends, Gary and Annette Burden, encouraged me to stay with my diet. So did my husband, before we broke up. Another man came into my life after my husband and I separated, and he was the first person who taught me that if you really love a man and want to give him the best, you make yourself as presentable as possible.”
Ugh. I hate that she thought that abusive, controlling bullshit. But it’s clear she was willing to try anything to be thin. She also said this:
“I even experimented with chewing food and spitting it out. But that didn’t work. I guess I have taste buds all the way down to my stomach.”
It’s super common in diet culture for fat people to believe that their digestive system is deficient in some way or that they can’t stick to a diet because they just love food too much. Cass Elliott wasn’t failing at the chew-your-food-and-spit-it-out diet, her body was just constantly in starvation mode and was trying to keep her alive.
Of her daughter, she had this to say:
“I didn’t want Owen growing up to hear other children taunt her for having a fat mother.”
And more, quote:
“Somebody once said I had done for the young fat girl what Barbara Streisand had done for the ugly girl.”
During her brief thinner period, she said:
“I take out pictures of myself at 285 pounds and realize I was grotesque.”
What is very clear here is that Cass Elliott was deeply troubled by her body, and how can we blame her? She had been told throughout her life and certainly throughout her career that she was too fat to be seen. It’s no wonder that she was willing to do anything to achieve thinness, and it’s no wonder that the attempt ultimately cost her her life.
In April of 1974 she was scheduled to appear on Johnny Carson, but she collapsed in the studio and was rushed to the hospital. She was treated and released and dismissed the incident as exhaustion.
Then in July of that year Cass Elliott performed two weeks of solo shows in London at the Palladium. On July 28, she made a phone call to her former Mamas and Papas bandmate Michelle Williams telling her how well the shows were going, and then Cass attended a party at Mick Jagger’s home. She left alone and returned to the London flat at which she was staying. That night, at age 32, she died.
Now here is where that ugly “fat lady chokes on a ham sandwich and dies” urban legend comes in.
The first physician to examine Cass after her death, a Dr. Anthony Greenburgh, told the press that Cass’s death appeared to have been a simple case of asphyxia. He said quote “From what I saw when I got to the flat, she appeared to have been eating a ham sandwich and drinking Coca-Cola while lying down — a very dangerous thing to do. This would be especially dangerous for someone like Cass who was overweight and who might be prone to having a heart attack. She seemed to have choked on a ham sandwich.” That’s what he told the media.
The truth, though, as noted by a police investigator who examined the scene, was that there WAS a ham sandwich by Cass’s bed but that it hadn’t been touched. In fact the medical examiner found that she probably hadn’t eaten at all in several hours.
Cass’s actual official cause of death was “fatty myocardial degeneration due to obesity.” It is important to realize here, though, that during this time any fat person who died of a heart attack was believed to have succumbed to heart disease because of their weight. What we know today, though, is that while obesity and heart disease are correlated, there isn’t sufficient evidence that proves obesity directly causes heart disease. We don’t know exactly why some fat people develop heart disease and others do not. The heart attack caused by fatness is, however, still the leading theory of trolls who apparently went to medical school at Google University. NAAFA, though, then known as the National Association to Aid Fat Americans, published a newsletter for July and August 1974 and in it it quoted Dr.George Merman, a heart specialist at Vanderbilt University who den ounced the “due to obesity” part of the report, saying that it stated an old-fashioned Victorian concept. He said that the conclusion was improper and that “to know whether obesity was a contributing factor, we would have to know something about Mi;ss Elliot’s cholesterol level and whether she was hypertensive.” He also stated that there is no evidence that obesity in itself is responsible for a coronary heart attack. It’s too bad that Mann’s statements did not receive wider circulation.
What is most likely to be true is that Cass Elliott’s incredibly dangerous starvation dieting and drug use (that was, again likely at least in part undertaken as a weight loss attempt) weakened her heart considerably.
So what conclusion can we draw here except that anti-fatness, both from others and from Cass Elliott herself, likely cost her her life.
And unfortunately it is that same anti-fatness that has allowed this ridiculous urban legend about choking on a ham sandwich to thrive. Even many fat people don’t know that this isn’t true, the rumor is so pervasive. And that’s all because of the implicit fatphobia of a doctor who saw a fat person soon after her death and assumed that her eating must have killed her. Despite the fact that she hadn’t eaten at all.
So that is the story of Cass Elliott, most famously known as Mama Cass, one of the first icons of fat activism. In fact, one of NAAFA’s earliest actions was to protest the media coverage of Cass’s death.
While Cass Elliott was clearly desperate to be thin, she still managed to encourage fat people to live full lives. In an interview for the book “Fat Can Be Beautiful” that was released the same year as her death, Cass said quote “For too long, we’ve been taught to think that people who are fat can’t cope -that fatty tissues are an admission of neurosis. That’s nuts! -Some women were made fat, and some were made thin, and there’s no reas0n why fat women should take the back seat and leave the driving to the skinnies.”
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Okay, that’s all I have for you today! I have one more episode coming before the end of the year, so I’ll see you again soon. Thanks for listening, and I’ll see you next time. Bye!
Averyl. (2019, December 8). Mama Cass Elliot “Diet”. Retrieved from https://vintagediets.com/2017/10/02/what-a-way-to-lose-110-lbs-by-mama-cass-elliot-1969/.
Cass Elliott. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cass_Elliot#.
Fabrey, B. (n.d.). We Mourn the Passing of Cass Elliott, Singer. Retrieved from https://www.naafaonline.com/newsletterstuff/oldnewsletterstuff/Chronicles/July-August_1974.pdf
Farrell, A. E. (2011). Fat shame stigma and the fat body in American culture. New York: New York University Press.
Fiegel, E. (2013). Dream a little dream of me: the life of mama cass elliot. Place of publication not identified: Macmillan.
Mikkelson, D., & Mikkelson, D. (n.d.). Did Mama Cass’ Vocal Range Expand After She Was Hit on the Head by a Pipe? Retrieved from https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/mama-cass-pipe-voice/.
Mikkelson, D., & Mikkelson, D. (n.d.). Mama Cass Death Rumors. Retrieved from https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/ham-and-wheeze/.
Rolling Stone. (2018, June 25). ‘Mama Cass’ Elliot Dead. Retrieved from https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/mama-cass-elliot-dead-47050/.