- Tuesday | March 26, 2024
- 7:00 pm - 8:30 pm
- Hughes Main Library, 25 Heritage Green Pl, Greenville, SC 29601
Check back for information about joining us online.
| Cost: Free
Cass Elliot Talk led by Larry Bounds, Educator, Master Magician, Actor
The Cass Elliot Talk is a part of the Library Talk Series celebrating a 26-year community collaboration between Greenville Chautauqua and the Greenville County Library System co-sponsoring talks about the historical figures who will appear on stage.
Larry Bounds has been a Chautauqua performer for more than twenty years and has presented an assortment of historical figures including Churchill, Einstein, Cronkite, and Disney for festivals from Florida to Colorado. He retired as a nationally certified teacher after 35 years in the classroom in 2019, but he still regularly performs as a professional magician as he has since 1973. While training with the Clarence Brown Theatre Company he earned a B.A. in theatre and later an M.S. in education from The University of Tennessee where he also served as an officer for the university’s Phi Delta Kappa teaching society. He now lives in Greer, South Carolina, with his wife Carole, and serves on several community boards.
Cass Elliot: Larger Than Life
By Karen Vuranch
Let’s get one thing straight right away. Cass Elliot died of a heart attack. She did NOT die from choking on a ham sandwich.
When you consider the difference between image and truth, this urban legend is not only false but also reinforces negative connotations. Yes, she was overweight. She also possessed one of the most influential voices of the 1960’s. As Lexi Pandell, author of a podcast Make Me Over: Fat Shaming in Rock and Pop, states. “She stood out because of her charisma, her powerful and unique voice…. As a fat woman in an image obsessed industry, she paved the way for a new kind of celebrity. She broke barriers despite how she looked. Then she became famous because of it.”
Her weight plagued her all her life. According to her biographer, Eddie Fiegal, her mother despaired and started her on diet pills, initiating the pattern of drug use that would follow Cass through her life. Throughout her career she had to tolerate endless criticism and teasing. In 1972, she appeared on Russell Harty Plus, a British talk show. Harty begins the interview with, “Now here is a big lady. Bigger in the United States than she is here.” What must Cass have felt backstage listening to that introduction, then having to enter with a smile? Pandell states that often, after smiling her way through the embarrassment, she would go backstage and cry.
It was her weight that kept her from immediate acceptance into The Mamas and the Papas. John Phillips, the controlling leader of the group, didn’t want her because of how she looked. Eventually, of course, she did become a part of the iconic group. But Phillips never stopped insulting her with cruel barbs about her weight, both in the studio and on stage.
And, ultimately, it was her weight that made romantic love elusive. She had several boyfriends and lovers but none that would stay for long. Most just used her for her money. Specifically, it was Papa Denny Doherty that she loved. According to Fiegal, those around them stated that they acted like married people, holding each other close and finishing each other’s sentences. But Denny could never get past the way Cass looked. In fact, he ultimately fell in love with the winsome Michelle and their brief affair contributed to breaking up the group. The image of the group was that of happy, hippie togetherness. But the reality was far different. The cruel taunts of John Phillips and heart-breaking deception of Michelle and Denny were the reality that Cass endured.
But Cass Elliot was indomitable. She may not have had the love of her life, but she was loved by friends. The Beatles, David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Joni Mitchell were regulars at her home. When The Hollies toured America, they all slept on the floor of Cass’s house even though they had perfectly nice hotel rooms. The parties were just too hard to leave. David Crosby said that Cass was universally loved by all who knew her.
But the person whom Cass loved the most was her daughter, Owen. When she gave birth to a baby girl in 1967, she wasn’t married and never revealed the father. Owen had a galvanizing effect on Cass. She was determined to give the child a loving home. Cass cleaned up her life, curbed her alcohol and drug use and focused on her daughter and her music.
In 1968, the Mamas and the Papas finally split after the tension and in-fighting took its toll. Cass went on to a brilliant solo career. For the next six years, her stunning contralto voice was a fixture on talk shows and TV shows; she had her own television special and regularly appeared in Las Vegas. The pinnacle of her career was to play to sold out performances and standing ovations at the London Palladium. This success led to talk of her own television series and movie roles.
She was euphoric after closing the shows at the Palladium. She called Michelle Phillips that night, ecstatic at her success. And that joy makes her death the following day even more heartbreaking.
Now we’re back to the ham sandwich myth…
That night she went to several parties including a star-studded birthday party for Mick Jagger. When she returned to the flat where she was staying, her assistant brought a ham sandwich and a coke and set it next to her bed. The next day, her entourage thought she was sleeping in, but found her dead and the food untouched. Dr. Anthony Greenberg, the London physician who examined her at the scene, is responsible for the myth of her choking on the ham sandwich. He saw the sandwich and jumped to a conclusion. The autopsy later showed no food in her stomach or throat and that she died from a heart attack–The heart attack was brought on by obesity, long-term drug use and years of yo-yo dieting.
The jokes about a fat woman and a ham sandwich have continued to this day. It is truly a shame that the myth overshadows the truth. Cass’s physical size had nothing to do with her gigantic talent. By sheer force of will she built a career, overcoming the stigma of being fat. In fact, Pandell (This is the first reference to Pandell, so the full name needs to be given.) says that she paved the way for artists to come such as Adele and hip-hop artist Lizzo.
Pandell says that Cass redefined the concept of beauty and built a career on her phenomenal stage presence and powerful voice. She quoted New York Magazine as saying, “She has broken the strongest barrier for an aspiring star. In America, the most weight conscious nation in the world, she has become a glamour girl. She is a star not despite her weight, or because of it, but beyond it.”
(Personally I think this essay focuses way too much on her weight, but I’m not sure what to do about it. She quotes Pandell as saying she was beyond it, but you sure couldn’t tell from this narrative. It is an interesting read.)
Arts & Entertainment TV. YouTube. Mama Cass Biography.
Charles River Editors. American Legends: The Life of Mama Cass Elliot. March, 2015
Fiegel, Eddie. Dream a Little Dream of Me: The Life of “‘Mama” Cass Elliot. Pan Books, October 2015.
Pandell, Lexi. You Must Remember This podcast by Karina Longworth.
Make Me Over: Fat Shaming in Rock and Pop. Episode 157, February 25, 2020.
Phillips, Michelle. California Dreamin’: The True Story of the Mamas and the Papas
Warner Books: NY. 1986.
YouTube. Cass Elliot Interview. Russell Harty Plus, October 28, 1972.
September 19, 1941 Born Ellen Naomi Cohen
1960 Drops out of school in her senior year to go to New York to pursue Broadway. Starts singing folk music.
1962 Part of the band The Triumvirate, and later, The Big Three
1963 Meets Denny Doherty. The Big Three travel on Hootenanny, 31-night tour with Art Linkletter. They have two record albums and appear on TV shows.
1964 The Big Three breaks up and she is in the Mugwumps with four others. Group is short-lived, but all five go on to make it big. Denny Doherty leaves the Mugwumps to join the New Journeymen with John and Michelle Phillips.
Summer, 1965 The New Journeymen go to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands and Cass joins them.
Fall, 1965 They leave the Virgin Islands and go separate ways. By chance, they all meet again in L.A. Cass’ friend, Barry McGuire, introduces them to Lou Adler of Dunhill Records and they are offered a contract for 5 albums.
December, 1965 California Dreamin’ is released.
January, 1966 First album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, is released
February, 1966 Michelle and Denny’s affair becomes known. Everything starts to fall apart.
June, 1966 John Phillips kicks Michelle out of the group.
September 1966 2nd album, The Mamas and Papas, released.
February, 1967 3rd album Mamas and Papas Deliver, is released. Michelle is back in the group.
April, 1967 Cass gives birth to Owen Vanessa. Cass never reveals identity of the father.
June, 1967 Monterey Pop Festival
July, 1967 Concert at Carnegie Hall
Fall, 1967 Mamas and Papas go to England, Cass is arrested.
May, 1968 4th album, Young Girls are Coming to the Canyon, released
June, 1968 A song from the 4th album, Dream a Little Dream of Me, is released as a solo. For the poster, she poses naked on a bed of daisies. Launches her solo career and 1st album released.
October, 1968 Concert at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. It is a disaster.
1970 Begins working with Dave Mason. Her music changes direction
1971 ABC sues the Mamas and Papas. They release their 5th album, People Like Us.
1973 By this time, she has now released 5 solo albums. But she is looking for a new direction and hires Allan Carr as manager. He creates a glitzy, Vegas style show, Don’t Call Me Mama Anymore. Receives glowing reviews.
July, 1974 Two week run at the London Palladium
July 27, 1974 Close of the London Palladium show. She calls Michelle Phillips and writes to her daughter overjoyed at her success. That night she goes to Mick Jagger’s birthday party.
July 29, 1974 She is found dead in her bedroom. She died of a heart attack. The attending doctor creates the myth that she choked on a ham sandwich, but that is not true. The diagnosis was fatty myocardial degeneration due to obesity. She weighed 224 at her death and the autopsy showed no drugs or alcohol.
“How do I tell people who I am? Not being a writer, the only way is to sing songs that reflect my opinions.”
“If you truly dig what you are doing, lay it out that way, nobody can not respond. That’s what rock and roll is; it’s relentless.”
“Probably the biggest bring-down in my life was being in a pop group and finding out just how much it was like everything it was supposed to be against.”
When told she was a big fish in a small pond, she replied, “I’m a big fish in any pond.”
“There’s so much talk about the drug generation and songs about drugs. That’s stupid. They aren’t songs about drugs; they’re about life.”
“It’s easy to find boyfriends. …I buy them a motorcycle, a leather suit, and put them in acting school.”
“When you’re on stage, you gotta do it. People pay to see you, and they deserve to be entertained, and you should go out there and really give it your best shot. And that’s quite a challenge.”
“In all honesty, there are very few songs on the The Mamas and the Papas albums that I am really proud to listen to. I don’t have the records at my house.”
“I would say that the world’s in terrible shape, but I’m afraid the world would say, ‘Look who’s talking.’”
“I’m much more word oriented than a lot of singers I know. I think that’s mainly because I don’t write my own material. So when I hear a song, the first thing I listen to is the lyrics…..it has to be something I would feel or say.
“My advice is precisely the advice my mother gave me. If you believe you have talent, the next thing you must have is determination. If you keep working, keep striving, and try always to move forward a little bit with every job you do, you’ll eventually make it. And I believe that!”
I’ve changed quite a bit musically. I was looking for a home for myself in rock music, whereas, all along I had known that I never really had a rock background. I like classical music, I like jazz and I like what people now call middle-of-the-road music…..With the Mamas and the Papas I was really firmly entrenched in rock music and when I left, I sort of guess I expected to stay there, but I didn’t have the material and I really didn’t have the inclination. So, I had to look for a place for myself to find out what kind of music I wanted to make.”
“When you get to be my age, nasty words like heart attack crop up. It’s really not a very nice prospect so you’ve got to do something to keep your weight down.” (Told to audience at the London Palladium – a few days later told Daily Express having recurring premonitions about her death)
Arts & Entertainment TV. YouTube. Mama Cass Biography.
Bagieu, Penelope. California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas and the Papas. First Second, NY, 2015. (graphic novel)
Charles River Editors. American Legends: The Life of Mama Cass Elliot. March, 2015
Fiegel, Eddie. Dream a Little Dream of Me: The Life of ‘Mama” Cass Elliot. Pan Books, October 2015.
Greenwald, Matthew. The Oral History of The Mamas & The Papas. Cooper Square Press, NY. 2002.
McKeen, William. Everybody Had an Ocean: Music and Mayhem in 1960’s Los Angeles. Chicago Review Press, 2017.
Pandell, Lexi. You Must Remember This podcast by Karina Longworth. Make Me Over: Fat Shaming in Rock and Pop. Episode 157, February 25, 2020.
Phillips, Michelle. California Dreamin’: The True Story of the Mamas and Papas. Warner Books: NY. 1986.
YouTube. Cass Elliot Interview. Russell Harty Plus, October 28, 1972