On a late summer night in 1974, Cass Elliot finished one of her stunning sold-out concerts of her two-week gig at the London Palladium, when she was found dead in Flat 12, 9 Curzon Place in the Mayfair neighborhood of London. The flat belonged to singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson. Four years later, The Who‘s drummer Keith Moon died in the same room. Elliot and Moon were both 32 years old when they left this world. A ham sandwich and can of Coca-Cola were on a table in her room, hence the cruel urban myth that Elliot died from choking on a ham sandwich.
Elliot was born Ellen Naomi Cohen in Baltimore on this day, September 19, in 1941. She grew up in Washington, DC, performing in musicals in school and in summer stock. Elliot had a very short solo career before she joined The Mamas & The Papas in mid-1965.
The Mamas & The Papas were big stuff. The group included musicians John Phillips, Denny Doherty, and Michelle Phillips. They released five studio albums and 17 singles, six of them made the Billboard Top Ten, selling 50 million records worldwide.
During their four years as a band The Mamas & The Papas time together was filled with intrigues and drama . In April 1967, Elliot gave birth to a daughter, and she refused to publicly or privately acknowledge the father, which freaked most people out in 1967.
In 1968, Dream A Little Dream Of Me, a popular standard from the 1930s, was released. It became Elliot’s signature song. She had a short, but very popular and distinguished solo career. She made many television appearances throughout the early 1970s when variety shows were a thing.
In 1973, her gay caftan wearing manager Allan Carr, who was also managing the careers of Tony Curtis, Ann-Margret, and Peter Sellers, felt Elliot needed to drop Pop and Rock music and go out on the cabaret circuit. An act featuring standards and show tunes, along with a few new songs written just for her, was rehearsed. It included Elliot and two male backup singers. The act was titled Don’t Call Me Mama Anymore.
On that evening in 1974, after giving a spectacular performance, Elliot called Michelle Phillips sharing that she had received standing ovations each night of the run. In her memoir Unsinkable (2013), Debbie Reynolds writes that she, and Carrie and Todd Fisher saw Elliot at a party that night at Mick Jagger‘s place. Reynolds shares that there was a lot of cocaine and other drugs at the party; it was 1974, after all.
In 1968, Elliot had her live solo debut headlining in Las Vegas at Caesar’s Palace, scheduled for a three-week engagement at $40,000 per week ($280,000 in 2019 dollar), with two shows per night. Elliot went on a six-month crash diet before the show, losing 100 of her 300 pounds. The diet led to a stomach ulcer and throat problems. Elliot was confined to bed for three weeks before the first performance, as the director, band, and production supervisor put together a show in her absence. She was scheduled to rehearse for a full three days before the show opened, but she managed to get through only part of the first run-through before saying that she was losing her voice. She skipped the remainder of rehearsals and drank tea and lemon, hoping to recover and pull herself together for opening night.
1000 common people and celebs including: Peter Lawford, Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, Liza Minnelli, Sammy Davis Jr. and Mia Farrow were in the audience at Caesar’s on that evening. Friends urged her to cancel the show, but Elliot insisted on performing. Sick and having barely rehearsed, she began to fall apart during her first performance. Her voice was weak and the audience was unsympathetic, despite the famous well-wishers. At the end of the show, Elliot apologized to the audience, stating: “This is the first night, and it will get better”. She then sang Dream A Little Dream Of Me and exited the stage to half-hearted applause, while others noisily walked out. The rest of the concerts were canceled.
After Las Vegas, rumors began to spread that she was doing drugs. Elliot later admitted that she had shot heroin immediately before going on stage. Embarrassed, Elliot plunged deep into depression.
In 1988, musician David Crosby wrote:
“Heroin 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 there. UK 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.”
Rumors were rampant after her untimely death: a drug overdose, an FBI assassination plot, she was pregnant with John Lennon‘s child, it was suicide. The most popular and resilient rumor was that she had choked to death while eating that damn ham sandwich.
That myth was fueled by the report of Dr. Anthony Greenburgh, the physician who first examined Elliot after her death. Greenburgh told a reporter:
“She appeared to have been eating a ham sandwich and drinking Coca-Cola while lying down—a very dangerous thing to do.”
He believed she died of asphyxiation. Greenburgh overlooked the fact that the ham sandwich sitting on the table had not been touched.
One of Britain’s leading forensic pathologists at that time said that the autopsy showed Elliot ” …had a heart problem leading to heart failure; there was no sandwich or any other item lodged in her throat or trachea; and she had had very little to eat the day before she died”. A routine drug screening showed no drugs were in her system. The official cause of death was: “Heart failure due to fatty myocardial degeneration due to obesity”.
In the film Austin Powers, International Man Of Mystery (1997), the title character checks the list of the people he knew, mentioning Cass Elliot along with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, crossing her name out with remark “deceased, ham sandwich”.
In the lovely gay-themed film Beautiful Thing, a teenage boy is obsessed with her recordings, and another character reflects on her memories of Elliot and how the singer changed her life.