September 19, 1941
Ellen Naomi Cohen was born on September 19, 1941.
She was mocked by people who didn’t know her heart, she was teased by supposed friends. Even after her death, the cruel joke was that she choked on a ham sandwich.
All this because of her weight.
The jokes hurt her, as it does many people who are called “fat,” who are ridiculed for the way they look, but she hid her pain well, as do many.
In high school, she adopted the name “Cass,” and, some time later, she would assume the surname “Elliot” in memory of a friend who had died.
According to a 2019 article by writer, Sheila Weller, “Cass—Ellen Naomi Cohen—was a middle-class Jewish girl from Baltimore who left high school six months before graduation to go to New York and try Broadway. She lost the role of Mrs. Marmelstein in ‘I Can Get It For You Wholesale’ to a budding young Jewish singer-actress who did her share to establish the rule that you didn’t have to be classically beautiful to be a star: Barbra Streisand. Cass then got a job as a coat check girl at a Manhattan nightclub, the Bitter End, singing and trying to get random agents’ attention, as she juggled hangers and quarters as tips.”
Cass Elliot had a wonderful, soothing voice, she had a wonderful personality, a beautiful soul, but the story is that initially not even John Phillips wanted her as part of his new group, which would become the Mamas and Papas. According to insiders, Phillips thought she was too fat and didn’t fit the image of the group. It was only when the group realized that she had a beautiful voice which actually made the group better that she was allowed more opportunities to sing.
When she was finally featured, she had to make up a story that she had a terrible voice until a pipe fell on her head, which somehow made her voice better.
Even after that, Elliot’s weight continued to be a source for jokes.
In one of the Mamas and the Papas biggest hits, “Creeque Alley”, Elliot had to join the chorus, singing, “And no one’s getting fat except Mama Cass!”
After she left the group, she tried to get away from the name “Mama” Cass to no avail.
“My mother was The Little Engine That Could,” her daughter Owen Elliot-Kugell told Weller. “Weight shaming was something she dealt with all her life. She was constantly insulted and hurt by people calling or thinking her fat. But she never talked about her pain, and when she performed, she hid that pain. But I know — I could tell—that it bothered her. As a child she was teased as a fatty. Her weight was something she bore the scars of for the rest of her life, be it failed auditions for Broadway shows or lonely nights after The Mamas and The Papas’ performances at Carnegie Hall or the Hollywood Bowl, coming home alone when everyone else had a partner.”
She once said, “I’ve been fat since I was seven and being fat sets you apart.”
“For others, that might have been a handicap but Cass turned it into a strength,” according to The Guardian. “She opened the door for others like Janis Joplin and Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane,” says DJ Annie Nightingale. “I adored her voice, you couldn’t help but like her and she helped establish a genre of independent women.”
“Cass’s impact on 60s teenagers with weight problems was significant,” said The Guardian. Nancy Roberts, founder member of the Spare Tyre Theatre Company, a group inspired by Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue, explains: “She was this wonderful sexy role model and inspiration who made it less of an incriminating burden to be fat.”
“Aside from breaking the weight-shaming stigma and rising as an improbable female icon, Cass was other things young women weren’t allowed to be then but can be now — a proud single-mother-by-choice and a working mother who supported her child alone,” according to Weller.
“At 25, Cass knew she wanted to be a solo mother — a bold choice at the time, even in bohemian circles,” according to NexTribe.
“She wanted me more than anything else in the world — she told people that,” her daughter said.
But, even with all her personal and musical triumphs and outwardly confidence, Elliot constantly felt the brunt of the fat jokes and the pressure to be slim.
“She said she’d never go on stage because Michelle was beautiful and she wasn’t,” says John Phillips, one of the Papas. She was persuaded to change her mind but no one stopped her trying dangerous diets.
Elliot tried desperately to lose weight, once going on a six-month long crash diet, losing 100 of her 300 pounds. This would lead to a stomach ulcer and throat problems, which was treated by drinking milk and cream, leading her to regain much of her weight back.
At age 32, Elliot would die in her sleep. Immediately, there were rumors that she either died because of drugs or that she died while eating a ham sandwich.
Frank Zappa would even reference the sandwich in his song, “We’re Turning Again” with the lyrics, “We can visit Big Mama, we can whap her on the back, while she eats her sandwich!”
As recent as 2007, even Snopes had to post an entry and dispute the ham sandwich myth of her death.
Owen Elliot was seven when her mother died. “It’s been hard for my family with the sandwich rumour,” she says. “One last slap against the fat lady. People seem to think it’s funny. What’s so darn funny?”
According to reports, there was no evidence to support the choking theory. The official autopsy revealed she had little to eat during her final hours. “There was left-sided heart failure,” wrote pathologist Keith Simpson. “She had a heart attack which developed rapidly.”
Cass Elliot not only had a beautiful voice, but she also had a beautiful heart which few people got to see.
Anthony Kiedis of Red Hot Chili Peppers cited The Mamas & the Papas, and especially Elliot, as an influence, in an interview for Rolling Stone, saying, “There have been times when I’ve been very down and out in my life, and the sound of her voice has sort of given me a reason to want to carry on.”
“She was a one-woman triumph against adversity; she was ahead of her time; women now are finally doing what she did 50 years ago,” says her daughter. “I look back on her and realize that, just by example, she taught me, and others, not to accept it when someone says you can’t do something.”
“I’m proud to be my mother’s daughter,” says Owen. “When I’m having a tough day, for whatever reason, I think of all the ‘you can’t be this; you can’t do thats’ that my mother heard but ignored or conquered. She was a hero to me.”