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Mama Cass: A Myth, Larger Than Life

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It was the final indignity: Mama Cass Elliott, 220 pounds and counting, found dead in bed with a ham sandwich by her side. Sad and grotesque, the image spawned a folk myth: Lonely, gargantuan Mama Cass choked on gristly meat she was too tired to chew.

But the former lead singer of the Mamas and the Papas was not felled by a sandwich. A week after her July 29, 1974, death in London, a coroner ruled that the 33-year-old had died of a heart attack. No food blocked her throat, and although she sometimes indulged, no alcohol or drugs were in her blood. However unchic, her death was from natural causes — in effect, from obesity.

It was a sorry end to a freewheeling life. Of the Mamas and the Papas (Elliott, John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, and Denny Doherty), it was Elliott and her soaring contralto that sent hits like ”California Dreamin”’ and ”Monday, Monday” to the top. Audiences adored her let-it-all-hang-out vitality. Friends loved her earth-mother warmth.

But her virtues were undercut by her appetites. She spent wildly on jewelry, bell-bottoms, custom-made tunics, and a house in the Hollywood Hills. Her life was cluttered with men. ”It’s easy to find boyfriends,” she quipped. ”I buy them a motorcycle, a leather suit, and put them in acting school.”

Her promising solo career, which she launched in 1968 with her biggest hit, ”Dream a Little Dream of Me,” was undermined by bad health. A human balloon, she swelled to as much as 294 pounds before pursuing crash diets. In a single weekend of diuretic treatment at L.A.’s Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, she could shed 20 pounds.

She was well enough to put on a sold-out two-week engagement at the London Palladium in July 1974. But the end came two nights after the close of the run, when her body was found in the Mayfair apartment of songwriter Harry Nilsson. The enduring ham sandwich rumor, reported as fact at the time of her death, was later called ”ludicrous” by John Phillips in his 1986 autobiography, Papa John. His diagnosis: ”Her heart had just given out after 33 years. And that was some big heart.”

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