About Cass Elliot
By Richard Barton Campbell

Cass ElliotCass Elliot was born Ellen Naomi Cohen on September 19, 1941 in Baltimore, Maryland. She grew up in the Washington D.C. environs and in her senior year of high school, she performed in a summer stock production of "The Boyfriend" at the Owings Mills Playhouse where she played the French nurse who sings "It's Nicer, Much Nicer in Nice." After this experience, even though her family anticipated her to seek a college education in pursuit of a career, Cass forged ahead in the world of performance. She made a splash in New York and began an acting career, competing with Barbra Streisand for the Miss Marmelstein part in "I Can Get It for You Wholesale" in 1962. She toured in a production of Meredith Wilson's "The Music Man." Elliot also produced a play at Cafe La Mama in New York.

But by early 1963 she had met up with Tim Rose and John Brown and formed a folk trio initially dubbed The Triumvirate, yet later known as The Big 3 when Brown was replaced by James Hendricks. The Big 3 were a progressive and innovative folk trio who recorded two albums and made appearances on The Tonight Show, Hootenanny and the Danny Kaye Show. In 1964 the group had begun to fall apart and it metamorphasized into a foursome called "Cass Elliot and The Big 3" which included Canadians, With Tim Rose & Jim Hendricks in The Big 3Denny Doherty and Zal Yanovsky (Tim Rose had left at this point). Soon this foursome became The Mugwumps who operated out of The Shadows nightclub in Washington. They released a single for Warner Brothers and stayed together through the end of 1964, until they too began to disintegrate. Cass Elliot began to work as a solo single in Washington, D.C.

At this point Denny Doherty had joined John and Michelle Phillips and the three were performing as The New Journeymen. The Mamas & The Papas in 1965Soon they left for the Virgin Islands where Cass subsequently joined them and the four began to sing together in mid-1965. Thus the superstar group The Mamas and The Papas was born. From 1965-1968 the Mamas and Papas recorded a series of top ten hits including "Monday, Monday," "California Dreamin'," "I Saw Her Again," and "Dedicated to the One I Love."

The group's last hit was a launching number for Cass Elliot. Cass' first solo album, Dream A Little Dream, 1968"Dream A Little Dream Of Me" became Cass' theme song and beginning in 1968 she embarked on her own short-lived but solid solo career. Her distinct voice had always emerged from the groups in which she sang. In 1969 she scored big with "It's Getting Better" and 1970 yielded the hits "Make Your Own Kind of Music" and "New World Coming." In 1970, Elliot also appeared in the film version of "Pufnstuf" and recorded an album with rock star Dave Mason.

Don't Call Me Mama Anymore Television Special, 1973Elliot had two prime time television specials of her own in 1969 and 1973, but most people remember her scores of television appearances throughout the early 1970's with Mike Douglas, Julie Andrews, Andy Williams, Johnny Cash, Red Skelton, Ed Sullivan, Tom Jones, Carol Burnett and others. She guest hosted The Tonight Show, had successful stints in Las Vegas and continued to record for RCA during these years too. Cass had one daughter Owen Vanessa in April 1967 and she was married twice, first (1963-68) to fellow Big 3 and Mugwumps member Jim Hendricks and second to Baron Donald von Wiedenman (1971).

London Palladium Concert Program, 1974In 1974, Cass Elliot travelled to London where she had a two week engagement at the London Palladium. After performing to sellout audiences and basking in repeated ovations, Cass tragically succumbed to a heart attack on July 29, 1974 in London, following this successful concert tour.

In 1998, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Cass Elliot and her fellow band mates from The Mamas and The Papas into that institution. Her daughter Owen represented her mother and accepted her award.

The Truth About Cass Elliot's Untimely Death

The facts about Cass Elliot's death have existed since a few days after she died on July 29, 1974. The pathologist who performed the autopsy, Keith Simpson, was one of England's leading forensic pathologists.

A competent forensic autopsy showed:

1) A heart problem leading to heart failure;
2) No sandwich or any other item in her throat or trachea; and
3) In fact, she had had very little to eat the day before she died.

Furthermore, the drug screen (a standard part of a forensic autopsy) showed no drugs in her system.

Simpson's conclusion was that Cass died of "heart failure due to fatty
myocardial degeneration due to obesity".  Although this conclusion was disputed by American pathologists at the time, fatty myocardial degeneration is now recognized as a potentially lethal condition.  The latest (1996) edition of the authoritative "Heart Fascicle" (officially, Tumors of the Heart and Great Vessels) published by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology states:  "Rarely, lipomatous [fatty] infiltration ... may cause sudden death" and cites the following reference:  Voigt J, Agsal N. Lipomatous infiltration of the heart. An uncommon cause of sudden unexpected death in a young man. Archives of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine 1982;106:497-8.

One possible theory is that Cass Elliot had a heart condition of this sort for a long time. This would be consistent with the various times she is reported to have passed out during the 1963-74 time period. In a young woman, fainting is usually due to heat, onset of flu, pregnancy, or some other innocuous cause, but if it continues to happen, it warrants investigation. A "cardiac conduction defect" creating a disturbance of heart rhythm just might be caused by a fatty myocardium and could explain a great deal. Failure of the fibers of the heart that should conduct the impulses that cause the heartbeat to do so is a known cause of sudden death.

With special thanks to Rhonda D. Wright, M.D.