Daughter Refutes Longtime Rumor on Death of Mama Cass

No, Cass Elliot of the Mamas & Papas didn't choke on a ham sandwich, says Owen Elliot-Kugell
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted May 6, 2024 8:47 AM CDT
Updated May 11, 2024 6:30 AM CDT
Daughter Refutes Longtime Rumor on Death of Mama Cass
Owen Elliot-Kugell, center, daughter of the late singer "Mama" Cass Elliot, looks down at a portrait of her mother as she stands onstage with Leah Kunkel, Cass Elliot's sister, at a posthumous Hollywood Walk of Fame star ceremony on Oct. 3, 2022, in Los Angeles.   (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

It's been a longtime standing joke/rumor/what have you that Mamas & the Papas singer Cass Elliot, aka "Mama Cass," died after choking on a ham sandwich, but her daughter (and only child) is now here to set the record straight. "In my younger years, when people would talk to me about my mom, it was always about the stupid sandwich," Owen Elliot-Kugell tells People on the eve of the release of My Mama, Cass, a memoir that dives deep into the life of the singer who died in July 1974, at the age of 32. "I would go over to kids' houses after school and eventually one of their parents would ask me, 'Did your mom really die choking on a ham sandwich?'" says Elliot-Kugell, who was just 7 when her mother died. "I felt it was my duty to figure out what that story was all about."

She says she reached out to former Hollywood Reporter columnist Sue Cameron, who'd written about Elliot and the ham sandwich in her 2018 book, and found out that when Cameron had been informed of Elliot's death via a phone call with "crying and upset" manager Allan Carr, Carr told Cameron there'd been a ham sandwich found nearby on a nightstand. "You have to do this. Just say she died choking on the sandwich," Cameron says Carr told her, in the hopes no one would think drugs were involved (Elliot actually died of a heart attack). The Hollywood Reporter notes that in a 2018 interview, Cameron admitted, "I knew she didn't choke on a ham sandwich. I didn't believe Allan, but I thought just do it because something was wrong."

Now, armed with this information, Elliot-Kugell says she believes her mother's associates "were protecting her legacy" with the ham sandwich tale, as so many performers from that era (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, etc.) had succumbed to ODs. "They were trying to protect me." She also notes that although her mother struggled with obesity, Elliot didn't let that stop her from pursuing her dreams. "She ... told everybody that she was going to be the most famous fat girl that ever lived," Elliot-Kugell tells the BBC. In other words, the upshot is, per Elliot-Kugell: "There was a ham sandwich, but she didn't eat it and she didn't choke on it. So enough with the jokes." Her memoir comes out Tuesday. More here. (More Mamas and the Papas stories.)

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