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The Mamas & the Papas star's 'cruel' cause of death rumor 'another fat joke,' author says: 'Simply not true'

"Mama" Cass Elliot of The Mamas & the Papas died on July 29, 1974, in London. She was 32. For years, rumors persisted that the late singer choked on a ham sandwich.

Nearly 50 years after her death, Cass Elliot inspired TikTok users to "Make Your Own Kind of Music." Months after the 1969 hit went viral, the late singer and her bandmates are now the subjects of a new book.

New York Times bestseller Scott G. Shea has written "All the Leaves Are Brown: How the Mamas & the Papas Came Together and Broke Apart." It explores the rise and downfall of the folk quartet whose tracks influenced the Southern California music scene. He spoke to several surviving insiders who knew and befriended the band over the years.

"They were lightning in a bottle," Shea told Fox News Digital. "And the level of dysfunction was incredible. The band was together for a very short period. And when they got a big recording deal and became superstars, they also reached a level of dysfunction and really what I deemed as resting on their laurels."

John Phillips and his wife Michelle Phillips originally started the band and called themselves the New Journeymen, People magazine reported. In 1965, Denny Doherty joined the husband-and-wife duo after leaving his band, The Mugwumps. The outlet noted that Elliot, who was Doherty’s former bandmate in the aforementioned group, was the last to join.

According to legend, Elliot was only allowed to join the band after she was hit on the head with a metal pipe to alter her vocal range. She seemingly confirmed the incident to Rolling Stone in 1968.

Shea claimed that John regularly body-shamed Elliot and compared her to his more "beautiful" and slimmer wife, a former model.


"Her eyes are too close together," John told Doherty, as quoted by Shea. "And she smells!"

"She rubbed John the wrong way," Shea explained. "She was immensely talented. She could sing the shingles off any roof. She had one of the best voices of her generation. And I do think that John, on some level, was jealous of that. And when he put his band together, I think he had a trio in mind. He wanted to be the musical cultivator with the handsome lead singer and the beautiful female vocalist… He didn’t feel Cass fit the look. But the thing is, he just didn’t like her. He didn’t want her in his group… I do think there was some lingering resentment there. He was very forceful with her in a way that he wasn’t with the others."

The band performed from 1965 to 1968, skyrocketing to fame. They earned a Grammy in 1967 and saw 16 of their songs top the Billboard charts, including "California Dreamin'" and "Monday, Monday." But behind closed doors, the pop foursome was involved in a "love square."

In 1965, Doherty was sleeping with Michelle while she was still married to John. Meanwhile, Elliot’s unrequited love for Doherty was an open secret within the band. According to reports, this created tension between the women.

"It was pretty toxic," said Shea. "I don’t think John could ever fully trust Denny while Michelle was in the picture. At one point, Michelle was kicked out and replaced with Jill Gibson, who was dating their producer… But it just didn’t work. So Michelle was brought back… And then John started having his own affairs. Then you have Denny pining away for Michelle, but that didn’t stop him from having his own [flings]. And Cass had a string of lovers who just wanted her for her money. And she always still loved Denny. It’s as bad and as complicated as it could get."

"And Cass was mocked for her weight," Shea continued. "In those times, people didn’t have a problem making light of that. And she could roll with it. She handled it like a pro. But how could it not kill you deep down inside and embarrass you, especially when you’re in love with somebody? I think that fueled her away from the group. She became more and more distant as the group became more and more dysfunctional."


The 1967 track "Creeque Alley" included the line, "And no one’s getting fat except Mama Cass." Michelle initially thought it was a placeholder until John came up with a better lyric, but he was adamant about keeping it.

"This is art," he told her. "We can get away with anything, particularly the truth."

As Elliot became more self-conscious and slowly distanced herself, John reportedly told her, "You should have your own record label, Cass. Fat Records. Then, the record label’s ads could read, ‘Another obese release from Fat.’"

Shea noted in his book that "fat jokes were nothing new" to Elliot as she heard them throughout her life. And with her being famous, "they only grew louder and wider."

In 1967, Elliot welcomed her only child, a daughter named Owen Vanessa. Shea wrote that the news of the singer’s pregnancy caught everyone off-guard because "her natural body size and her pregnant belly were indistinguishable." He claimed that John had asked her, "When are you having the abortion?"

The identity of her child’s father was kept secret for the rest of Elliot’s life. She refused to tell any of her bandmates.


According to Shea, Elliot made "one last ditch effort" and proposed to Doherty.

"He just laughed," Shea claimed. "He was drunk, and I don’t think he knew she was being serious. I know that’s something he regretted the remainder of his life. He later spoke about it extensively… But that gave Cass all the more reason to go, ‘I’m outta here.’"

The band split in 1968 and Elliot went on to pursue a solo career. People magazine noted that "Dream a Little Dream of Me," off her album of the same name was among her biggest hits. She released four more albums and tried her hand at acting in the ‘70s.

On July 29, 1974, Elliot died after performing a series of sold-out shows in London. She was 32.

"The big misconception is how she died," Shea explained. "There’s that vicious rumor she choked on a ham sandwich, and that’s simply not true. After performing for two weeks and receiving rave reviews, she was at [singer/songwriter] Harry Nilsson’s apartment and died in her sleep. It appeared she had fixed herself a late-night snack, which was a ham sandwich. It was placed on a nightstand. A doctor told a journalist that she might have choked on the ham sandwich. That reporter ran with that story."

"There was a full autopsy investigation," Shea continued. "They found it was heart failure due to a variety of things... She took a lot of LSD, and then she started on heroin. Now, she wasn’t on heroin at that point in her life, but that likely weakened her heart with time. And she was on a lot of yo-yo diets where she would lose 100 pounds, gain it back and lose it again for show business. All of those things together contributed to her heart failure."


"But even today, her death is a fat joke," he said. "And that’s really a shame. It’s cruel. And the record has been set straight hundreds of times. My book is just another one of those things trying to set the record straight."

Sue Cameron, a longtime columnist for The Hollywood Reporter who was friends with Elliot, has also tried to clear up the rumor in her book, "Hollywood Secrets and Scandals."

"Regarding the ham sandwich – I was the reporter who broke that story," Cameron claimed to Fox News Digital. "I walked in after lunch and people in the newsroom told me she died. I was in a state of shock but stopped them from writing the obit. I called Cass’ apartment in London, and her manager, Allan Carr, was sobbing as he answered the phone. I was crying, too."

"I asked what happened," Cameron shared. "He said, ‘I need a favor and, since you’re Cass’ friend, you’ll do it. I’m looking at a half-eaten ham sandwich on her nightstand. Write the story that she choked on it and died. Do you hear me? Write that story now.'… I immediately wrote that story and kept my mouth shut for years about it."

Cameron claimed that Carr wanted "to save her reputation." It was years after Elliot’s death that more was disclosed about her substance abuse.

"The death report said she died of a heart attack," Cameron stressed. "That’s better for history."


Elliot’s daughter previously debunked the rumor to Variety.

"She died in her sleep," Owen told the outlet. "And that meant a lot to me, especially as a little girl."

The 56-year-old, who was 7 at the time, said she was "traumatized" by her mother’s death. In October 2022, Owen honored her late "mama" with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Michelle is the only surviving member of the group. A spokesperson for the 79-year-old didn’t immediately respond to Fox News Digital’s request for comment.

Today, Shea hopes his book will address ongoing rumors and reveal "the real story" behind the music.

"Their music transcends," said Shea. "And it still carries on."

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