Mama Cass’s daughter debunks rumour that mother died choking on a ham sandwich

Mama Cass’s daughter debunks rumour that mother died choking on a ham sandwich

The long-standing rumour that The Mamas & the Papas singer Cass Elliot died by choking on a ham sandwich has been debunked by her daughter, Owen Elliot-Kugell.

Cass Elliot was an influential figure in the Los Angeles-based Laurel Canyon music scene of the 1960s. She died from a heart attack in London on 29 July 1974, at the age of 32.

In a new memoir, My Mama, Cass, Elliot-Kugell uncovers the origin of the theory that her mother choked on a sandwich.

Speaking to People, she said she put up with years of jokes and innuendos about her mother’s death, which happened when Elliot-Kugell was just 7 years old.

“In my younger years, when people would talk to me about my mom, it was always about the stupid sandwich,” she recalled.

“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?’ First of all, the chutzpah to say that to a child is just crazy but it happened a lot. So I felt it was my duty to figure out what that story was all about.”

Mama Cass Elliot in 1969 (John Lyons/Shutterstock)
Mama Cass Elliot in 1969 (John Lyons/Shutterstock)

While researching her book, Elliot-Kugell spoke to one of her mother’s friends, the former Hollywood Reporter columnist Sue Cameron, who wrote in her book Hollywood Secrets and Scandals that Cass died from choking on a sandwich.

Cameron explained that she had called the apartment where Cass was staying in London and the singer’s manager Allan Carr answered and told her that Cass had died.

Cameron remembered: “He was crying and upset and he said, ‘There’s a half-eaten ham sandwich on the nightstand.’” In a panic, he suggested: “You have to do this. Just say she died choking on the sandwich.”

Carr wanted to ensure that the singer’s death wasn’t attributed to drug use.

“So many of my mother’s peers had died from drug overdoses,” said Elliot-Kugell. “Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison. And I think Allan was afraid they’d make the same assumption.”

Elliot-Kugell went on to say that Cameron’s explanation of the story’s origin helped her accept what she’d been through as a child.

“I really believe they were protecting her legacy,” said Elliot-Kugell. “And they were trying to protect me. And in a weird way, I’m grateful for that crazy story. As much as it caused me grief, and people made jokes, I now realize it kept her relevant and ready to shine again.”

The Mamas & the Papas formed in 1965 and were a four-piece folk-rock group – comprised of Elliott, Michelle Phillips, John Phillips, and Denny Doherty – best known for their hits “California Dreamin’” and “Monday, Monday”.