Mother of invention

'Mama' Cass Elliot was one of the best-loved stars of the Sixties. Yet despite her sunny image, her short life was beset by tragedy
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The Independent Culture

"Follow me," says David Crosby as he gets into his black Mercedes and hurtles off down the road. After a year of e-mails, he has agreed to talk to me about his friend "Mama" Cass Elliot, the tender-voiced Mamas and Papas singer whose biography I have been writing. Over the next few hours in the grounds of his ranch, we talk, staring out at the vast Californian plains. "She was one of the funniest people I ever met, he says. "A fascinating person. And I loved her."

Crosby was not alone. Elliot's warmth and wit won her a place at the heart of Los Angeles' rock royalty in the late 1960s. From Crosby, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills (Elliot played a key role in bringing the trio together) to The Beatles, The Stones, The Beach Boys and Jack Nicholson, they all adored her.

With the exception of Joni Mitchell, whose talent elevated her beyond merely being Crosby or Nash's girlfriend, Elliot was alone in the respect in which she was held by LA's male-dominated rock community. The feminist movement was still in its infancy, and the rock fraternity was still resolutely chauvinistic.

The "Queen of Los Angeles' Pop Society", as Rolling Stone dubbed her, was also a lifelong Anglophile and Beatles obsessive who kept a flat in London for many years. John Lennon was a regular visitor, drawing on one of her walls during an acid trip, and The Beatles' first port of call after finishing Sergeant Pepper's was Elliot's Chelsea flat, where they blasted the new tracks out of her windows until dawn.

For Elliot this was just another example of her participation in the key events of her time. A few months later, The Mamas and Papas would headline at The Monterey Pop Festival, the forerunner of Woodstock and a magical moment in the evolution of the flower-power culture.

Elliot achieved her dream of being "the most famous fat girl who ever lived". There had previously been jazz and blues Mamas like Ella Fitzgerald and Sophie Tucker, but never a white star of Elliot's proportions. "She is a star not despite her weight or because of it but beyond it," wrote New York Magazine in 1966. "Cass is a horizon."

As much as for her size and her voice, Elliot also became known for her hippy Mae West persona. At one gig a fan shouted: "Caaaasssss, I love you!" "Dynamite," Elliot replied without missing a beat. "Where you staying?"

But behind the groovy Earth Mother façade, the reality was often less upbeat. The Californian sunshine idyll that The Mamas and The Papas portrayed was never more than a dream. With the exception of the group's barefoot poster-girl Michelle Phillips, none of the group was Californian (both Elliot and John Phillips were from Washington DC), and relations between them were anything but harmonious.

John Phillips, the group's lead songwriter, had never wanted Elliot in the group, convinced that there was no way they could succeed with someone like Elliot in their midst. When they were offered a record deal on the condition that Elliot sang with them, the antagonism between them grew.

The tensions were not restricted to Elliot and John, though. Even before their first single, an inter-band soap opera had emerged that would ultimately bring about the group's demise. Elliot had been in love with "Papa" Denny Doherty since they had first met in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, but Denny, while loving Elliot dearly as a friend, felt no romantic attraction. He had, however, fallen for Michelle Phillips, his best friend's wife, and the two began an affair. When it came to light, Elliot was devastated. "How could you do this to me?" she asked Phillips. "You can have any man you want. Why the one I want?"

When the friction finally got too much and Elliot left to launch a solo career, she was an instant success. Her first solo single "Dream a Little Dream of Me" was a hit and she continued to dispel society's expectations by becoming a single mother at a time when the idea was still widely frowned upon. (Rumours as to her daughter's paternity ranged from Lennon to Nash and "Papa" Denny). She also campaigned for the Democratic "peace candidate" George McGovern in the 1972 presidential elections.

When Elliot died in July 1974 at the age of just 32, rumours as to what had killed her ranged from an overdose to an FBI hit. Queen among them was the notion that she had choked on a sandwich. The cause of death was confirmed as heart failure, but the idea that a star famous for her size might have died while eating seems to have been too good to resist.

"I don't think Cass was happy most of the time," Crosby says. "When she was performing or getting high, that was when she was happy. Inside she was beautiful, but our society is built on surface not substance. I think she wanted to be as pretty as Michelle. I think she wanted to be loved."

'Dream a Little Dream of Me - The Life of "Mama" Cass Elliot' by Eddi Fiegel is published by Sidgwick & Jackson