Cass Elliot’s Death Spawned a Horrible Myth. She Deserves Better.

Onstage with her group the Mamas & the Papas at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967, Cass Elliot, the grand doyenne of the Laurel Canyon scene, bantered with the timing of a vaudeville comedian. “Somebody asked me today when I was going to have the baby, that’s funny,” she said, rolling her eyes. The unspoken punchline — if you could call it that — was that she had already given birth to a daughter six weeks earlier.

“One of the things that appeals to so many people about my mom is that there’s a certain level of triumph over adversity,” that daughter, Owen Elliot-Kugell, said over lunch at the Sunset Marquis Hotel in Los Angeles on a recent afternoon. “She had to prove herself over and over again.”

Elliot was a charismatic performer who exuded infectious joy and a magnificent vocalist with acting chops she did not live to fully explore. July 29 is the 50th anniversary of her untimely death at 32, a tragedy that still spurs unanswerable questions. Might Elliot, who was one of Johnny Carson’s most beloved substitutes, have become the first female late-night talk show host? Would she have achieved EGOT status?

Half a century after her death, her underdog appeal continues to inspire. Last year, “Make Your Own Kind of Music” — a relatively minor 1969 solo hit that has nonetheless had cultural staying power — became such a sensation on TikTok that “Saturday Night Live” spoofed it, in a hilariously over-the-top sketch in which the host Emma Stone plays a strangely clairvoyant record producer. “This song is gonna be everywhere, Mama,” she tells Elliot, played by Chloe Troast. “Then everybody’s gonna forget about it for a long, long time, but in about 40, 50 years, I think it’s gonna start showing up in a bunch of movies, because it’s a perfect song to go under a slow-mo montage where the main character snaps and goes on a rampage.”

Cass Elliot performing on her television special “Don’t Call Me Mama Anymore” in September 1973. After she went solo, she found it hard to shake her nickname.Credit…CBS Photo Archive, via Getty Images

“S.N.L.” didn’t make a single joke about Elliot’s weight — something that was unthinkable half a century ago. During the height of her fame, Elliot seemed to co-sign some of the jabs at her expense with a shrugging grin.

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