Cass Elliot, with her mother, Bessie Cohen, on the left, enjoys a triumphant return to her hometown for Cass Elliot Day in Baltimore. (Baltimore Sun photo by Robert E. Hobby, August 16, 1973)
Her classmates at Forest Park High School knew her as Ellen Naomi Cohen, but the rest of the world knew her as Cass Elliot (or Mama Cass, owing to her days in The Mamas & the Papas, although she no longer appreciated the Mama moniker). And as July passed into August of 1973, with a triumphant return to her hometown of Baltimore less than three weeks away, life was looking pretty good.
Not that life had been exactly bad for Elliot. For nearly three years, from 1965 to 1968, she was one-fourth of one of the most successful music groups on the planet; few voices have ever been melded as seamlessly as those that graced such Mamas & the Papas hits as “Monday, Monday,” “California Dreamin’” and “Creeque Alley.” After leaving the group, Mama Cass enjoyed intermittent success as a solo performer, actress, TV personality (in Johnny Carson’s absence, she hosted “The Tonight Show” about a dozen times) and Vegas performer.
Cass Elliot (left) as a member of the Mamas & the Papas, along with (from left) Denny Doherty, Michelle Phillips and John Phillips. (Handout art)
Even when Elliot wasn’t successful – her first attempt at playing Vegas, in 1969, was an unmitigated disaster, thanks to illness most likely brought on by a crash diet – her popularity never seemed to wane. When the Mamas & the Papas performed, it was the brash, hefty, garrulous Mama Cass who received most of the audience love, not the beautiful, waif-like Michelle Phillips.
By 1973, Elliot’s career seemed to by on an upswing. She’d played Vegas again, this time to rave reviews. She’d recently hired a new agent, and he’d arranged a network TV special for her, to be called (like her Vegas show and subsequent live album) “Don’t Call Me Mama Anymore.” Dick Van Dyke and Joel Grey would appear on the show, as would Michelle Phillips.
Somewhere along the line, some folks back in Baltimore got the idea of having Elliot make a triumphant return, where not only could she feel the love of her hometown, she could also get the diploma she never received from Forest Park. They contacted her management, the idea sounded good (especially when her managers realized it would make a fun segment for the TV show) and the date was set.
Aug. 15, 1973 would be declared Cass Elliot Day in Baltimore.
Mama Cass Elliot and Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who presented the Baltimore singer with a key to the city and her high school diploma. (Baltimore Sun photo by Robert E. Hobby, August 16, 1973)
When the day came, clowns, marching bands, politicians and antique cars gathered at St. Paul and Saratoga streets for a parade that ended at Hopkins Plaza. Mama Cass, who was being treated at Sinai Hospital for a three-month-old leg injury, rode in a Cadillac limousine with her mother, Bessie Cohen, who worked for the Social Security Administration.
Fans lined the parade route, many carrying signs that merged their love for Elliot with an appreciation of her music. “Baltimore is Dancing in the Street with YOU here” read one.
Mayor William Donald Schaefer presented her with her diploma, as well as a key to the city. Mama Cass seemed delighted.
“I was in the class of 1959 at Forest Park High School but I never did graduate,” she said. “I got bored with the whole thing two weeks before graduation and I took off. I was doing a lot of driving around and hanging out. So when they called and wanted to give me my diploma, I thought, OK, man, why not? I can combine it with the special.”
Elliot filmed several other bits in her hometown that day, at the USS Constellation and eating crabs at the Charcoal Hearth restaurant. It was, by all accounts, a happy day for her, and for Baltimore.
The TV special was a success as well, and Elliot’s performing career seemed as healthy as ever. Less than a year later, in July 1974, she had a triumphant run at London’s Palladium.
John Phillips (right) and his former wife, Michelle Phillips (center), attend the funeral of their Mamas and the Papas bandmate, Cass Elliot, in Los Angeles. At left is John Phillips’ wife, Genevieve. (AP wirephoto, Aug. 2, 1974).
And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, it was all over. Forty years ago today, on July 29, 1974, Elliot was found dead in her London hotel room. Although her agent speculated that she might have choked on a sandwich she was eating (he probably didn’t mean it as a joke, although it became one — that the chronically overweight Mama Cass died from eating in bed), she actually died of a heart attack.
Ellen Naomi Cohen was only 32.