The last time Owen Elliot-Kugell saw her famous mother, Cass Elliot, she was seven years old, and mom was on an airplane departing for London. Now a mother of two, Elliot-Kugell is paying tribute to the late singer with an upcoming memoir My Mama, Cass, which is scheduled for release in May 2024. Among the people Elliot-Kugell interviewed for the memoir include Mama and Papas members Michelle Phillips and the late Denny Doherty.
Elliot-Kugell tells Rolling Stone, “She puts my seatbelt on and kisses me and says, ‘Look in the window. I’m going to the airport terminal, and I’m going to wave. Go wave! Go wave!’” That’s the last time I saw her.” Shortly thereafter while staying with her grandmother in Baltimore, Elliot-Kugell’s mom died in England on July 29, 1974.
Elliot-Kugell recalls being taken out of day camp early and given the devastating news, believing they were wrong. She thought that mom was just traveling, then coming back. She always does. The 56-year-old added, “I remember sitting at my grandmother’s dining room table and her telling me, ‘Your mother’s not coming home.’ I remember just standing up and leaving the table and not understanding what had happened. I have had a lot of cognitive behavioral therapy over the years, and I know how denial protects a child.” After her mother’s death, she went to live with Cass’s younger sister, Leah, who was married at the time to James Taylor’s and Joni Mitchell’s drummer, Russ Kunkel.
The book chronicles the Mamas and Papas singer’s story from her Russian family immigrating to the U.S. in 1914 up to her early years, stardom, and death at age 32. Born Ellen Naomi Cohen, the singer struggled with self-esteem, weight and even being against her nickname “Mama Cass.” The one specific goal Elliot-Kugell had in mind while penning the book was to dispel the long-held rumor surrounding her mother’s death – that she had choked on a ham sandwich.
During her interview, Elliot-Kugell stated, “I can’t believe we’re still talking about the sandwich after all these years. I started running my mom’s estate when I was 18. One of the first things I remember thinking is, ‘We’ve got to stop that ham sandwich rumor thing,’ because it was so painful.”
She added: “It wasn’t enough that we had lost her, to then be [made into] a joke. I’d say probably 50 percent of the people don’t believe it now. The other 50 percent probably still do.”
Cass Elliot gave birth to her daughter in April 1967, just months before the Summer of Love and when the Mamas and Papas played the Monterey Pop Festival.
A year later, she spoke to Rolling Stone about motherhood. “Having the baby changed my life a lot,” Elliot said. “I don’t want to go on the road, you see. It’s actually a matter of economics, much like the Vietnamese war, I guess. I didn’t want to go on the road, and I wanted to stay home with my baby. I guess I could go to Kansas and be a waitress and support my kid that way. But I’d rather live comfortably and I wanted to do more creative work.”
Elliot-Kugell may have lost her mother at a tender young age, but writing My Mama, Cass allowed her to have more time. “There is such a sense of completion and real satisfaction as a result of all of this,” she says. “It’s kind of weird to say, but I feel like, in some ways, I know her better now.”
Photo: Cass Elliot, 1972 (public domain)