Mama Cass of Hit '60s Band Mamas & Papas Did Not Die from a Ham Sandwich: What Really Happened
"The ham sandwich went worldwide," writer Sue Cameron tells PEOPLE. "Many people don't realize that it's not even true"
The last time Sue Cameron saw her friend, The Mamas & the Papas singer Cass Elliot, it was a beautiful summer night in late July 1974 and the two had dinner at Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills. "It was the night before she was flying to London to open her solo concert series at the Palladium," the writer tells PEOPLE. "We cruised along Mulholland Drive in her electric blue Cadillac. 'Monday, Monday' came on the radio and she sang along. She was so happy. She had really made it."
A few days later, on July 29, Cameron heard the news that Elliot had died at age 32. She immediately called the number of her apartment in London. "Her manager Allan Carr picked up the phone and he was hysterical. Allan said, 'You've got to tell them that she died choking on a ham sandwich. You must go to your typewriter and write that. There's a half of a ham sandwich on her nightstand.'"
"I didn't ask any questions," says Cameron, then a columnist at The Hollywood Reporter, who later wrote the story behind the story in her 2018 book Hollywood Secrets and Scandals. "I knew she didn't choke on a ham sandwich. I didn't believe Allan but I thought just do it because something was wrong."
"The ham sandwich went worldwide," Cameron tells PEOPLE. "Many people don't realize that it's not even true. Even though I have said — and written — it's not true, it still goes on. I never thought it would last as long as it has."
A few days after the singer's death, Cameron met Carr and the two grieved for their friend. "We held each other and cried and cried," she says. "He said, 'Thank you for writing that, I was trying to save her reputation.' It was a horrible loss."
An autopsy revealed Elliot had died of a heart attack. No drugs were found in her system. But in the years after she died, more was revealed about the singer's substance abuse, as well as the crash diets she sometimes underwent before an appearance, that may have weakened her heart.
"Afterwards people who had been around her would say, 'You mean you didn't know?'" says Cameron. "But I never saw any drugs. I was so straight-laced, that people, even if they did drugs, didn't do them around me."
On the day Elliot died, Cameron wrote her obituary and then rushed to the singer's house.
"The gates were open. The front door was unlocked. I just went there to protect anything because sometimes on the day a famous person dies, people try to get into the house. Something in my head told me to go upstairs. Why lie about a ham sandwich? So I went up to her bedroom and looked in the cabinets and it was completely cleaned out," Cameron says.
"Many years later I was a guest at a party and there was a well-known model from that era [there]. Somehow the topic of Cass came up and she said, 'I was the one who was there and cleaned out the drugs.' It was odd because it was 30 years later. I must have arrived right after her."
At the time of her London concerts, Elliot was embarking on a solo career after her folk-rock group with Michelle Phillips, Dennis Doherty and John Phillips had disbanded.
Now 46 years after her death, Cameron remembers her friend as "a free spirit and very sophisticated," with whom she bonded over their shared love of musical theater. "We lived a few blocks from each other in Laurel Canyon. Joni Mitchell lived up the street. They started the whole Laurel Canyon movement. Cass and I hit it off. We'd play tennis together."
She also remembers how the cruelty about Elliot's weight pained her. "Cass was overweight and there was a lot of body shaming then but we didn't call it that," recalls Cameron. "She covered it up. She was the 'funny one.' It was horrible for her, to be thought of as 'the fat one' and Michelle [Phillips] the pretty one. People would say that to Cass' face. She had to suck it up and laugh."
On their last night together, Cameron recalls how Elliot had given her some of her personal belongings for safekeeping. "She said she didn't trust the people she had hired to live in her house. She gave me her grandmother's comforter, some of her grandmother's lace, some photos and some personal mementos. She said, 'I'll pick them up when I get back.'"
"The next thing I knew she was gone," she tells PEOPLE.
"When her daughter Owen turned 18, I gave her all her mom's things that I had kept. At one point Owen showed me Cass' diaries and she had mentioned our Mr. Chow date. That's how I will remember her. How happy she was that night. And for her talent, and her laughter and her joy."
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