I can’t be the only person who had a crush on Mama Cass–she was too big a star for that to be the case. I never heard anyone else admit to it, though. In her heyday, and for years after her death, she was pretty much a joke, the subject of a whole genre of playground insults. No wonder–it’s almost unbelievable that someone who looked like she did could have been as successful as she was in pop music, a field that famously prizes looks and image as much as it does talent and material.
The thing about Cass Elliot, born Ellen Cohen, was that you couldn’t help looking at her. She didn’t try to diminish the fact that she was fat; she always seemed like she was daring you to think less of her because of it. Her mix of audaciousness and vulnerability reminds me of stars like Judy Garland. It’s kind of surprising she never became a gay icon–too pop maybe, or too obviously heterosexual. In any case, there was an unapologetic sensuousness about her that contributed considerably to her appeal. Check out a clip of her singing with the Mamas and Papas, doing a little dance in her white go go boots and tell me she isn’t hot.
Along with Barbara Steisand, Cass Elliot was the most obviously Jewish female pop star of her day, and that’s what I liked about her the most. While Streisand had a baroque, almost operatic voice and was conventionally beautiful enough to hold her own opposite Robert Redford, Mama Cass, true to her moniker, had a down home, comforting quality, an awkwardness and self consciousness that made her approachable, and a voice, that while lovely, always had a touch of Yiddishe whine. She personified a whole archetype-middle class Jewish kids from the East Coast who tried remake themselves as cool hippies out west, but who could never quite fit in the way they wanted to.
I’m not a chubby chaser(not that there’s anything wrong with that), but I thought Cass Elliot was beautiful. I liked her long, dark hair and her lantern jaw and the way her lower lip protruded, Hapsburg style. She was the kind of girl I’d like in high school but would hesitate to go out with for fear everyone would make fun of me. And she knew it, the way plain, intelligent girls do. She seemed to be hoping you’d ask her out anyway, but understood you probably wouldn’t. Which leads me to a Song I Never Get Sick of, Cass Elliot’s 1969 hit “It’s Getting Better”. I’ve always been totally fascinated by this piece, which, beneath it’s catchy melody, tells a story of disappointment and resignation, a fat girl trying to convince herself her relationship is working because she doesn’t think she’s likely to find another. “Believe it or not, there’s a whole lot groovy and good about what we got” she sings. Why wouldn’t her partner believe it? Probably because he still thinks he might score a date with Michelle Phillips.
In the years after she made this, Cass Elliot’s weight ballooned even more, ruining what good looks she had( though not her career) and leading to her death in 1974 at 32 from a heart attack (NOT a ham sandwich, FYI). My 9-year old self still grieves.