Owen Elliot-Kugell remembers the last time she saw her mom. It was the summer of 1974, and the seven-year-old was on an airplane departing London. Just like that scene in Almost Famous, Elliot-Kugell said goodbye through the window. “She puts my seatbelt on and kisses me and says, ‘Look in the window,’” Elliot-Kugell tells Rolling Stone. “I’m going to go to the airport terminal, and I’m going to wave. Go wave! Go wave!’ That’s the last time I saw her.”
Elliot-Kugell’s mother, the one and only Cass Elliot, died in England on July 29, 1974. Elliot-Kugell, who was staying with her grandmother in Baltimore at the time, was taken out of day camp early. “I have a very, very clear memory of her telling me that my mom died,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, well, they’re not right. They’re wrong. She’s just traveling. She’ll come back. She always does.’”
That was nearly 50 years ago, and in the time since, the Mamas and Papas singer and counterculture icon has only become more beloved — especially when it comes to Gen Z. Next year, Elliot-Kugell will continue to keep her mother’s legacy alive with the memoir My Mama, Cass, out May 7 via Hachette Books.
Elliot-Kugell says the book has been in its conceptual stages for more than a decade, but the pandemic forced her to finally write the proposal and get the ball rolling. “I’ve wanted to tell her story for a really, really long time, and I didn’t know how to do it,” Elliot-Kugell says, noting author Hope Edelman signed on to be a collaborative editor. “I’m still not really confident about it because it’s so new to me. I never would’ve thought that I would’ve been able to do this in any way, shape, or form without a ghostwriter.”
The book chronicles Elliot’s early life — from her Russian family immigrating to America in 1914 through her early years as Ellen Naomi Cohen — all the way to her ascent to stardom, career, and death at the age of 32. It also sheds light on her struggles with self-esteem and weight (she was long against the nickname “Mama Cass”).
“I’m really lucky that my mom did the amount of print interviews and television interviews that she did,” Elliot-Kugell says. “I was able to use those two mediums for a lot of research, which was really fantastic because in that way it really helped her voice to come through. That was a totally unexpected prize.”
One goal with My Mama, Cass, was finally putting any ridiculous myths to bed, including the rumor that Elliot died after choking on a ham sandwich. “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. 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.”
Elliot-Kugell interviewed countless subjects for the book, including Mamas and Papas members Michelle Phillips and the late Denny Doherty. Many of the interviews were informal conversations. “That’s kind of a touchy subject,” Elliot-Kugell says. “Because, sat down and formally did an interview? Five people. Had conversations with over the last 50 years of my life? 70. There’s a specific story with the Mamas and Papas that I can’t remember who told me. I’ve been told it so many times it’s hard to remember. So my author’s note will be a release of liability.”
Kugell-Elliot was born in April 1967, mere months before the Summer of Love hit and the Mamas and Papas played Monterey Pop (and Elliot saw Janis Joplin and uttered that famous “wow”). A year later, she spoke to Rolling Stone about motherhood.
“Having the baby changed my life a lot,” she 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 comfortable and I wanted to do more creative work.”
Elliot-Kugell only got seven years with her mom. But in a way, writing My Mama, Cass allowed her to get 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.”