cover image My Mama, Cass

My Mama, Cass

Owen Elliot-Kugell. Hachette, $30 (304p) ISBN 978-0-306-83064-8

Elliot-Kugell debuts with an earnest if incomplete portrait of her mother, “Mama” Cass Elliot (1941–1974) of the folk rock group the Mamas and Papas, who died at 32 when the author was just seven. Born Ellen Naomi Cohen to a middle-class family in Baltimore, Elliot developed a childhood struggle with overeating that lingered throughout her life, though it failed to dull her ambition (she vowed in high school to become “the most famous fat girl that ever lived”). After briefly touring the country as a solo act, she moved to California in 1965 to join the Mamas and the Papas with married bandmates John and Michelle Phillips and Denny Doherty. Among other highlights, Elliot-Kugell covers in loving detail her mother’s “incredible, almost psychic intuition” for pairing musicians “who would sound good together” (she inspired the formation of Crosby, Stills, and Nash). Also detailed are a string of disappointing romances with men who were mostly interested in the rock and roll lifestyle, and how Elliot’s weight was mocked in an entertainment industry rife with fatphobia (on TV shows, she was sometimes literally cast as “the fat girl”). Unfortunately, the narrative’s loose ends lend it an unfinished feel, and while Elliot-Kugell promises that “questions asked in” her mother’s lifetime “receive their answers in mine,” the answers are anticlimactic or incomplete, as in the oblique discussions of larger health problems—likely exacerbated by a rigorous touring schedule—that preceded Elliot’s death. Despite some bright moments, this loses its way. (May)