Food History

Before the World Accused Pam Anderson of Murder by Sandwich, There Was Cass Elliot

October 18, 2016

I cannot stop thinking about the recent damning accusations leveled against former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson. Some online armchair theorists have claimed that she assassinated WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange over the weekend while visiting him Ecuadorian Embassy in London by feeding him a vegan sandwich from Pret a Manger.

Enough. The "death by sandwich" trope has a rather sordid history of sparking urban untruths in Western history. Consider the sandwich-adjacent fable that World War I began because Gavrilo Princip clamored for a sandwich before gunning down Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Or recall another mythical sandwich death—that of Mamas & Papas singer Cass Elliot in 1974.

Elliot, or “Mama Cass” as her disciples called her, was part of America's canon of fiercely brilliant women singers whose life was mired in pain and torment, only for them to perish far too young—think Janis Joplin, Karen Carpenter, Billie Holliday. In 1965, at the age of 24, Elliot joined the Mamas and the Papas, composed of two men and two women. She was objectively the most talented singer of the group, but no one really cared because she stood at 5’5” and 238 pounds, which provided much public fodder about her portliness. She became, for a time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a punching bag for a press who found her too fat, and had to live her public life with intense scrutiny aimed at her body.

Though the group was only together for three years, Elliot embarked on a prolific solo career shortly thereafter. It was on tour in London on July 29, 1974 when Elliot died in her sleep. Dr. Anthony Greenburg, her personal physician, was the first to visit her on the night of her death. At a press conference that night, he mused about a cause of death he hadn't yet determined, saying that "[s]he was lying in bed eating and drinking a Coca-Cola while watching television. She was half propped up by pillows and it seems that she choked on her sandwich and inhaled her own vomit."

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Dr. Greenburg’s gaffe suddenly careened into a fixture of popular lore. The press, hewing to the frenetic pace of the media cycle, parroted these comments, casting the myth in amber. The story fit with the general social perception that this would happen to a woman of Elliot's size. Only a week later did a coroner from Westminster determine the death's actual cause—a heart-attack brought on by a cocktail of crash diets, obesity, and drug abuse that weakened Elliot's heart over time.

Nevertheless, there are few mentions of Elliot these days that do not make mention of this myth. Even those outlets that set the record straight cannot resist subjecting her, once again, to this torture, adding that though Elliot did not die due to asphyxiating on her sandwich, "the ham probably didn't help" her arteries. Thank you, Ultimate Classic Rock dot com.

This is all rather sad, which is why I don't like where this Pamela Anderson story is going. So please, let's discard the idea that Anderson murdered this man with a sandwich and confine it to an entry on Snopes—if only for Cass Elliot, her afterlife and memory marred by a ham sandwich.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


quinn October 19, 2016
Lainie October 19, 2016
Soooo, while lamenting how the memory of this acclaimed singer is tainted by the incorrect and insensitive musings of her physician, you, yet again, link her death to choking on a sandwich. Bravo!
I have read 4 or 5 of your previous articles and fail to see why Food52 keeps you on staff. Your contributions do not elevate the content of the site, have little to do with food and seem to be written with the small, pathetic dream of going "viral"
Kenzi W. October 19, 2016
Lainie—I'm the hiring manager on the editorial team, and I have to chime in here to say we respectfully disagree! We don't believe food is linear, and want to do our part to expand our collective understanding of how it intersects with culture and our everyday lives—beyond recipes and how-to articles—and I'd argue that Mayukh is doing that beautifully, beyond just his 4 or 5 previous articles. This might help you get a better sense of who he is: And if we can't convince you, that's okay! We still have plenty here that may be more up your alley.
mmurray October 19, 2016
Lainie, for the record I agree with you and I'm sure we're not alone given the comments to his previous articles, and that's without even addressing the level of vitriol some of them have invited unlike anything I have ever seen on this site (just take a look at the incendiary nature of the comments to his Paula Deen article alone). I like you come here to escape all of that. So just do what I do now after this last article...when you see his byline, just skip the article entirely. If people stop commenting it might be because they stop reading and the hiring manager can then come to her own conclusions about the value of this type of writing on this type of site. As for me, I'm now done with his articles.
Lainie October 19, 2016
Kenzi, I appreciate you jumping in to support your staff, but we will have to agree to disagree on this particular point. I believe I will take mmurray's advice and skip this particular writers articles.
SKK October 18, 2016
What does this article have to do with Food52 and home recipes? The headline alone is horrible. 'Accuse Pam Anderson of Murder by Sandwich' - 'Sad story of the Mamas and Papas singer?' What is the point of this?
amysarah October 18, 2016
Not sure I'd agree that nobody cared about Cass Elliot's talent due to her weight - it was certainly recognized by the group's fans/music industry...but you're right that the media was sadly (predictably) far more interested in Michelle Phillips stunning looks.

Another parallel among the women you mentioned, with a related weight/self-image context - Karen Carpenter died of complications from Anorexia. Another example of the tyranny of weight/looks for female performers, despite huge talent.
ChefJune October 18, 2016
Great piece, but funny that you would cite Billie Holiday (who died in 1959) who was in no way a contemporary of the other singers you mentioned.
Mayukh S. October 18, 2016
Oof, duh—for some reason, my mind gravitates to 1972 whenever I think of Billie Holiday because that's when Diana Ross played her in Lady Sings the Blues!