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.
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.