The same year the United States entered World War II, a first-born baby girl named Ellen Naomi Cohen entered the lives of a Jewish family in Baltimore. Thirty-two years later, following a headlining performance at the London Palladium, the singer who had come to be known as Mama Cass was found dead at Harry Nilsson’s flat in Mayfair. As much an enigma in death as she was in life, her roller coaster journey of sex, drugs, politics and folk music became open for review in Dream a Little Dream of Me by British author and BBC correspondent Eddi Fiegel.
I met Eddi when her book first came out in 2005. Happily, we have reconnected in 2017 to chat about her latest project which focuses on the generation of young females who went crazy about one of Britain’s most popular exports, The Beatles.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: You belong to a generation that came into its own long after The Mamas and Papas had already disbanded. When did you first discover their music and allow it to captivate you?
A: I loved The Beatles from an early age even though I was too young to have enjoyed them while they were still together and I soon realised that I loved the sound of other records from the ‘60s too. I remember vividly hearing The Mamas and Papas’ ‘Creeque Alley’ for the first time on the radio and immediately wanting to find out who it was by and where I could get a copy. I think it was the infectiousness of the melody and the gorgeous harmonies that just sounded so upbeat and captivating, particularly in grey London.
Q: Did you come from a musical background/childhood?
A: My mother grew up with classical music and when I was a child, she always had classical music on the radio or playing on a record. I also grew up playing piano and always loved music. Pop music, however, was my own domain, in contrast to classical which belonged very much to my parents’ world.
Q: Was music ever something you wanted to pursue as a professional career?
A: I loved the idea of becoming a professional pianist as a child but was discouraged by my mother and a piano teacher who apparently told her I was unlikely to become a female Vladimir Ashkenazi. If I had another life, I’ve always thought it would be incredible to play a piano concerto with an orchestra.
Q: Tell us about your foray into the world of BBC reporting and how it shaped your decision to do feature interviews and biographies.
A: I worked as a BBC radio reporter for several years. I started off reporting from Spain where I was living in Barcelona at the time, doing reports on young people and music in the city. Then when I moved back to London, I began doing feature interviews with musicians and reporting from music events. I met some wonderful artists during that time. Amongst my favourites were Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Philip Glass, world music artist Anjelique Kidjo and Nitin Sawhney.
I had always wanted to write however and magazines like Mojo had begun asking me to write up some of my interviews so it was an easy progression. I also found that many of the skills I had learnt whilst training as a BBC reporter related equally to writing and were very much transferrable skills.
Q: What particularly made you want to write about the life and times of Cass Elliot?
A: I had always loved her version of ‘Dream A Little Dream of Me’. In fact I had a seven inch of it as a child and used to love singing along, as although I don’t have a voice to speak of at all, my voice could more or less match her pitch so I could sing along easily.
Then in the early 1990s I discovered Cass Elliot’s solo albums. I particularly loved tracks like It’s Getting Better, One Way Ticket and Make Your Own Kind of Music so I started trying to find out more about her. I was amazed and intrigued by what I discovered. I found out that she was born Ellen Naomi Cohen but that she had died young in London, under ambiguous circumstances. I also learnt that during her years with The Mamas and Papas, she had been a leading light of the LA social scene, hosting unofficial salons attended by everyone from The Beatles to Hollywood A-listers like Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty.
She was responsible for introducing David Crosby to Graham Nash and had been friends with Joni Mitchell. All this made me want to know more so I looked for a book on her life and saw that no biography had been written. I was looking for a subject for my next book around this time and I knew then that I had found it.
Q: Was this your first music biography?
A: No. I had written the biography of British film composer John Barry before. John is most famous for writing the scores to the original James Bond films as well as the Oscar winning Born Free, but he had also led a fascinating life. I have also co-written biographies of Madonna and Cher.
Q: What do you feel most distinguished her in a music industry which, at the time, was dominated by men?
A: Cass had an astounding voice and the determination to be accepted on her own terms. When she started out in music, she was constantly rejected by musicians, managers and agents who took one look at her and refused to believe that a woman of her size could become a star. As soon as they heard her sing, however, they were nearly always bowled over by her voice and charisma.
Q: What was the most astonishing takeaway you found when you were doing your research?
A: There were various points which I found fascinating in different ways. I had known that amphetamines had been routinely prescribed as a dieting aid during the 1960s but it was still alarming to hear about Cass having had them prescribed by her doctor when she was still an adolescent. I was also fascinated to hear one of my female interviewees talk about her experience of the ‘free love’ ethos in the late 60s. She told me that she had felt there was as much pressure during that era to ‘be free’ with your love as there had been not to be free in the more buttoned up era which immediately preceded it. This seems obvious in hindsight but the way that era is presented rarely focuses on this particular female viewpoint.
Q: How long did the book take you to write?
A: Four years.
Q: Had she lived, do you think Cass Elliot would have stayed viable in the music business or done something else?
A: The 70s and early 80s were a difficult time for many performers who had become famous during the 60s, particularly those who, like Cass, didn’t write their own material. But from the mid 80s onwards, a new generation started discovering the music of the 60s and there was a renewed interest in them and their work.
I think Cass would have benefited from that and been championed by young artists and consequently the music industry itself. Musicians including Boy George, kd Lang and Antony Kiedis from The Red Hot Chilli Peppers have all talked about how much they admire her voice.
I also think she would have become successful as a TV star and possibly explored the world of politics further. She campaigned for George McGovern when he stood as presidential candidate against Nixon in the 1972 election and she talked about how she liked the idea of exploring that that area further.
Q: You have something interesting trivia to share about Cass’ high school class and the musical Grease. What is it and how does it speak to the younger generation today about trying to straddle the line between popularity and individuality?
A: Cass attended Forest Park High School in Baltimore which has often been talked about as providing part of the inspiration for the musical Grease. The musical was originally produced by two friends and ex-classmates of Cass’s– Ken Waissman and Maxine Fox, and the culture it portrays was very much the way things were for her. Classmates of hers remember the pressure amongst pupils to fit in and be liked but also to be quick-witted and smart.
The musical clearly portrays that and the idea of being yourself and having the strength to resist peer pressure is obviously still relevant today, particularly amongst high school students.
Q: You interviewed many fascinating and high profile interviewees from David Crosby and Graham Nash to the late senator and U.S presidential candidate George McGovern. Was it difficult to get interviews with some of these people and how did they respond to your request?
A: Was it difficult to get to some of the people? Yes. Getting to some of my interviews was indeed a very long drawn out process in many cases, but well worth it in the end!
David Crosby only agreed to talk to me after several people he knew and trusted had met me and presumably decided that I was ‘kosher’ and not a psychopath. Nevertheless, when Crosby finally agreed, he suggested we meet in a branch of the Coffee Bean near his home. I was surprised that we were going to conduct what I hoped would be a lengthy and in-depth interview in a café but after about 15 minutes, he suggested I follow his car to his home. I realised at this point that the café meeting had been my audition and that I had evidently passed.
The late Senator George McGovern meanwhile was someone I had initially written to requesting an interview but over a year later, I had had no reply. I had entirely given up on hearing from him, when, one night in the summer of 2003 my phone rang at around 1am. I happened to still be awake and answered the phone to find a very polite gentleman telling me down a very crackly phone line that this was George McGovern.
I can only assume he had not realised the time difference between the UK and US but he very graciously agreed to wait whilst I rushed to find my notes before we began our conversation. His memory of events some thirty years earlier was incredible and he was very complimentary in his recollections of Cass’s enthusiasm and support for his campaign and her ability to talk to supporters knowledgably.
Q: In an earlier interview I did with you, you observed that “Cass could have been Oprah before Oprah.” What did you mean by that?
A: Cass Elliot had a natural and winning way with people as well as a very quick wit, so she was perfect as a TV guest and I believe she would definitely have been offered work as a TV show host. There was in fact talk of this kind of thing with her manager and various people in TV before she died. Consequently I think had she lived, she would easily have hosted a show like Oprah’s and become equally successful doing that.
Q: What do you look for when deciding on the subjects for your books?
A: I have always tried to write books that I myself would like to read. So it has to be a person or a subject which intrigues me, that makes me want to know more.
Q: What do you think makes a great biography?
A: Good research, good writing, a passion for the subject from the author, and portraying the subject’s life in the context of the times they lived in.
Q: Your latest project is all about The Beatles. Tell us about it.
A: I’m working on a new book called She Loves You – The Girls Who Screamed for The Beatles.
We’ve all seen the newsreels and the photos of screaming girls waiting for The Beatles at Kennedy airport or at concerts both across the US and UK and we all know the story of The Beatles. What we don’t know is the story of those girls.
I want to find out who they were and how they came to be there. Did they tell their parents they were having a sleepover at a friend’s? Did they raid their pocket money savings to buy tickets? Did they wait for hours in the cold to see the group and what was it like when they did? What became of them in their lives subsequently? Did they go to college and get married? Did they discover the women’s movement and live in a hippy commune? Where are they now and do they still love The Beatles? Do they have children or grandchildren who like The Beatles?
Each chapter of the book will tell the individual story of a different woman, using their experience of seeing or waiting for The Beatles as the starting point. I believe this generation of women have lived through particularly fascinating times and will have had wonderful and varied life experiences. The book will, therefore, explore not only the story of Beatlemania but the story of a generation.
This book will also be a different experience for me in terms of the publisher. My previous books have been published by traditional publishers such as Macmillan but I am writing She Loves You for the award-winning UK publisher Unbound. Since they started six years ago they have had books nominated for major literary awards such as the Man Booker prize and hit books such as The Immigrant but the way they work is different in that they are a crowdfunding publisher.
When a lot of people hear this, they assume it’s virtually the same as self-publishing and this must be the last resort for an author who can’t get published anywhere else. This is not the case at all with Unbound. They have distribution of their books through Penguin/Random House ie major publishers who ensure that Unbound’s books are available in all bookshops as well as on Amazon etc and they have a commissioning, editing and marketing process just like traditional publishers.
‘So why would an author choose them?’ you’re probably wondering. Well, the reason is because Unbound allow authors much more control and input into aspects of the publishing process such as book jacket, editing, etc than traditional publishers. Crucially, Unbound also split profits with their authors, giving them 50% of the profits. With traditional publishers authors receive an advance; i.e., money upfront for writing the book (which we don’t get with Unbound) but then only about 2 or 3% of the proceeds from the cover price of the book.
The way the crowdfunding works is that everyone who supports the book gets their name printed in every edition of the book. Pledges start from $12 / £10 and there are different pledge levels from there on with different ‘rewards’ including signed copies of She Loves You and signed copies of my previous books. You can obviously pledge in your own name but some people also like to do this as a gift for a friend or relative.
If anyone reading this likes the sound of She Loves You, it would be wonderful if you could make a pledge, however small! All the details are here: www.unbound.com/books/she-loves-you
There’s a short video of me at the top of the page talking about the book and the pledge levels are detailed below.
Q: What is it about the decade of the1960s that so appeals to you?
A: Several different things. The 60s was an incredibly creative decade. There was an extraordinary explosion of talent with groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who and The Mamas and The Papas all emerging within a few years.
You also had great fashion and social revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain’s ‘Swinging London’ the young generation were taking over and for the first time young people of all backgrounds and social classes were becoming stars in the worlds of theatre, film, fashion and literature.
In America, the Civil Rights Movement, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the hippie movement and the Vietnam War were all likewise momentous stages in America’s history.
I find these events fascinating in their own right and as they informed the lives of both Cass Elliot and John Barry, they have also made powerful and compelling backgrounds to their life stories. They will also have figured in the lives of the women whose stories I will be telling in She Loves You.
Q: In the 1960s, there was not as much overexposure of celebrities as there is today. What do you think she would say about the current trend of baring souls and bodies in order to dominate the Internet and appease fans?
A: Cass was full of contradictions, so I think on the one hand, she would have welcomed more openness and honesty about celebrity’s lives. She herself famously posed lying naked (stomach down) in a bed of daisies for a photograph advertising one of her albums. So in that respect she was a non-conformist who loved sticking two fingers up at the establishment and having a bit of a risqué thrill.
I also think that had she lived she may, like many people in the 70s, have explored therapy and may well have come to do some further soul-baring of her own when talking to the media.
On the other hand, that all said, she was a classy, dignified lady who had good taste and so I think she would have wanted to draw the line at a certain point and retain a certain amount of privacy for herself and her family.
Q: If there is one question you could have asked Cass Elliot personally, what would it be?
A: There are lots of things I could have asked her but in particular I would love to find out more from her about the circumstances of her death. One of the myths I dismantle in the book is that she died choking after eating a sandwich. There is no truth in this whatsoever – it was simply a case of people jumping to conclusions in the immediate aftermath of her death. The details are much more complex and I explore those but it would be great to know some of the missing details.
Q: Where can readers learn more about you and your work?
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: No. Just to say: thank you very much for inviting me to talk about my work. I love the site and have enjoyed reading the interviews with other authors.