July 12, 1971
Married. Mama Cass Elliott, 27, brobdingnagian belter of pop-rock tunes; and Donald von Wiedenman, 27, writer-actor and heir to a Bavarian barony; she for the second time, he for the first; in West Hollywood.
She is propped up on a pile of golden yellow velvet cushions on an overstuffed golden yellow velvet sofa in her gold-on-gold suite at the Dorchester Hotel. Her dainty, cherub-like legs dangle restlessly, her feet not reaching the floor. Sitting across from me – a mere mortal – she is a storybook princess from a rock-n-roll fairy tale that currently has no happy ending.
It is one o’clock in the afternoon, a surprisingly sunny day in London, and I am interviewing the infamous, outrageous Mama Cass Elliot. Trouper that she is, Cass has been tirelessly receiving interviewers all morning, and I am the last. She is obviously relieved. Behind the royal façade, she looks bored, drained, maybe even stoned. I turn on my tape recorder, but before I can say a word, she holds up a tiny finger, warning me.
“Puh-leeze,” she begs with a mirthless smile, “don’t ask me how I like the English jails. Every reporter in town has asked me that. Personally I think they stink.” She pauses self-consciously. “The jails, I mean, not the reporters.” She leans further back into the golden velvet cushions, kicks off her denim sneakers and sips a glass of red wine.
“Chateau Lafite Rothschild,” she says off-handedly, offering me a glass. “It’s the only wine I drink.” She savors another sip. “Especially when all my expenses are being paid.”
We start to chat, making small talk, getting used to each other. I was told beforehand that I have an hour – exactly one hour – to interview her. Small talk exhausted, I dive right in. When she arrived in London two days earlier, she was arrested as she stepped off the plane. The tabloids bad-mouthed her, her legion of fans was outraged, and Cass herself had some rather unflattering things to say about Queen and Country.
I ask her – as lightheartedly as possible – about her nefarious life of crime. She shrugs my question away, trying to give me the impression that the topic is obviously no longer of any importance to her, but her irritation is thinly veiled.
“So I stole a couple of crummy towels from a hotel when I was here last time,” she says defensively. “Can you imagine locking up someone for stealing a couple of towels?”
“The Evening Standard says you skipped town the last time you were here without paying the hotel bill.”
“Well, it’s not the first time I’ve been bum-rapped by a sleazy tabloid.” She looks at me pointedly, then deadpans in a perfect, unexpected Mae West voice, “and, honey, it probably won’t be the last.”
She laughs, sips more wine, asks in the same Mae West voice what a nice guy like me is doing writing an article about her. I tell her I want to find out what it’s like to be an honest-to-god earth goddess. She laughs again, embarrassed.
“I’m not really an earth goddess at all, but if that’s what people want to think, it’s okay with me.”
Cass is inattentive, alternating between looking wistfully out the window and glaring at the tape recorder. I ask her how she likes performing on her own now that the Mamas and Papas have split up; she asks me where I bought my snakeskin boots. I ask her how she likes working with Tom Jones on his television show, where she will debut her hit It’s Getting Better, the reason she’s in London; she tells me about this fantastic little bistro she found in Soho on her last trip and how she’d like to find it again. I have the feeling that she’s testing me, seeing how far she can go before I give up on the interview altogether. She’s a bright, sensitive woman, and she knows that I know what she is up to.
“I hate interviews,” she says suddenly, her eyes sparkling, “but I like you.”
I am taken aback, flattered to say the least, but I wonder if this too is part of the game she’s playing. Reluctantly, I put away the notebook, turn off the tape recorder and wonder what to do next. The pressure gone, Cass changes in front of my very eyes. At last she can be herself and not have her every word preserved for pop posterity.
It is London, 1969. Flower power is in full bloom, the Beatles are gods, Paul may or may not be dead, the Rolling Stones have sympathy for the devil, and long-haired hippies in fur coats and bell-bottom pants flaunt their androgyny from Piccadilly Circus to Chelsea Road. We are in the middle of the mind-altering center of a drugged and euphoric universe, and in rooms hazy with smoke from hashish, the big bad world is reduced to a star-studded microcosm of giddy gossip where everybody knows everybody else.
Cass drops names like flower petals, anxious for up-to-the-minute dirt. Do I know Lionel Bart, the rather flamboyant lyricist who wrote the musical Oliver! and who is, by the way, one of Cass’s closest friends? I do not. Cass affectionately calls him anal retentive and describes him as having a nose for the Lady and a body for the boys. Do I know Roman Polanski, the quirky, murky film director? I do. Cass tells me he frightens her. I tell her that’s his idea of fun. Do I know Victor Lownes, head and head playboy of the U.K. Playboy Clubs? I do, but just as a guest at one of his frequent parties. Cass tells me that he keeps a box of poppers by his bed, and he does not have a heart condition. I tell her he keeps them in very room of his house, even in the kitchen.
“He’s said a playboy is probably someone who is getting more sex than you are,” she added, laughing.
“Well, he would know.”
Names of celebrities, all of them her friends, roll off her tongue endlessly – their fame fueled by tidbits of trivia that make the whirl go around – and the interview is blissfully forgotten. Somehow it is no longer important to either of us, and the roles we are playing – star and interviewer – are getting in the way. Cass pours us each a huge glass of wine, lights up a joint after swearing me to secrecy, and looks at her watch.
“I have to be at the studios to rehearse my number for The Tom Jones Show,” she tells me. Then she asks shyly, “You’d probably be bored, but would you like to come with me?”
How can I refuse? And if I could, I wouldn’t. She brushes her hair back from her face, puts on a pair of petite blue pumps, finds her fur coat, pulls her sunglasses from her handbag, and we head downstairs to the waiting limousine.
The lobby of the Dorchester – home away from home to some of the most important and influential people in the world – rushes to a standstill as Cass glides out of the elevator. People literally stop in their tracks. Yes, she is a vision to behold, her huge sunglasses hiding her eyes, her fur coat clutched casually in one hand, trailing languidly behind her on the marble floor of the foyer. She looks every inch the spoiled, enviable rock star, a woman of wealth and fame, a femme fatale who has sampled all that life has to offer and decides she wants it all, and wants it now.
But it’s all just another part of her act, and as soon as we get into the limousine, she slumps back into the seat and wipes little beads of sweat from her forehead. “I love limousines,” she says to no one in particular. “I feel secure in them, protected from the outside world.” She says it sadly, knowing that a limousine is a poor substitute indeed for real security.
We get to the studio, and we’re ushered into a long spartan rehearsal hall. There are floor-to-ceiling mirrors on one wall, straight-backed chairs lined up against another, and clusters of people sitting around drinking beer and finishing off what must be lunch. Cass is greeted imperially and escorted to a canvas director’s chair with her name stenciled on the back.
“Hey, Mama, glad you’re on the show.” The choreographer introduces himself and grins wildly, basking in the glow of her celebrity.
“Don’t call me Mama anymore,” Cass says wearily, “I’m only Mama to my daughter.”
The dancers, legs bulging in bright tights and bulky leg warmers, continue rehearsing the opening number. We sit around and wait while they stop and start, trying to set the routine. The room is stuffy, the chairs uncomfortable.
“Not very glamorous, is it?” Cass murmurs in a not-so-soft whisper. “When I first got into the business, I didn’t realize how boring this would be. I thought I’d just waltz into the studio, have a toke or two and sing like a nightingale. I certainly never thought I’d have to practice in a dump like this.” She reflects momentarily, looks me over carefully. “I can think of a number of things I’d rather be doing.”
With a start I realize Cass is flirting with me. In my wildest dreams I can’t imagine anything this bizarre. Here is the boldest, biggest, grandest, most flamboyant woman in the world, and Ma, she’s making eyes at me. It’s too surrealistic to even be remotely based in reality, but there is no mistaking her intentions.
Now Cass is rehearsing the first of two songs that she will be performing. When she sings, I see a look of sweet, easy peacefulness come over her. She sings “Dream a Little Dream” just to me, her eyes burning into mine, the gentle smile on her glossy lips wet with anticipation.
Say nighty-night and kiss me
Just hold me tight and tell me you’ll miss me
When I’m alone and blue as can be
Dream a little dream of me
Everyone in the room turns in my direction. Part of me wants to run away, another part of me wants to wrap my arms around Cass, a monumental undertaking at best. Singing is her strong suit. She knows it. She uses it to mesmerize me, and it works.
That night we end up having dinner at a deux at the Playboy Club on Park Lane in Mayfair. Our bunny is Judi. We get a large booth in a quiet corner and settle into the candle-lit darkness. Cass is completely different with me now, shy and reticent, and when her eyes flutter and meet mine, she is tentative, little-girl like. She is wearing a royal blue caftan with pale yellow sleeves, and she has on aquamarine eye shadow. She has brushed her long, fine hair so that it falls in uneven ringlets around her face, framing it softly. She has a pretty, Rubenesque face. I see in her a beauty I’ve never appreciated before.
“Do you like my bracelets?” She asks, lighting up a Dunhill cigarette. “I had them permanently fastened on so I’d never lose them.” She jiggles her wrist playfully. The gold and platinum bracelets jingle delicately, twinkling in the candlelight, a living, loving tribute to Gucci and Cartier.
She is unbelievably happy, manic to the point of being silly, and there’s no doubt about it, she’s coming on to me, no holds barred. In one giant, confused rush of emotions, I am spellbound, terrified, fearless, overwhelmed, rabidly curious. What on earth would it be like to be with this golden goddess from California? It is a debauched yet strangely comforting thought, and at first I am more intrigued than anything else. But this is not simply a faceless, impersonal fantasy. It begins in a real dimension, one of high, mighty anxiety.
I try to put these images out of my head, but visions of sugarplum fairies dance in front of my eyes. Even though we are not touching, I can actually feel the heat of her body next to me – alive, vibrant, as turned on as I am. Her scent fills the room, and I am electrified by the tempting promise of unknown, unexplored eroticism.
Judi brings our drinks, hands us our menus. Cass orders three appetizers, two entrees and an assortment of desserts.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Cass explains quickly, seeing the look on my face. “I’m on a diet! Really! But the only way I can stay on a diet is to eat a little of everything I like. So I order anything that sounds good, but I only eat a little of each dish.”
Obviously, I think to myself, this is not a successful diet.
Over the vodka martinis, Cass loosens up. She tells me her real name is Ellen Naomi Cohen. Her father nicknamed her Cassandra because she was a wild child with red hair. She has a sister and a brother, and her mother is a nurse. Cass tells me she has very few friends, that she misses Owen, her two-year-old daughter – the light of her life – and that in her secret heart of hearts she wants to give up her career and settle down with the man of her dreams, taking care of him, singing to him around the house, while the kids play with the dogs in the backyard.
“You wouldn’t like to perform again? Not ever?”
“No,” she answers. “I hate it.”
She looks at me intently. “Do you know why I like you?” Before I can answer, she says, “Because you have such a clean-cut, boy-next-door quality. I’m used to being around skuzzy people. You know, guys with long, stringy hair and zits from not eating right, guys with needle marks on their arms, guys who rip me off every time I turn my back. But you remind me of Andy Williams, all buttoned-up and collegiate. And even though I hardly know anything about you, I can talk to you, and I know you will listen. And I know you won’t laugh.”
I am wearing a brightly flowered shirt, a velvet jacket, leather jeans, platform boots, and I have hair down to my shoulders. I am definitely not the Andy Williams type, but I suppose fantasies, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder. It crosses my mind that perhaps Cass, like me, is not quite in touch with the reality around us.
I reach across the table and put my hand on hers. She squeezes it gently. Her fingernails are bitten down to the quick. She sees that I notice, but she doesn’t pull away.
“I can’t stop biting my nails,” she says without a trace of remorse in her voice. “I’ve tried but I just can’t.” She puts out the cigarette she is smoking and lights up another without missing a beat.
Dinner is served. Part of me expects to see her devour it all in one fell swoop, but she only picks at her food, a little of this, a little of that. She leaves most of it on her plate.
“People think I eat a lot,” she laments, lighting another Dunhill, “but I seldom finish anything.”
She smiles coyly, holding my hand more tightly than ever. She looks so vulnerable that I lean over and kiss her. She sighs melodramatically, swoons towards me with a hand raised to her forehead, snuggling up against me. Her body feels good, at peace, almost serene. I begin to see that Cass is just like everybody else. She needs someone to love. And I am beginning to realize that I can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen next.
The following evening. Cass has finished her stint on The Tom Jones Show and in celebration is having a few friends up to her suite. “Just wine and cheese,” she tells me, asking me to come. “Nothing fancy.”
I don’t know what I expect the party to be like, but when I arrive at midnight, the suite is jammed with people and loud music. There’s a cheese bar set up in one corner and bottles of Chateau Lafite Rothschild everywhere. Cass has draped silk scarves over the lamps, and the room is lit by a dozen silver candelabras. There is the smell of grass in the air and the sound of cocaine being sniffed in dark corners, and the Beatles are playing on the stereo.
Would you believe in a love at first sight?
Yes I’m certain that it happens all the time
What do you see when you turn out the light?
I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine
Cass sees me, floats across the room to kiss me, and takes my hand. I am touched. She seems so glad to see me.
Small groups of people are gathering in the bedroom, the bathroom, the window ledge in the immense sitting room. Tom Jones is in one corner, surrounded by girls and bodyguards. It is anything but a quiet party. Phyllis Diller phones and says she can’t make it. Phyllis Diller? I realize Cass has a vast and eclectic collection of friends. She tells me in a whisper that she is bored.
In a space we make for ourselves in the center of the crowd, Cass and I are alone together. Time goes by, time stands still. We are stoned, drunk, high on the lightness of life. It’s late. Only a few hangers-on are left. The lights of London are being phased out by the light of dawn, and Cass wants to take a drive in my Lotus Elan with the top down. We drive to Covent Garden, the smell of fresh fruits and vegetables wafting us along on a breeze of romance and adventure.
Cass lives out her “My Fair Lady” fantasy, skipping lightly over the cobblestones, singing “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” as amazed fruit and vegetable vendors enjoy her rousing, impromptu performance.
On the way back to my car, we trip through the flower market, and Cass falls in love with a box of 12 dozen daffodils. I buy them for her, and we drive back to the Dorchester in the shadow of the rising sun. I walk her to the door. Sweet sixteen and never been kissed, she’s as virginal as the Madonna. For a century we stand and stare into each other’s eyes. I don’t know what she is thinking. I brush her hair back from her face and lean over to kiss her. She turns away.
“Let’s not spoil it,” she says softly. “Let’s always have this wonderful, unrequited memory of this night.”
Cass leaves for California the next day, our feelings for each other intense and unresolved. My mind is mush. Can this be love?
I realize almost immediately that I miss her. I write long, impassioned letters. Cass makes long, impassioned phone calls, usually in the middle of the night. We get to know each other. Months pass. Finally Cass calls and says she’s coming to London in a week. This will be the test, she tells me, of how strong our relationship – or whatever it is – has become.
Cass calls me when she arrives. She is in a funk. This time she’s not working, can’t afford a hotel and is staying with her friend Iain Quarrier at his flat on the King’s Road in a very fashionable part of town. I know Iain from too many parties. He’s harmless enough. He’s a star for five minutes because of his role as the gay vampire in Roman Polanski’s “The Fearless Vampire Killers.”
When I arrive late at Iain’s, Cass is tired and has a tension headache. She takes me aside and whispers frantically, “This place is a zoo. There’s nothing but groups of groupies. As soon as one leaves, another one takes its place. This is definitely no place for a lady.”
As she speaks, a giggly gaggle of dolly-dolly girls comes rushing up the stairs, followed breathlessly by Roman Polanski and George Lazenby, the newest 007 in the soon-to-be-released On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
“Puh-leeze!” Cass begs. “Get me out of here!”
The studios have sent a limo to take her to the star-studded premier of “The Magic Christian.” Once inside the comfort zone of the limousine she settles down. “My god, I thought I’d never see you again,” she says in my ear, squeezing my arm. The shyness of our last meeting is gone.
We light up a joint in the limo, filling the leather and veneer interior with way too many smoky illusions. Cass orders the chauffer to drive around for an extra ten minutes so we can be alone and talk. There is nothing to say. We have eyes only for each other. By the time we arrive at the theater in Leicester Square, we’re so stoned we have to seriously concentrate to figure out exactly where we are, and of course that is simply impossible. The marquee lights are blinding, the crowd teeming. We put on sunglasses and prepare to meet the multitude. When the chauffer opens the door, a great cloud of smoke precedes us, and the crowd breaks into an admiring round of applause. It’s a very memorable entrance.
The Magic Christian, however, is not a memorable film, except for the scene where Raquel Welch is dressed in black boots and fishnet stockings, whipping the galley slaves. We slip out before the film is finished and climb back into the limo.
We wind our way through the West End, snuggling together in the backseat like two kids on the way to the hop, laughing about everything, pleased as punch at finally being with each other again. Cass looks beautiful, soft and pale, her hair spilling over her shoulders. She has some acid. We do it, pull up to Tramps, a trendy, private nightclub in Mayfair where dreams come true. Flashbulbs pop in our faces, people cheer, a reporter jumps out at us and asks who I am.
Cass flashes a smile as she says my name. The reporter asks if we’re an item.
“No,” Cass laughs, answering in true tabloid style. “We’re just good friends.”
The acid is coming on, and we’re hysterical, anxious to be swallowed up in the sweet darkness of Tramps. Cass is a fantastic dancer, light on her feet, shifting her weight from side to side, adding a beat to the music it didn’t have before. We are getting carried away. Reality crowds itself out of the picture. Cass is suddenly wearing a long black cape with purple satin lining.
Without moving her lips, she says, “I am the Baroness, and I want your blood.”
She begins a mock chase on the dance floor, and we end up outside, running around lampposts, dodging cars, devouring the moment like two people in love and on drugs.
We can’t find the limousine. It’s just lost. I flag a taxi. I tell Cass I want her to stay with me while she’s in London. She looks at me and says, “Far out.”
It’s three o’clock in the morning, and another party is just getting started at Iain’s flat. There are 30 people in various stages of drugs and undress. Iain and Roman are standing in the middle of the room, deep in a cocaine conversation about film noir, oblivious to everything around them.
“Iain should pay more attention to Chrissie,” Cass says to me, unsuccessfully suppressing a huge grin.
“The girl he loves. I mean really loves.”
“Which one is she?”
“She’s the one in the bathroom going down on George Lazenby.”
Iain catches sight of us as we head for the stairs, Cass’s luggage in our hands. “The party’s just getting started!” He yells across the room.
“I know!” Cass yells back. “That’s why we’re leaving!”
As we head downstairs to the waiting taxi, we run into Brandon, the hairdresser from The Tom Jones Show. He is stoned and staggering. He grabs Cass by the arm and says, “Every time I look at you, I get a hard on.”
“Gee, thanks,” Cass deadpans, pulling me along behind her and into the backseat of the taxi.
At my flat I light a coal fire in my Victorian sitting room. Lying on the white fur rug in front of the roaring flames (God, I love the Sixties!), still tripping, still laughing, we find ourselves lost in love and romance. It’s a scene from a sweeping, epic movie, and it happens with such slow-motion madness that we seem to float in space for hours. And somewhere I think to myself, amazing, I’m in love with Cass. And I am. She has left the realm of unfamiliarity and become all things great and small. Woman, girl, friend, lover, sex star, earth goddess, the symbol of it all, the very things that everyone wants her to be, and fate of fates, it is true.
Cass cuddles in my arms, a tiny bundle for someone so much larger than life. She is content. We go to sleep, and for the next five days we stay high but not dry in my flat. Our time together is gone almost at once. Cass has to leave. I love her. She loves me. Our vows are undying. But who knows what will happen tomorrow?
A few weeks later it is spring.
I ask Cass to spend a month with me at my home in the South of France. I pick her up at the Nice airport. I have a 1954 MG, the size of a toy, and she looks at it askance. “Oh, Donald,” she moans, “I’m bigger than your car.”
But she manages to squeeze into it - her paranoia larger than life - and we zoom off along the sun-drenched coast of the French Riviera. It’s 35 miles to my house in the mountains, and by the time we’re there, I feel once again as if Cass and I have never been apart. The convertible top is down, the wind is blowing through her hair, and she’s singing (one more time) “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”
Summer in Provence is beautiful. Cass says that everything is beautiful because she’s in love. The mountains are beautiful, the stream behind the house is beautiful, the bed covered with mosquito netting is beautiful. The stone farmhouse is 200 years old. It was once an olive mill. It has soul.
“Oh, dear god, I could be so happy here,” Cass says standing in front of the house and looking into the sun. “There are no houses anywhere, no people, nothing to worry about. I’ve dreamed of this all my life. Being here with you, being this happy, being this far away. I always dreamed this would be mine but was always afraid I wouldn’t get it. All that’s missing is Owen. She would love it so much. She would love you. Gosh, I want this to last forever!”
She says this as if it is a proclamation, and we clasp hands, hold them tightly together and raise them towards the heavens. A small ritual, and we are answered by a huge flock of black birds rising from the nearby olive trees and taking flight. Noiselessly, they cover the sky.
For the first few days we stay in the house, keeping to ourselves, going out only to shop in Plan de la Tour, the small village nearby. No one speaks English, no one has heard of Mama Cass, no one cares. We are domestic and peaceful. We drink cheap local wine and smoke dope and make love in the mosquito netting, and I have the fantastic feeling that this movie is never going to end.
Cass says she positively loathes going to the beach, but she wants to tell all her friends in Los Angeles that she has been sunbathing on the French Riviera with the man she loves. So we drive to St. Tropez 15 miles away. The beaches are tres chic, full of beautiful people covered in Bain de Soleil and gold chains and little else. Cass is wearing bloomers down to her knees, a muumuu over that, and a long-sleeved shirt from a shop in California called For Big Men Only. The only thing missing is a beekeeper’s hat and she’d be covered from head to toe.
“I feel so self-conscious at the beach,” she tells me as if I hadn’t noticed. She looks around wistfully. “I’d like to be as thin as that.” She points to a woman who can’t weigh more than a hundred pounds.
No one on the beach notices Cass, or if they do, they only see a fat woman wearing a lot of clothes. It’s impossible to tell who might be lurking under that disguise.
A week later, tanned and more than a little stoned, we drive to St. Tropez to go dancing at Byblos, the chicest, most decadent, most elegant nightclub in the trendiest village in the world. In a multi-colored caftan, Cass is the acid queen of the Cote d’Azur. Out of disguise and in her element, everyone recognizes her. She sweeps along the dance floor, gathering a huge following of people, dropping little pieces of rock-n-roll gingerbread in her wake. We run into old friends of hers, old friends of mine. We dance, drink, dance some more, but all these people are too much of a strain. As we drive back up into the mountains, Cass says, “Our time together is too short to share it with anyone else.”
Cass goes back to Los Angeles. I stay in France for the summer and don’t see her for three more months. I write her, but not as often as before, and she calls, but not as often as before. The conversations we have are very brief. She sounds so lonely, so far away. She says she’s broke, that the government is going to take away her house because she owes back taxes.
“I work so god damn hard,” she complains, “and I never have any money.” She starts to cry. She says there is no reward in her life. Working is not enough. Being in love is everything, but it never works out. “If it weren’t for Owen, I wouldn’t have a reason to go on living.”
I’ve made up my mind. In November I call Cass from London. I tell her to sit down, light a cigarette. I have something to tell her. She is wary.
I tell her I want to get married.
“To who?” She asks incredulously.
“Who do you think? To you.”
There is no sound except the phone wires crackling between us. Finally she says she’ll think about it. She hangs up, then calls back immediately. She wants to know if marrying me will make her a baroness. I assure her that it will. She hangs up again, calls right back again. “Yes!” She sings across the ocean. “Yes, yes, yes!”
A tune floats through my head.
I'd be safe and warm if I was in L.A.
California dreamin' on such a winter's day
Springtime. I am in California with Cass. I am 27, she is 29. We are married in a private ceremony in her home in the Hollywood Hills. My mother cries, her mother cries, but they cry for different reasons. We have only a Polaroid snapshot to commemorate the event.
Cass tells me she wants to stay in California for a while longer before we move back to France for good. That’s not the plan we made. She’s just signed a lucrative record contract with RCA, yet still she is broke. Always the mournful Virgo, Cass is distraught by lack of money.
One night in bed she says to me, “I don’t want to work anymore. I want to drop out of sight for a year and turn up as the thin baroness.”
That same night she wakes me up at three o’clock. She is holding a huge plate of buttered noodles. “I thought you might be hungry,” she says with a playful grin.
Our social life is hectic. Cass’s life is filled with superstars, hangers-on, down-and-out musicians and people she says she’d rather not see. But she does, and she does it well. We flit from one real-life movie to the next, palling around with Jack Nicholson, Ryan O’Neal, Cher, Jane Fonda, Carol Burnett, Judy Carne, even the infamous celebrity-criminal-of-the-day Bernie Cornfeld. I get a heavy dose of Hollywood Babylon without even trying.
At Chasen’s for dinner one night with Carol Burnett and her husband Joe Hamilton, Cass sees Don Reckless at a near-by table. He stands up, booms a hearty “Congratulations!” to Cass. Then he sees me, sneers across the room and yells, “Good luck, skinny!”
Weeks pass. Cass is restless, fidgety, not content to be with only me, still craving the adoration of strangers, the applause.
She asks me how I can possibly love her. “I’m so…so different from you.”
I tell her I love her, but she is never certain. She says she is feeling very insecure. “I have everything I ever wanted - Owen, my man around the house - but I’m not happy.”
Well, I’m feeling a little insecure myself. I’m not up to the task of taking care of anyone but myself. And I’m not even doing very well at that.
Day after day, Cass becomes more and more introspective. “I’ve never been happy, I guess. I don’t deserve it. Just look at me.”
Cass is super intelligent, her blessing and her curse. She sees herself too clearly. She tries to diet but can’t stop eating. She hates being the butt of fat jokes on TV, but she continues to make a career out of it. She hates going into the supermarket with me and being stared at, yet she hates it equally as much when she’s not recognized and has to stand in line like anyone else.
Jack Nicholson, Michelle Phillips, Cass and I go to Musso and Frank’s on Hollywood Boulevard for dinner. Jack is the Big Star. He’s the hottest thing in Hollywood, and he loves it. He asks the woman at the front desk for a table. Amazingly, he is unrecognized. The woman shakes her head no. It’s Saturday night. He needs reservations. Meanwhile Cass is recognized by the owner right away. He waves to the front desk.
“It’s okay," he yells, indicating Jack, “he’s with Mama Cass.”
Cass laughs, but her mood changes when we sit down. At the table she is practically in tears. “Why can’t I shake ‘Mama Cass’? That’s not who I am anymore. That was never me in the first place.”
Jack tries to comfort her, walking down a road he’s walked down before. “You’ll always be Mama Cass to a lot of people. It’s a compliment.”
“I know,” Cass replies. “I know.” She falls silent and doesn’t say much for the rest of dinner.
Sunday by the pool. The great and the near-great, as Cass is fond of saying. Leon, Mark, Sean, and the young, hung Donnie Johnson, the bathing beauties of the Hollywood Hills. DJ, as most of Donnie’s friends call him, has a hard-on for anything that moves, and he and Cass are best buddies, friends high and low but mostly high. He befriends me, adding yet another chum to his charm bracelet, and unlike Cass’s other friends, he’s not wary of me. DJ is fearless.
I invite Valerie Perrine, fresh from her film debut in Slaughterhouse Five, to drop by. I’ve known Valerie since her sunny, topless days down and out in St. Tropez, and now she arrives every inch a movie star, two Great Danes in tow, silver bells around her neck, her tits held high.
Cass and I are standing in the doorway as she arrives. Owen is holding onto Cass’s hand, the dogs are at our feet. Cass has on a denim caftan, I have on my bathing suit. Valerie sees the tableau in the doorway, slows to a stop, takes off her sunglasses and sighs. “It’s so perfect,” she says with an almost sincere smile. “You look like the all-Hollywood family.”
Cass turns away abruptly and walks into the house.
We’ve been married only a few months, but it feels like we’ve been married too long. Cass is depressed, bored, can’t decide if being married is that great after all. I am acting strong and optimistic. Cass is acting equally helpless and pessimistic. Inevitably I believe that I am not giving Cass everything she wants. She tells me no, that is not the case. Both of us sink into a quagmire of guilt. Why aren’t we happy?
It’s not for lack of trying, that’s for sure. We seek happiness by seeing friends, going out, staying in, watching TV, reading to each other, listening to music, altering our minds, but it only seems to reaffirm Cass's suspicions that something is missing. She doesn’t know what she wants, but she knows she doesn’t have it.
And I don’t have a clue.
The cycle continues to eat away at both of us. Cass accidentally takes 22 Tuinal. Accidentally? That’s her story, and she’s sticking to it, but to me it’s a tossup between did she fall or was she pushed? She’s in a coma for two days. She has barbiturate poisoning and has to be weaned off the drug, a slow, awful process of pain delirium. We hire full-time, live-in nurses to monitor her around the clock, because at any minute she might have a grand mal seizure. They wake her up at night to look into her eyes with flashlights. We are never alone. The babysitters from hell, in white uniforms and sensible shoes, have arrived for good.
We both decide that drugs are no fun, but we don’t stop. Our brains say no, but no one is listening. Cass tells me her heart died when she was in the coma. I hope she’s wrong, but I am never sure.
A week later, chaperoned by the babysitters from hell, Cass is back in the studio with John Phillips, his girlfriend Genevieve Waite, his ex-wife Michelle, Denny Doherty, and every doper in town who knows how to play a musical instrument. Cass is happy to be back with the group but not happy to be working with John. She tells me over and over that he will knife her in the back the minute she looks away.
It’s not going well. The reunion is forced, an attempt to make one last record to fulfill their contract with Dunhill Records to release royalties from past albums. The rehearsals are undisciplined. Cass feels that she is the only true professional, that everyone else is sloppy and out of control. There is a lot of tension in the studio. Cass and Denny had once lived together, and the studio sessions become a memory of musical beds and bad vibes. Cass feels the pressure more than anyone, lamenting that she and I never have time for only each other. But when we do, that’s no good either.
Somehow the album is finished. Cass hears the final cut and is furious. She accuses John of remixing the whole thing when she wasn’t in the studio. John smiles. Genevieve smiles. Michelle can’t wait to split. Denny is fed-up and wants to go back to Mill Valley and pick up the bottle where he left off. And Cass is royally and righteously pissed. She says everyone is using her, ripping her off.
She is seeing a psychiatrist five times a week. She’s on a high protein diet, but her weight loss in minimal. At dinner one night she cries plaintively, “I could lose 50 pounds and no one would notice.”
We go to Palm Springs for the weekend, staying with my old friend John Lee, Elizabeth Taylor’s press secretary. Cass loves to talk about Elizabeth, fascinated with her power, her beauty, her royal lifestyle.
That afternoon, Cass and I sneak off by ourselves for a quiet lunch at Jilly’s, a celebrity haunt on the main drag of town. They won’t let us in because Cass has bare feet and I’m wearing a tank top. The headwaiter doesn’t recognize Cass. She is outraged.
We drive to a nearby phone booth. Cass calls the restaurant, says she is Mama Cass’s secretary and wants the best table in the joint for her famous boss. When we return to Jilly’s, we are ushered in ceremoniously. The manager himself greets us. He couldn’t be nicer. This infuriates Cass even more.
We are both off drugs, but Cass wants something to mellow her out. “You’re going to see the fastest drunk in Palm Springs,” she says to me determinedly, ordering three double vodka martinis in a row. Within half an hour, she is plastered.
A couple from New York brings their little boy over to our table and timidly asks for Cass’s autograph. She tries to scribble something on a napkin, but she is so drunk it is illegible.
“I’m sick,” she apologizes half-heartedly to her fans.
Back at John Lee’s house, Cass takes off her clothes, goes for a swim and passes out floating face up in the pool, no mean feat in itself. I can’t wake her, so I sit by the side of the pool until she comes to. She has a terrible hangover and water in her ears. That night she cries herself to sleep.
Cass and I are beginning to fight constantly. Small things mostly, the trivia of living together in unhappiness and madness and mind-altering substances.
Cass demands that the house be kept ice cold and has locks installed on the air-conditioner thermostat so the “kids” won’t tamper with the temperature. One morning, before Cass gets out of bed, I turn off the air-conditioner, then go to the market, inadvertently taking the thermostat key with me. When I return home Cass is a mad woman, ranting and screaming. On the foot of our bed is what’s left of my Mickey Mouse wristwatch, a sweet, intimate present she gave me a few weeks before. In her rage at not being able to find the keys, she has smashed the face of it with a hammer.
“Next time it will be your face!” She screams at the top of her lungs, locking herself in the bathroom to sulk in private.
An hour later she says, “It’s not the air-conditioner, you know. It’s not even you. I just don’t know how to stop myself.”
Clearly the end is upon us. Only six months after the marriage of the century, we decide to separate. It’s a mutual decision. We’re not making anyone happy this way.
I move in with Valerie Perrine and some friends from London in a house not far away. Cass is jealous immediately even though she knows Valerie is only a friend. We stay in touch by phone. From the bits and pieces of our conversations, I realize that Cass is resuming her old lifestyle, hanging out with the great and the near-great, taking work she doesn’t want. She’s single again and free. She says she’s losing weight, dating other men, getting high on life. And she says maybe - just maybe - this separation will result in us getting back together again.
But it’s no good. Whenever we see each other, it’s a terrible strain. She doesn’t want to be around someone who knows her so well, someone who has seen her fall when she wanted to be her strongest. And I didn’t want to be reminded that here was the woman I loved and couldn’t make happy. A year afterwards we are divorced.
Now that I am away from her, I can see the tremendous pressure we were both under. We go out together occasionally, and we have wonderful, romantic times. We talk about getting back together, but it’s only talk. We both know that life goes on. Oob-la-di-oob-la-da.
The phone rings. It’s July, 1974.
“My, my,” says a cheery voice, “how time flies when you’re having sex.” Cass is manic. She’s leaving the next day for London. She’s going to play the Palladium as a solo act, her life-long dream. She tells me that she thinks she’s in love, that her life is finally falling into place. I sense that she is holding something back. I have no idea what it is.
“I’ll call you,” she says. “It will be just like old times - except that you’ll be in Los Angeles and I’ll be in London.” And she hangs up, blowing me a kiss across the phone wires.
A week later she calls from London. She is a smash, critically acclaimed, selling out every night. She is staying in a mews house near where I used to live - where it all began - and she says she’ll be back in L.A. in ten days.
“I’m very happy, Donald. I want you to be too. That’s what was missing when we were married. Maybe now we can each find it on our own.”
I ask her about the new man in her life. She tries to change the subject but then tells me that someone told her that Alan Carr, her newly hired manager, had paid her new boyfriend to be with her. She says it uncertainly, telling me she doesn’t really know if it is true.
I think this has to be the ultimate insult, but still she is upbeat. She says she has to go.
The next day she is dead.
The media screams to the world that she choked on a ham sandwich. Not a nice epitaph for someone who gave so much. I don’t believe it for a minute.
There are a lot of seemingly mysterious circumstances surrounding her death. According to the first accounts in the newspapers, no traces of drugs were found in her body, an improbable reality at the very least. The press says her address book is missing. Her jewelry is missing, even the bracelets fused on her wrists for posterity.
The media reports that she was alone when she died. She was never alone, never, unless she was alone with her daughter. Alan Carr claimed he knew nothing, a white lie at best, a malevolent secret at worst. Scotland Yard has to be forced to release the results of the autopsy, and those results are inconclusive, meaningless. In my mind, manipulated. The new and unknown man in her life does not come forward to mourn her.
Personally, I think that maybe Cass died of a broken heart.
At the funeral service in Hollywood, I am seriously stoned in memoriam. Cass’s mother Beth pulls me into the back of her limousine and sobs, “What are we going to do without her?”
Michelle is the only one from the splintered group to even acknowledge me. Denny is in his cups with self-pitying grief, and John is crying on cue for the press. Lots of sobs, transparent pathos.
Michelle puts her arms around my shoulder and says, “We all loved her. She always said she brought out the best in people and then they left her.”
I leave, guilty and distraught beyond tears. I go home and play her records into the early hours of dawn. I think perhaps Cass has finally found her happiness. I’ll never know. She lives on in my heart just as she began.
A haunting melody of all that could have been.