Going into California Dreamin’ I mostly knew The Mamas and the Papas from my mom pointing them out during PBS specials. Diving into Cass Elliot’s backstory has been more rewarding than I could’ve realized.
Born Ellen Cohen, Cass is a little girl who adores her father and goes to the opera with straightened hair that tangles as soon as she’s home. Being an opera singer was her father’s dream but frequent illness kept him from pursuing it. When Cass decides she wants to be a Broadway star in high school, she goes out of her way to break onto the scene. Full of self-expression and drama, Cass doesn’t takes the defensive on her dreams but faces life with a middle finger and lauded sense of humor.
Writer and artist, Pénélope Bagieu, delicately tugs at the pain of acceptance that never comes Cass’ way freely. She always has to fight to be included and the obsession people had with her weight wasted so much time. Her parents ran a Jewish deli. Food was their means of livelihood—a reflection on their ability to provide for their children—and they encouraged her to eat. When Cass first grabs a cereal box without looking, or appearing at all happy about it, she does so because she fears losing their attention after her sister’s birth, not because she’s hungry.
In high school Cass’ best friend, Sharon, tried to run interference, keeping cruel taunts from getting back to Cass and their friend, Ken. We don’t learn what happens to Sharon but by bandmate, Michelle Phillips’, chapter, “…Cass doesn’t have any girlfriends.” One reason Bagieu’s high school chapters are sensational, both as a period in Cass’ life and an encapsulation of Cass’ trampling of critics, is men haven’t entered the stage yet to bring her heart ache. Famously in love with Mamas and the Papas singer, Denny Doherty, Cass’ would-be boyfriends are never deserving of the honor of her dedication. Rejection doesn’t deflate her but Bagieu does have it leak onto her hopeful face, which in high school wore bunny ears with abandon.
That she had to fight tooth and nail to be a recognized member of The Mamas and the Papas is the most shameful revelation. De facto leader and song writer, John Phillips, knows no bounds in his determination to keep her from joining their group. She’s an obstruction to his vision and that he’s carrying on about this through their audition, where they’re about to be signed, is outrageous.
By dividing the book into eighteen chapters, each titled for their unique narrator, what sounds like too many voices brings different perspectives that are personal and keep the read exciting and unbiased. Cass was complicated and California Dreamin’ doesn’t simplify her, or any of the characters, from Michelle, who ends the book ostracized, to Cass’ dad, whose chapter takes the wind out of you. Gentle pencils and cursive lettering are reminiscent of the levity Cass brought through so much pain. The all caps narration is her refusal not to be heard.