Mama Cass of Hit '60s Band Mamas & Papas Did Not Die from a Ham Sandwich: What Really Happened

The last time Sue Cameron saw her friend, The Mamas & the Papas singer Cass Elliot, it was a beautiful summer night in late July 1974 and the two had dinner at Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills. "It was the night before she was flying to London to open her solo concert series at the Palladium," the writer tells PEOPLE. "We cruised along Mulholland Drive in her electric blue Cadillac. 'Monday, Monday' came on the radio and she sang along. She was so happy. She had really made it."

A few days later, on July 29, Cameron heard the news that Elliot had died at age 32. She immediately called the number of her apartment in London. "Her manager Allan Carr picked up the phone and he was hysterical. Allan said, 'You've got to tell them that she died choking on a ham sandwich. You must go to your typewriter and write that. There's a half of a ham sandwich on her nightstand.'"

"I didn't ask any questions," says Cameron, then a columnist at the Hollywood Reporter, who later wrote the story behind the story in her 2018 book Hollywood Secrets and Scandals. "I knew she didn't choke on a ham sandwich. I didn't believe Allan but I thought just do it because something was wrong."

"The ham sandwich went worldwide," Cameron tells PEOPLE. "Many people don't realize that it's not even true. Even though I have said — and written — it's not true, it still goes on. I never thought it would last as long as it has."

On their last night together, Cameron recalls how Elliot had given her some of her personal belongings for safekeeping. "She said she didn't trust the people she had hired to live in her house. She gave me her grandmother's comforter, some of her grandmother's lace, some photos and some personal mementos. She said, 'I'll pick them up when I get back.'"

"The next thing I knew she was gone," she tells PEOPLE.

"When her daughter Owen turned 18, I gave her all her mom's things that I had kept. At one point Owen showed me Cass's diaries and she had mentioned our Mr. Chow date. That's how I will remember her. How happy she was that night. And for her talent, and her laughter and her joy."

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