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The Mamas & the Papas Imploded Over "Toxic" Relationships, New Book Says

The four members of the short-lived folk group were a "love square," author claims.

The Mamas & the Papas were one of the biggest folk acts of the '60s, and their music still resonates with listeners today. But, the band was only together for a surprisingly short amount of time. They were active first for three years, from 1965 to 1968, then reunited briefly in 1971 for one more album. A new book digs into the rise and fall of the Mamas & the Papas, including the "toxic" personal and romantic relationships that led to their split.

In an interview with Fox News Digital, Scott G. Shea, author of All the Leaves Are Brown: How the Mamas & the Papas Came Together and Broke Apart, highlighted the strained relationships among the bandmates, which included constant body-shaming, affairs, and unrequited love. Read on to find out more.

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The band formed in 1965.

The Mamas & the Papas circa 1960s
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The Mamas & the Papas came together in 1965 when married couple John and Michelle Phillips teamed up with musician Denny Doherty, who was in the band the Mugwumps. Doherty's Mugwumps bandmate Cass Elliot then joined the group as the final member.

Between the years of 1966 and 1968, the band released four albums and found success with songs including "California Dreamin'" and "Monday, Monday." In 1971, they released a fifth album, People Like Us, because they were still under contract to their record label.

They were a "love square," Shea claims.

The Mamas & the Papas posing for an album cover in 1966
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

According to Shea, the complicated relationships within the Mamas & the Papas made them a "love square" of sorts. Early on in the band's existence, Michelle and Doherty began having an affair while she was still married to John. The consternation over that even led to Michelle bring briefly replaced in the band. Meanwhile, Elliot was in love with Doherty.

"It was pretty toxic," Shea told Fox News Digital. "I don't think John could ever fully trust Denny while Michelle was in the picture. At one point, Michelle was kicked out and replaced with Jill Gibson, who was dating their producer… But it just didn't work. So Michelle was brought back… And then John started having his own affairs. Then you have Denny pining away for Michelle, but that didn't stop him from having his own [flings]. And Cass had a string of lovers who just wanted her for her money. And she always still loved Denny. It's as bad and as complicated as it could get."

Elliot eventually proposed to Doherty, but it didn't work out like she hoped. "He just laughed," Shea said. "He was drunk, and I don't think he knew she was being serious. I know that's something he regretted the remainder of his life. He later spoke about it extensively… But that gave Cass all the more reason to go, 'I'm outta here.'"

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John bullied Elliot about her weight.

The Mamas and the Papas circa 1960s
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Shea explained that John didn't like Elliot and would make fun of her for her appearance, including negatively comparing her to Michelle. He supposedly once told Doherty, "Her eyes are too close together, and she smells!" He also included the line, "And no one's getting fat except Mama Cass," in the song "Creeque Alley." Per the author, when Elliot shared that she was pregnant, John asked her when she was getting an abortion.

Shea believes that John was jealous of Elliot's talent. "[W]hen he put his band together, I think he had a trio in mind," Shea said. "He wanted to be the musical cultivator with the handsome lead singer and the beautiful female vocalist… He didn't feel Cass fit the look. But the thing is, he just didn't like her. He didn't want her in his group… I do think there was some lingering resentment there. He was very forceful with her in a way that he wasn't with the others."

RELATED: See the Last Surviving Members of Jefferson Airplane Now.

Some band members also addressed the drama.

Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty, and John Phillips after being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998
JON LEVY/AFP via Getty Images

Today, Michelle is the only surviving original member of the Mamas & the Papas. She and John divorced in 1969. Elliot died in 1974 at age 32 of a heart attack. John died at 65 in 2001. Doherty died in 2007 at age 66.

In 2022, Michelle spoke to Rolling Stone about her time in the band, including the interpersonal drama.

Of her affair with Doherty, she said, "John didn't actually find us having sex, but he did come downstairs and I was sitting on Denny's bed in my night gown, feeding him candies. He said, 'You could do a lot of things to me, Mich, but you don't [expletive] my tenor.'" She added of John and his own affairs, "He wrote that song 'Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon.' I used to say to him, 'Yeah, John, and you've [expletive] them all.'"

Doherty also talked about the band's love square in a 2001 interview. At the time, he was putting on a show titled Dream a Little Dream: The Nearly True Story of the Mamas and the Papas. "The truth is what was going on was pure crap. It was As the World Turns, The Young and the Restless, and Another World, all rolled into one," he told The Globe and Mail in 2001. "Michelle and I are having an affair, John finds out, and Mama Cass wants me. In the end, no one has what they want, and everyone heads for home. That's the abridged version."

Lia Beck
Lia Beck is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to Best Life, she has written for Refinery29, Bustle, Hello Giggles, InStyle, and more. Read more
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