London's most morbid pop location? The 'cursed' Mayfair flat where two music icons died (both aged 32)

The building where two 70s legends breathed their last - ROB BAKER
The building where two 70s legends breathed their last - ROB BAKER

Cass Elliot died choking on a ham sandwich; everybody knows that. Except she didn’t. During a late-night press conference, the doctor who first examined her, Dr Anthony Greenburgh, announced, ‘She was lying in bed half propped up by pillows and it seems that she choked on her sandwich and inhaled her own vomit.’ The ham sandwich by the side of her bed was actually untouched, but by then it was too late. The press reported his initial comments and the doctor unwittingly gave rise to the myth. 

Just two days before, on 28 July 1974, Elliot had completed a two-week engagement at the London Palladium.  She had received good reviews although nearly all of them mentioned her weight. After initially telling him that she would hit him in the mouth if he called her ‘Mama’ again, Elliot told the reporter David Wigg, after he again brought up her size, ‘I’d like to lose more because I’m getting older. These days when you approach your middle-thirties you think about heart disease.’

Cass Elliot in 1972 - Credit: GETTY
Cass Elliot in 1972 Credit: GETTY

Cass Elliott marked the end of her Palladium season with 24 hours of celebrations. After receiving a standing ovation on her last night she went back to her dressing room and scrawled in lipstick on the mirror a message to Debbie Reynolds who was due to perform the next night: ‘Dear Debbie, if they are half as nice to you as they were to me, you will have a great time. Love Cass.’ She then went on to Mick Jagger’s birthday party at Tite Street in Chelsea. From that party – without sleep – she went to what the newspapers were still calling in 1974 ‘a breakfast-lunch’ given for her by the singer Georgia Brown. She then went straight to a cocktail party given by the American journalist Jack Martin. At 8.00 p.m., after complaining of tiredness, she went back home. 

Her home in London was at her friend Harry Nilsson's apartment at 9 Curzon Place on the south-east edge of Mayfair. The American singer and songwriter had bought it two years previously in 1972 due to its location near Apple Records and especially the London Playboy Club. That year Nilsson and Ringo Starr had become good friends and the former Beatle, although credited as ‘Richie Snare’, was the drummer on much of Nilsson’s Son of Schmilsson album released that July. Ringo had recently set up a design partnership with the sculptor and furniture-maker Robin Cruickshank, called ROR(Ringo or Robin), and Nilsson hired the company to totally redesign his rather mundane-looking flat.

Nilsson once recalled: ‘Robin made this great, amazing pad. It was ... all glass and chrome and felt and velvet. And the price had doubled from the quote, and then Mr R. Starkey picked up the difference, or most of it. The first day I entered the flat it was completely finished. I had just come from America and I was shocked. I didn’t know what to think. And then I thought for a second, and I loved it!’ Ringo and Robin included in the re-design two etched glass mirrors for the two-sinked bathroom. One had a picture of an oak tree. But on the other, there was drawn a hangman’s noose.

Harry Nilsson - Credit: GETTY
Harry Nilsson Credit: GETTY

As soon as Cass Elliot returned from Jack Martin’s party, she called her former Mamas and Papas band member Michelle Phillips, who later recounted: ‘She’d had a little champagne, and was crying. She felt she had finally made the transition from Mama Cass.’ The next evening at about seven and after getting no response, Dot MacLeod, Cass’s secretary opened the door to Elliot’s bedroom and found her dead. Dot had actually been there all day but had deliberately tried not to disturb the singer because they knew she often slept very late.

At the inquest Gavin Thurston, the Westminster coroner, recorded a verdict of death from natural causes. ‘There was left-sided heart failure,’ wrote pathologist Professor Keith Simpson, ‘she had a heart attack which developed rapidly.’ Cass Elliott had been crash-dieting for years which had fatally weakened her heart. She was just thirty-two. 

London's 21 greatest rock and roll locations
London's 21 greatest rock and roll locations

Four years later it was the turn of Keith Moon to rent Harry Nilsson’s conveniently located apartment. He and Harry had discovered a mutual love of alcohol while on the set of a film produced by Ringo Starr called Son of Dracula. Nilsson had told Ringo that he expected no fee for appearing in the movie, but the ex-Beatles drummer paid for him to have cosmetic dentistry to straighten his crooked front teeth, one of the reasons that Nilsson had always been very shy of appearing live.

On September 6 1978 Keith and his girlfriend, Annette Walter-Lax, had been to a party held by Paul McCartney at the trendy chrome and neon-lit Peppermint Park on St Martin’s Lane, Covent Garden. Keith was unusually quiet and sober that night and shared a booth with the McCartneys, David Frost and John Hurt. At midnight, everyone went to the nearby Odeon, Leicester Square, for the late-night première of the Buddy Holly Story starring Gary Busey. Before the end of the film Keith and Annette caught a taxi back to flat 12, 9 Curzon Place. Keith started watching the film The Abominable Dr Phibes but after taking several Heminevrin sedatives that had been prescribed to aid alcohol withdrawal, he soon fell asleep. At about 7.30 a.m. he asked Annette to cook him steak for breakfast but after she complained, Keith retorted with, ‘If you don’t like it, you can f*** off.’ Unfortunately they were his last words. 

Ringo Starr, Nilsson and Keith Moon - Credit: GETTY
Ringo Starr, Nilsson and Keith Moon Credit: GETTY

Annette, who had been sleeping on the living room couch due to Moon’s incessant snoring, discovered him in the afternoon, face down on the bed. Not long after, he was found to be dead on arrival at Middlesex Hospital in Westminster. Moon, like Cass, was only thirty-two and had died just three weeks after the release of The Who album Who Are You. On the album cover, he is seated on a chair back-to-front to hide his recent weight gain. The words NOT TO BE TAKEN AWAY are written on the back of the chair. Again it was Professor Keith Simpson who performed the post mortem. ‘The quantity [of Heminevrin tablets] was enormous,’ Professor Simpson wrote down, ‘and constituted a vast overdose.’ 

Moon in 1974 - Credit: GETTY
Moon in 1974 Credit: GETTY

To most who knew him it came as a shock when they heard Moon had died. Everyone assumed he was indestructible. Moon once outlined his typical daily diet to a doctor: ‘I always get up about six in the morning. I have my bangers and eggs. And I drink a bottle of Dom Perignon and half a bottle of brandy. Then I take a couple of downers. Then it’s about 10 and I’ll have a nice nap until five. I get up, have a couple of black beauties [also known as Black Birds or Black Bombers and are a combination of amphetamine, or speed, and dextroamphetamine], some brandy, a little champagne and go out on the town. Then we boogie. We’ll wrap it up about four.’ 

After a second friend had wrapped up about four, permanently, Nilsson quickly sold his flat to another Who member, Pete Townsend, and then moved back to Los Angeles - this time for good. Harry Nilsson, like Cass and especially Moon, liked a drink and his consumption of alcohol and drugs were once described as Herculean. Marianne Faithfull said of Nilsson: ‘We used to do drugs together. And when I say drugs, I don’t mean those airy-fairy drugs they do nowadays. I’m talking about narcotics.’ Elton John once described seeing Nilsson in a recording studio: ‘He opened his mouth to sing, and blood poured out; he had done so much coke that his throat just haemorrhaged. And do you know what? He didn’t even notice.’ 

Compared with his two friends, Elliot and Moon, Nilsson managed to live to the relatively grand old age of 52. After surviving one heart attack in 1993, he died from another the following year. At his funeral the mourners heard the Northridge earthquake rumbling in the background. A joke went round that it was the result of Harry getting to heaven and discovering there were no bars.

In 2001, the building at Curzon Place containing Harry Nilsson’s old flat was bought by a developer who completely changed the interior, and the three flats on Harry’s floor were knocked into two. Don’t take too long trying to find Curzon Place. You won’t be able to. The road, for some reason, has changed its name to Curzon Square. 

Rob Baker is the author of Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics: A Sideways Look at Twentieth-Century London, and High Buildings, Low Morals: Another Sideways Look at Twentieth Century London

More by the author

The West End at war: Graham Greene's search for supper on the night of The Wednesday

Mini-skirts, Soviet spies and the Chelsea Palace – the fascinating history of the King's Road