Skip to main content
The Last Mama

Michelle Phillips Finally Reveals the Secret History of the Mamas and the Papas

She spent her youth redefining the sound of pop — and the next 50 years looking for something she could call her own
Nolwen Cifuentes for Rolling Stone

T here’s a modest home in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Cheviot Hills, with a stucco roof, a jacaranda tree out front, and a 1989 Mercedes 560SL in perfect condition resting in the driveway. Beyond a front porch with wind chimes and a couch pillow that reads “This is our happy place,” past a kitchen with copper pots hanging above the sink, you’ll find a living room with a floral stained-glass lamp standing in a corner. It’s the very lamp that Michelle Phillips seized from her Bel Air mansion in 1969, when she decided to leave her husband behind. “I walked out with three things,” Phillips, 78, says. “My daughter, her crib, and the Tiffany lamp that I had to go back and steal, because I was so afraid of John.” 

John Phillips — the cruel and domineering yet charismatic and gifted figure who dubbed himself L.A.’s “Wolf King” — has loomed large in her life ever since they met in the early months of the Kennedy administration, when Michelle was still a teenager. In the years that followed, they had a whirlwind romance and formed the Mamas and the Papas, scoring six Top 10 hits and redefining pop with their sunny, tight harmonies. When average Americans pictured hippies, these were the four people they saw, thanks to their frequent TV appearances

Michelle was 24 when the group imploded, along with her marriage, leaving deep scars. In the years after she left Bel Air, she went on to a long career as an actress, working on everything from Knots Landing to Star Trek: The Next Generation, and a series of Hollywood romances (not to mention an eight-day marriage to Dennis Hopper). She worked incessantly, paid off her post-divorce debt, and bought the house we’re standing in. “She swore to herself that she would never, ever be in a position again where she would be dependent on a man,” says her daughter, Wilson Phillips singer Chynna Phillips. “She’s a determined woman.”

Yet she’s often reduced to the beautiful blonde in a short-lived band, arm candy for an eccentric songwriter, frozen in amber holding a tambourine. “John Phillips and Denny Doherty wrote the songs; Mama Cass had the great voice; Michelle Phillips had the blond hair and the legs,” read one typical 1986 profile. She’s always been more than that, and she’s been trying to tell us all along. In a world that’s changed in immeasurable ways since the Summer of Love, who does she want to be seen as?

DURING THE DIVORCE, John threatened Michelle with “You’ll never ride in a limo again!” — but she prefers her Mercedes, anyway. She’ll drive it to Pastina, the Italian restaurant where she orders spaghetti aglio e olio and chicken milanese. Or she might drive it to the Hollywood Bowl, where she recently saw Andrea Bocelli. Being at the venue brought her back to the first time the Mamas and the Papas performed there, in 1966. “I remember throwing up,” she says. “Cass is about to go running out, and I’m frozen in place. She grabs my hand: ‘We’ve got to go now.’ ” 

In addition to the Tiffany lamp, Phillips’ home contains several relics from her past. There’s the Grammy trophy that the Mamas and the Papas won for “Monday, Monday”; several gold records on the wall; and framed magazine covers ranging from the Seventies through the Nineties. On top of the piano sits a photo of John and Michelle, with three Marlboro Reds sticking out of her mouth. There’s also a telegram from the Beach Boys framed on the wall. The note, sent after Michelle was briefly kicked out of the band in 1966, reads, “Your secret is safe with us.”

Nolwen Cifuetes for Rolling Stone

Phillips gives me a tour of her backyard, which contains a tiki bar with a mural of a hula dancer on the wall. Her dogs Chloe and Lulu run playfully around her legs as she takes a seat clutching a glass of watermelon juice. In black leggings, a black top, and a black scrunchie, she looks more like a New Yorker than a Laurel Canyon legend. Large sunglasses mask her piercing blue eyes, and she brushes her blond bangs to the side as the sun begins to set.

There’s a monstrous gorilla sculpture made of tires in the yard, but she casually gestures to it as if it’s a lawn hose. “That’s my dad’s idea of a wonderful garden piece,” she says. Phillips was close to her father, Gardner “Gil” Gilliam, a Coast Guard veteran who raised her and her older sister in Mexico City after their mother died from subacute endocarditis when Phillips was five. Once there, Phillips attended private school, where she learned to read and write Spanish before English. It was important to Gil that his daughters be self-sufficient: “He told me that I would always be able to take care of myself,” she recalls. “He said, ‘You know why? Because you’re a woman, and you can do anything you want,’ ” she recalls. “Then as I grew older, I thought, ‘That doesn’t really seem to be true for a lot of women that I know.’ ”

When Phillips was about 12, her family returned to L.A. She looked to fill the void left by her mother by befriending older girls like her neighbor Tamar Hodel, who was almost a decade her senior. (Hodel’s father would later become a suspect in the Black Dahlia murder, and it’s hard not to notice several books on this topic on Phillips’ bookshelf.)

In 1961, at 17, Phillips followed Hodel to San Francisco, where her friend bought her a fake ID and a black cocktail dress, taking her to clubs to meet comedians like Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory. They were at the Hungry I one evening when she fell in love with the guitar player onstage. John was married with two children, but as his then-wife, Susan, later told her over martinis, “He has a Michelle in every town.” 

John divorced Susan and married Michelle, and the two moved to New York, living first in an apartment on 70th and Third Avenue, and later downtown. She remembers John asking her father’s permission for the move. “John just charmed him like a bird off a tree, and they became very good friends,” she says. “I remember my father saying, ‘John, you’ve been to college. She hasn’t even finished high school.’ And John said, “Gil, I promise you I’ll teach her everything she has to know.” 

With the Mamas and the Papas still a few years away from existing, Michelle found work as a model in the early-Sixties, Mad Men ad industry. “I was having a great time in New York City,” she says. “I had just been offered a big contract to do teenage lingerie, which was my specialty. Lingerie paid double.” 

The story of how the newlyweds co-wrote their breakthrough hit, “California Dreamin’,” is almost as well-worn as the song itself, but to hear Phillips tell it is like hearing it for the first time. She becomes animated as she recalls how she hated the East Coast winter (“I didn’t have any gloves. I didn’t have a hat. I was like, ‘Who would live here?’ ”), how John woke her in the middle of the night with the opening lines, and how she groggily helped finish it. “He said, ‘You’ll thank me for this someday,’ ” she says. “And, God, I do thank him every day.”

THE SUNSET IS at its peak now, with a golden-pink haze falling over Phillips. She reminisces through the band’s early days — moving back to L.A., meeting Cass Elliot for the first time on LSD, secretly kissing Denny Doherty on a beach in the Virgin Islands, getting signed by producer Lou Adler, watching Jimi Hendrix light his guitar on fire at Monterey Pop. A festival, she likes to point out, that occurred prior to another one that gets all the counterculture credit. “Woodstock was just huge and ugly,” she says. “People rolling in the mud and freezing their asses off.” 

John Phillips, Cass Elliot, Michelle Phillips, and Denny Doherty (clockwise from top) Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The Mamas and the Papas’ story is full of as much drama and betrayal as, say, Fleetwood Mac’s, even if it’s a fraction as known to Gen Z. Elliot was in love with Doherty, yet perpetually stuck in the friend zone; Doherty, meanwhile, was busy having an affair with Michelle. “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,” she says. “He said, ‘You could do a lot of things to me, Mich, but you don’t fuck my tenor.’ ” 

Naturally, though, John was free to have as many affairs as he liked. “He wrote that song ‘Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon,’ ” Phillips says. “I used to say to him, ‘Yeah, John, and you’ve fucked them all.’ ” 

Their tumultuous marriage came to its first halt in June 1966, when he found out Michelle was having an affair with the Byrds’ Gene Clark and ousted her from the group. She had invited the singer to a Mamas and Papas show at Melodyland in Anaheim on June 4 (her birthday); John spotted Clark in the crowd and put two and two together. “Mich went through a lot with him,” Lou Adler recalls. “He was destructive, and he was tough to live with… It was bound to explode, as it did that night onstage when Gene was in the audience.” 

Soon after she exited the band for the first time, Phillips crashed a recording session, grabbed her tambourine out of the hands of her blonde replacement (Adler’s girlfriend Jill Gibson), and famously cried, “I’ll bury you all!” Elliot died tragically less than a decade later, and John followed in 2001; with the death of Doherty in 2007, her prophecy came true. “So far, so good,” she says. “Everyone but Jill.”

As the last remaining Mama and Papa, Phillips can get to work on the biopic she’s been trying to make for decades. “Now, mercifully, John is dead,” she says. “So he can’t stand in the way of me doing it, and neither can Denny.” She wants her granddaughter, Brooks Baldwin, to audition for the role of Michelle. “Once you’ve taken the knife out of your heart, it makes for a wonderful story,” she says. “We’re going to get this movie made, come hell or high water.”

Phillips declines to talk about her brief marriage to Hopper, referring to him as “the name that shall never pass my lips.” But she glows when talking about Warren Beatty (“It took me a long time to get over him”) and Jack Nicholson, who encouraged her to take acting classes in the early Seventies. “He said, ‘If you want to be an actress, join every workshop you can,’ ” she says. “That was the best advice that I could have been given.”

Acting came naturally to Phillips. “I enjoyed acting more than I enjoyed singing,” she admits. “Singing for me was so difficult.” In 1974, she met producer Aaron Spelling, who cast her in a campy TV film about vigilante cops opposite Melvyn Douglas and Robert Forster. She spent the next 25 years as a recurring player in Spelling’s TV empire — from Fantasy Island to The Love Boat to Beverly Hills, 90210, where she had a nine-episode arc as Tiffani Thiessen’s mom — and made one largely forgotten solo album, 1977’s Victim of Romance. “Everyone wants to have a solo album,” she says. “If they tell you they don’t want to, that’s a lie.”

Michelle and John, circa 1967 Ⓒ Henry Diltz

All through those years, though, she’s been working on another longterm project: protecting the legacy of the Mamas and the Papas, reframing their story from her own perspective. In 1986, she published a memoir, California Dreamin’, the same year as her ex-husband published his, Papa John. “My book isn’t as sensational as John’s,” Phillips said that year. “I wanted people to know who John had been when he had been at his best.”

Even now, Phillips still looks back on him with admiration and respect, though many have come to view him as a toxic, manipulative force. She’s unflinching, at least, about his post-Mamas and Papas descent into cocaine and heroin use. “There was no love lost between John and I towards the end,” she says. “At all. I saw how he had changed from that handsome, wholesome, all-American boy into this depravity of addiction. He was not the same person I had loved.”

The group became eligible for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, and she remembers urging record executive Ahmet Ertegun to nominate them. “I sat in Ahmet’s lap and said, ‘We have not been nominated,’ ” she says. “He said, ‘Well, Michelle, John made a lot of enemies.’ I said, ‘How about you just nominate the Mamas? We haven’t done anything to you.’ ” The band was inducted in 1998. 

Even by Sixties L.A. standards, John had a reputation during his life as a volatile, lecherous presence — a man who continually pushed boundaries. That reputation was detonated further in 2009, when Mackenzie Phillips — his daughter from his first marriage — published a memoir, High on Arrival. Mackenzie, who acted in American Graffiti and the sitcom One Day at a Time, had been three when her father remarried. In High on Arrival, she wrote that John raped her in 1979, and that they then began a consensual incestuous relationship that lasted for 10 years. Michelle expressed doubts about the allegations upon the book’s release; during our first interview, she claims that Mackenzie approached her with the allegations while her father was still alive, only to take her story back. “Frankly, I do not believe it,” Michelle says. “She called me and said, ‘I had a love affair with my dad.’ I was absolutely mortified. Eight minutes later, she called me back. She says, ‘Michelle, I hope you know I was kidding.’ I said, ‘That’s not funny.’ She says, ‘Well, I guess we just have different senses of humor.’ ”  

Phillips tells me later that this part of our conversation gnawed at her that evening. During our next three interviews, she veers back and forth on her belief — clearly grappling with the scandals that have tarnished her late ex-husband’s legacy. When I ask if he ever got violent with her during the divorce, she pauses, then calmly says, “I have never, ever mentioned this to my children or to my friends, but there was a night when John let me have it,” she says. “He mentioned it in his book. I think he said there was a little slapping. It was more than that.”  

She says several times that the incest allegations are Mackenzie’s story to tell, not hers. “I’m not going to say whether it’s true or not, because I don’t think she knows if it’s true or not,” Phillips concludes. “She waited, very conveniently, for John to die [before publishing the book].” 

In an email to Rolling Stone, Mackenzie strongly denied her stepmother’s assertions. “I stand by my truth as I always have and as I always will,” Mackenzie wrote. “Plus which, who on Earth would fabricate such a story as mine? To what end? It’s not exactly a résumé builder, for God’s sake. . . . [High on Arrival] is true, and it was my story to tell. If I had to live it, I had the right to tell it.” She added that she takes some comfort in the ways the world’s perspective on abuse allegations has changed in the past decade. “Imagine if [my memoir] had been published during the ‘me too’ movement. I sometimes wonder what that would’ve been like.”

Thirteen years after Mackenzie’s memoir was published, Phillips says their relationship is nonexistent. “I will never speak to her,” she tells me. “I have nothing to say to her, because I don’t trust anything that comes out of her mouth.” As this story was being reported, though, the two got back in touch — at first acrimoniously and then, perhaps, more warmly. After Cass Elliot gets a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in October, Mackenzie sends me a photo of her and Michelle smiling together at the ceremony. “I told her I loved her and always had,” she writes. “She took my hand and said ‘I love you, too.’ I was moved.”

THE PANDEMIC TOOK an emotional toll on Phillips. She found herself missing the dinner parties she used to host, where she’d regularly make meals for 10 to 12 people. “Everything just stopped,” she explains. “I would stay in my pajamas for a couple of days at a time. I was drinking red wine with my breakfast. It got to that point.” 

Michelle and Chynna Phillips in 1987 at home in Los Angeles. Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images

Chynna introduced her to Wellbutrin — an anti-depressant her daughter describes as “the skinny, happy, horny pill” — and it rid her of the urge to drink. In fact, she hasn’t had one in six months. “I saw her in person and I almost fell over,” Chynna says. “Her eyes were crystal blue, her skin was so clear, and her smile was so bright. I don’t know if it has anything to do with her sobriety, but I will say that her phone is ringing a lot and people are wanting to hang out with her all of a sudden. I think she’s putting two and two together. ‘Oh, people like the sober Michelle a lot better than the non-sober Michelle.’”

Although Chynna is a born-again Christian and Phillips is an atheist, both tell me that it doesn’t get in the way of their relationship. Chynna has a successful YouTube series called California Preachin,’ where she calls her viewers “Bible Babes” and gets incredibly candid about her personal life — and her family’s, which Phillips isn’t crazy about. “There is a bit of a rub there,” Chynna says. “It’s a sensitive thing, because I’m entitled to tell my stories, because they’re my stories and my memory. Now, does that always match up with what my mother remembers?”

Chynna has little memory of her parents together, since they split when she was a baby — a divorce prompted in part by Chynna crawling around their Bel Air home and nearly popping one of John’s Benzedrines in her mouth. But she has vignettes of her early life here and there, like when she accompanied her mother to a glamorous Hollywood party at the Polo Lounge, or when they went to Cass Elliot’s house to play with Cass’ daughter, Owen.

She feels that Phillips stepped into motherhood naturally, despite having lost her own at such a young age. “I think that she overcompensated in some ways because she didn’t have the role model,” Chynna says. “She was terrified of motherhood, and she didn’t want to screw me up.” 

Long after the Mamas and Papas ended, Phillips continued to play a nurturing role in Owen Elliot’s life, too. On a phone call in early September, Owen mentions that it was Phillips who helped her connect with her biological father, guitarist Chuck Day, in 1986, when Owen was 19. “Michelle put a plane ticket in my hand to San Francisco and said, ‘Go meet him,’” she says. “She’s been a form of a surrogate mom to me.”

Owen has noticed how content Phillips seems these days. “I just think of Michelle in her Spanish style-home that she’s lived in for the last three decades or more, on her porch,” she says. “She’s at a really great point in her life. She’s settled. It’s a beautiful thing. She’s earned it.” 

“Mich is a survivor,” Adler adds. “She can get through anything.” 

Michelle has been single since her longtime boyfriend, plastic surgeon Steven Zax, died in 2017. She’s open to dating again; she’d also love to act again. “I wish that I could be Jean Smart and do something like Hacks, but it’s very hard for older actresses,” she says. “And I’m a lot older than Jean Smart.”

Phillips spontaneously calls me on a Saturday in early September for one final conversation. She was supposed to head to Spain soon, but pushed back the trip. Instead, she’ll head to some land she owns in Idyllwild, California, high in the San Jacinto Mountains, for some “me time.” She tells me she’s been thinking about our hours together, and what she really wants the world to know about her. “The most important thing is my children and my grandchildren,” she says. “The rest is my past.”