Post Mortem April 2007

The Other Papa

Denny Doherty (1940–2007)

“Zal and Denny workin’ for a penny, tryin’ to get a fish on the line.” (Zal Yanovsky was the Halifax Three’s, er, fourth member, which is the kind of careless overmanning that does, indeed, capture the authentic spirit of the Nova Scotian economy.)

Aside from a passing reference to Denny giving Cass “love bumps,” “Creeque Alley” was silent on the group’s sexual dynamics. John was married to Michelle, who began an affair with Denny. But hey, it’s showbiz, and they got a song out of that, too: “I Saw Her Again.” It was, however, a double betrayal: Cass had been sweet on Denny from the beginning, but he “couldn’t deal with the weight” and steered clear. “You can have any man in the world,” she told Michelle. “Why take the one man I love?” Unlike the four-man Halifax Three, in this combo three was a company, four a crowd. “It’s easy to find boyfriends,” said Cass. “I buy them a motorcycle, a leather suit, and put them in acting school.” Sometimes the price tag was lower. “There were a couple of good-looking guys that were schtupping Cass,” recalled Denny Bruce, drummer with the Mothers (no relation to the Mamas). “They were basically there for her drugs.”

California schtuppin’ on such a winter’s day. Michelle had a one-night stand with Roman Polanski, and for a while the director figured it was John Phillips who’d murdered Sharon Tate to get even. He threatened John with a meat cleaver and checked his car for blood and hair samples. John took it in stride. He was “romantically linked” (if that’s the expression) with everyone from Mia Farrow to Princess Margaret. Denny did OK in his wake: One would be only mildly surprised to hear he’d got stuck with the queen while stringing along on a double date. But there were lots of non­celebrity chicks as well. John got a song out of that, too: “Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon).” “They’d wander the hills calling out names,” Doherty remembered. “‘We have a cake for you, Denny!’”

But eventually someone leaves your cake out in the rain, and you’ll never find that recipe again: Denny and John discovered Michelle was having an affair with Gene from the Byrds and decided that was beyond the pale. “They sent me a very rude little letter, telling me my services would no longer be needed,” she said. “I was completely isolated. I had been fired by my husband, my lover, and my best friend. And my attorney.”

Back in Halifax, Denny’s dad had never been impressed by the California dreamin’. “Get yourself a trade,” he told his son, when junior pointed out how well he was doing in the Billboard Top 40. “Something you can put in your arse pocket.” When the group fell apart in 1968, Denny discovered his arse pocket was empty. The money had gone. He was married to a gal from the chorus of his flop New York theater debut and living in a two-room dump in Hell’s Kitchen when he remembered he still owned a house in Nova Scotia. So he came home.

“There are no second acts in American lives,” said Scott Fitzgerald, but there are if you’re willing to move to Canada: Back north, Denny Doherty ended his working days as the beloved harbormaster on the children’s TV show Theodore Tugboat, which is to Thomas the Tank Engine as the Halifax Three was to the Kingston Trio. It was filmed in his old school. “People say to me, ‘Your life is so exciting Yeah, I’m back in my grade-five classroom playing with tub toys.”

There was one bit of unfinished business. As the Mamas and the Papas were falling apart, Cass proposed to Denny. He turned her down. On July 29, 1974, in London, after a two-week run at the Palladium, she died of a heart attack. She was the talent in the group, and posterity recalls her as a ham-sandwich joke. Denny thought that was wrong. In the 1990s, he wrote a revue about the Mamas and the Papas, the usual feeble opportunist jukebox retrospective, but distinguished by his tenderness for the fat girl he let get away. He took the show’s title not from one of the group’s hits but from Mama Cass’s first big smash, the old standard “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” Onstage, the emotional peak of the evening came when he sang the song to her: “Stars fading but I linger on, dear / Still craving your kiss.”

Not the woozy flower-power narcissism of John Phillips but a straightforward heartfelt sentiment by Gus Kahn, the old-time Tin Pan Alleyman who wrote “It Had to Be You” and “Makin’ Whoopee.” Denny and Cass never did make whoopee, but in his final years, widowed, weathered, balding, and paunchy, he’d concede that turning her down was the great mistake of his life.

The ’60s got old so fast. Cass, Denny, and John are all dead, and so are Zal and a bunch of the other supporting players. All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray, and the California dream fades to a distant blur.

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Mark Steyn is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and other publications. He is the author of America Alone (2006).

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