The death of Karen Carpenter was far too soon

We revisit the life and legend of the gone-too-soon singer.

In the basement of the Carpenter family home in New Haven, Connecticut, there were swings that hung from the rafters. A sign emblazoned “Richie’s Music Corner” sat next to a stack of alphabetised records, the strains of Nat King Cole and Perry Como the accompaniment as Richard and Karen swung the afternoons away while doing homework.

Tall, gangly Richard, the elder by three years, was fascinated with music – a love passed down from his father, Harold, who introduced his son to the classics. Richard was a piano prodigy, and his parents – who took on a car-washing business for extra cash – poured money into top tutors and the best piano their money could buy.

Karen, meanwhile, was more interested in dance and sport. She was short and stocky compared to her shy and introverted brother. When Richard got into schoolyard fights, it was Karen who would front up to stop them. “She’d take on all the roughnecks and make them leave Richard alone,” their mother, Agnes, would recall years later.

For Karen, it was clear who the star of the family was – and it wasn’t her.

“Within the family there were some interesting dynamics,” Randy Schimdt, author of Karen Carpenter biography Little Girl Blue, said in a 2010 interview.

“From the time Richard was a young child, he was figured to be the musical superstar of the family and everybody else was there to support him. They moved cross country from Connecticut to California to further his music career and Karen began playing drums to accentuate her brother’s musical career.

“There were a lot of friends who said she felt second-best in the home, that she couldn’t live up to what her brother was doing.”

Karen was 15 when the pair teamed up with bass player Wes Jacobs and formed the Richard Carpenter Trio. As the name suggests, it was Richard’s baby – he wrote jazz arrangements, and they enlisted guest singers, with a reluctant Karen occasionally lending her voice on home recordings.

But when the trio attended a 1966 audition, it was Karen who sang, impressing session bassist and record label owner Joe Osborn so much he immediately signed the 16-year-old to a contract. Agnes, it’s said, was so upset her son was overlooked that she forced the producer to sign Richard up too.

Karen Carpenter with her mother, father and brother.

“Joe thought Richard was a pain in the ass,” fellow musician Mickey Jones recounts in Little Girl Blue. “He didn’t want him around when he was working with Karen, he made Richard wait outside the studio.”

Sadly, the record label folded soon thereafter. But it did set things in motion for the future hit maker.

A new beginning

In 1967, Karen graduated from high school. At 162cm and weighing 67kg she decided she “was tired of being fat so I went on a diet”.

“I found this sweater I used to wear in high school,” she told a teen magazine in 1973. “Good Lord, I think I could get into it three times today. I don’t know how I ever got through a door.”

The Stillman diet Karen followed was a high protein, high water, low fat and carb program. And it certainly got results. She dropped 10kg quickly. At the same time the Richard Carpenter Trio were winning competitions and making waves. But when Wes quit the group, three – after a cycle through trialling new members – became two.

Brother and sister were signed to A&M records in 1969 and it was here they rebranded as the Carpenters; recording their debut album and producing it in their own unique style.

It didn’t set the world on fire, but one person took notice: Burt Bacharach.

“I thought they were very talented,” the iconic composer would reminisce. He asked them to open for him at a concert. Then Richard worked on a remake of Burt’s classic tune (They Long to Be) Close to You. “I said, ‘Whoa. That’s the same song but it’s in different clothing’,” Burt recalled. “It’s brilliant!”

Released in March 1970, Close to You flew to the top of the charts – marking the start of a brilliant music career.

Gaining the world’s attention

Hit after hit followed (We’ve Only Just Begun and Top of the World that same year alone) as did Grammy wins and sell-out shows. Karen and Richard were invited to The White House; they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.

But Karen – who felt most comfortable behind the drum kit – was struggling. As their star ascended, she was being asked to stand front of the stage and become the focal point of their shows.

“She was very reluctant,” former manager Sherwin Bash would reveal.

“The drums were a kind of security blanket for her. This was a chubby young lady who could hide some of that chubbiness behind the drums … The girl vocalist out front was a role that she wanted to achieve, but she was insecure about getting out there. She wasn’t sure she was slim enough, svelte enough, pretty enough, or any of those things.”

Karen, say friends, would analyse photos of herself on stage in disgust. And as 1973 dawned, she began dieting in earnest again – this time doing it her own way.

Food was pushed around her plate, to disguise her lack of consumption. She added lemon to everything for its natural diuretic effect. She began regularly using laxatives. She hired a personal trainer and bought a hip cycle, which she used every morning before rising.

At first, everyone told her how great she looked. “Karen had never had attention before, so she liked it,” her boyfriend at the time, Terry Ellis, would comment – adding that it was her mother Agnes’ approval that particularly overjoyed Karen.

“She was considered by her mother to be Richard’s back-up and that’s something she never really escaped,” biographer Randy explained, claiming that Agnes regularly inserted herself into the Carpenters’ business dealings to ensure her son got the attention she believed he deserved.

Still, as time went on, Karen’s increasingly frail frame caused concern for her inner circle.

“We began to notice quite a bit of weight loss and I talked to Karen about this,” Richard admitted in an interview with Entertainment Tonight in 1983.

“At first, of course, I was assured it would reach a certain point and then taper off, but it went right past it.”

She dropped to 50kg. But she wasn’t done yet. By 1975 another 10 kilos had disappeared.

Leading up to her death, Karen Carpenter's brother was concerned.

“Between each show she was lying down, yet she would be able to pick herself up in time for that show and walk out, even though there was a collective gasp from the audience because she looked thin as hell,” Richard recalled. Later, they would cancel their final shows. Karen reluctantly checked herself into Cedars-Sinai for treatment, lasting just five days in the facility.

A secret battle

The term “anorexia nervosa” had been coined late in the 19th century. But it wasn’t until psychoanalyst Hilde Bruch published a book about the condition in 1978 that people outside of the medical profession began hearing more about it.

And as music critics began commenting on her frail appearance, outside of trying to cover Karen up with layers of clothes onstage, nobody close to Karen knew how to deal with the problem. At this point, she wasn’t the only one struggling. In 1971 Richard had begun taking Quaaludes – given to him by Agnes – to help him sleep on tour. Occasional use became an addiction and he was increasingly unreliable as a result. As each sibling was locked into their own battles, the hits began to dry up – the magic formula waning. At the end of 1978 they were preparing to release The Carpenters: A Christmas Portrait, but Richard had decided he’d had enough.

Refusing to get on the plane for a planned UK performance, Richard instead checked himself into rehab, then took a year-long hiatus.

And so Karen began to flirt with the idea of recording her own album, under her own name. Introduced to producer Phil Ramone in 1979, plans were set. Richard wasn’t happy, but ultimately gave his blessing adding: “Do me one favour. Do NOT do disco.”

For once his little sister didn’t listen and obey. Yet after a year of recording, the final product – infused with the disco sounds she adored – was rejected by the studio and shelved. It devastated Karen, sending her into another cycle of self-loathing that seemed to lift when she met Tom Burris.

A knight in rusty armour

Ten years her senior, Tom presented a problem – he was married. Still, that didn’t stop him from proposing two months after the pair met in 1980. Rushing through his divorce, the wedding date was set for August 31 that same year and invitations were sent.

It was only then that Karen discovered what, for her, proved a far bigger problem than a not-yet- ex-wife: Tom had undergone a vasectomy. Karen longed for children. She couldn’t believe her husband-to-be knew this, yet had failed to tell her.

Distraught, she told Agnes she wanted to call off the wedding. But with press on the way as well as friends, family and a star-studded wedding guest list, “you made your bed, Karen,” a stone-faced Agnes told her daughter. “Now you’ll have to lay in it.”

Karen Carpenter and her husband Tom.

Turns out, it wasn’t the only fact Tom had omitted. He’d presented himself as wealthy, but Karen was paying for everything. He was impatient and bad-tempered, something his wife feared would turn physically violent.

He was doing something his wife enjoyed, though; and that was getting her prescriptions for thyroid medication – something to speed up her metabolism – in his own name. And these pills were helping her continue to lose weight she could ill afford to keep dropping. Even so, she filed for divorce in 1981, the marriage having taken a huge toll on her already shaky self-esteem.

“I will never understand what she saw in her eyes through the mirror,” her friend Dionne Warwick would say later of Karen’s opinion of herself.

With Richard finishing treatment, the brother and sister duo reunited, recording new album Made in America. It was while doing publicity for this album that Karen was forced – for the first time – to answer the question she’d been dodging.

Karen Carpenter hidden behind a large coat so that people could not see her body.

In October 1981, the pair appeared on BBC Nationwide in the UK. Host Sue Lawley questioned that long ago visit to Cedars-Sinai.

“There were rumours that you’ve been suffering from the slimmers disease, from anorexia nervosa, is that right?”, Sue asked a clearly rattled Karen.

“No, I was just pooped,” Karen retorted, “I was tired out.”

The final act

Yet as 1982 dawned, the toll the disease was having on the singer was affecting more than just her weight – which had dropped to a terrifying 35kg. She was having constant dizzy spells and told friends her heart was “beating funny”.

In September, she finally admitted herself to hospital. Hooked up to an intravenous drip she regained 14 kilos. Convinced she’d beaten the disease, she checked out eight weeks later.

Her weight would remain relatively stable but the damage had been done. On February 4, 1983, Karen’s mother Agnes made the unthinkable discovery – her daughter was lying dead on the floor of her bedroom. The autopsy report listed cause of death as “emetine cardiotoxicity due to or as a consequence of anorexia nervosa”. Karen was just 32 years old. In the months after her passing, Richard spoke to the press about their last meeting 10 days before she died. He’d been concerned, he admitted, whilst having no clue about what was to come.

“Her eyes – she had these marvellous big brown eyes – and there was just no life in them,” he said. “And we’re not a big touchy-feely, huggy type of family but I told Karen that the only reason I brought this up was that I was concerned, that she doesn’t look well to me and because I loved her.”

Karen’s tragic passing would give a public face to anorexia, her astonishing voice and talent often forgotten in the aftermath. But with A Kind of Hush: The Magic of Karen Carpenter which toured nationally in April, we were once again able to celebrate the extraordinary magic of her songs.

Visit butterfly.org.au for anorexia support

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