Friday, December 10, 2010

Karen Carpenter

Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen CarpenterThere seemed to be two sides to Karen Carpenter’s story.   Both play out in the book Little Girl Blue.  She admits to how lucky she was to be able to sing and perform for a living.  It brought her money and adoration from fans. She loved playing the drums and she loved performing.  On the other hand, according to the accounts in this book, in her mother’s eyes she was always second fiddle to her brother Richard.  The family moved heaven and earth so that Richard could have a music career.  The mother thought that relocating to Los Angeles from New Haven, CT would further Richard’s career.  This may have worked, but it also put the spotlight on Karen, something her mother Agnes would have never predicted.  Towards the end of Karen’s life, she has a meeting with her therapist, mother, father and brother.  Her mother was unable to tell Karen she loves her. 

I read this book back to back with Tatum O’Neal’s A Paper Life, another story of parenting gone awry. (In an ironic note, Karen’s mother’s maiden name is Tatum.  O’Neal was named after jazz musician Art Tatum.)  In Tatum’s case, both parents turn to either/or drugs and alcohol, essentially leaving the children to raise themselves.  In Karen’s story, her parents are very present. Her mother would probably be called a helicopter mom today.  She rules her kids.  No one can make a move without her.  When the duo leaves the house (Karen was already 26 at this point), they both feel guilty.  Ironically Karen spent the last night of her life in Richard’s old bedroom in her parent’s house, although she had her own home. 

At its core, this book is really about the love between brother and sister that was maybe too deep for them to address what was going on around them.  Karen worshipped Richard and felt guilty about recording her solo record. She did it while Richard was in rehab. I remember when she was recording that record.  She spent time in New York.  Phil Ramone produced the album and all I kept thinking was why is Karen Carpenter doing a disco record?  Richard and A&M hated it. It must have felt like a blow to the head. She shelved it.   To listen to that record now, it has production undertones of disco but it isn’t a pull out all the stops disco record.  It was finally released posthumously in 1996, the way Karen had approved it.  Some of the best parts of this book are the discussions with Ramone, the musicians who played on those sessions and how the record came together.  Karen used some of her own money.  Ramone recruited Billy Joel’s band, including drummer Liberty DeVitto, for most of the album.  DeVitto is candid about falling in love with Karen during this time, but he never acted on it. He was married and had no idea how Karen felt about him. 

She stayed in touch with old friends from her neighborhood in New Haven.  She had solid girlfriends in Los Angeles and New York, including Olivia Newton-John and Phil Ramone’s wife Itchy Ramone.  She let Richard handle the Carpenters' career.  At one point she dated Terry Ellis, artist manager and co-founder of Chrysalis Music.  He speaks lovingly of Karen (just about everyone in this book speaks highly of her, which is probably why it was so hard to confront her about her illness).  Ellis was interim manager for the band.  Not wanting to get too involved, he suggested Karen acknowledge her audience and play to them.  He saw their live show and couldn’t believe how dreadful it was.  Richard felt nobody noticed him, although he was the one arranging the songs and making sure every note was played properly.  Their show was known for it’s precise recreation of the albums.  Ellis suggested Richard be introduced before Karen and take his place as the conductor.  Both suggestions greatly improved a stiff live show. 

The saddest part of this story is that Karen basically killed herself, although I’m sure she didn’t think she was doing that. She was trying to control a situation in her life. She had a lousy marriage, which was scheduled to end on the day she died (she never made it to the lawyer’s to sign the papers).  She controlled it by drinking ipecac syrup, which is what used to be given to kids who swallowed poison.  It’s not only a vomit inducer, but it also weakens the heart muscle.  Between that and the medicine she was taking to accelerate her thyroid, there is no way her body could stand it. 

I was fascinated by Karen’s voice. I really took notice when I heard their Christmas record. When they were a viable band, it was hard for me to get past their dated clothes and strange haircuts.  The music was sappy.  Richard Carpenter’s arrangements were exceptional, just not my cup of tea.   It’s easy to speculate on what would have happened if Karen got better before her body shut down.  I’d bet that she would be considered one of the premier singers today and would have been able to sustain a long career. 


  1. Anonymous3:01 PM

    This seems like the classic cop out of blame the Mother. I had anorexia the same time Karen struggled with it and my Mother is a very loving,kind,human being. I really think the disease is more complex then just a relationship issue.

  2. Lorna Byrne5:11 PM

    Really enjoyed that blog post - thank you. I haven't bought the book yet but my birthday is in January and I think I'll either ask someone to get it for me as a present, or buy it as a gift to myself.

  3. Anonymous1:34 PM

    Clearly anorexia is complex and has many causes. Blaming Karen's anorexia on someone else (her strict mother, her brother, her horrible husband, etc.) is just wrong. As an adult, it was up to her to find a way to return to normal eating. It was remarkable how determined she was to keep losing weight no matter how skeletal she got! She did all the usual anorectic tricks, but also added abuse by syrup of ipecac and thyroid med!!! I wonder where she heard about using these things? I've been on thyroid most of my life, and it is a prescription-only medication! Even a small amount of extra thyroid hormone could race the heart dangerously. With all she had going for her, and all the money she had to be able to enjoy the best in life, I don't know how she could have constantly courted death.