Carpenter, Karen (1950–1983)

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Carpenter, Karen (1950–1983)

American pop singer, known for her pure voice, whose death at age 32 helped bring anorexia nervosa to national consciousness. Born in East Haven, Connecticut, on March 2, 1950; died of heart failure brought about by anorexia nervosa on February 4, 1983; daughter of Harold Bertram Carpenter (a pressman) and Agnes Reuwer (Tatum) Carpenter; sister of Richard Carpenter (1946—); married Tom Burris (a real-estate developer), on August 31, 1980 (separated).

Selected singles:

"Close to You," "We've Only Just Begun," "Top of the World," "Yesterday Once More," "Rainy Days and Mondays," "I Need to be in Love," "Hurting Each Other," "Goodbye to Love," "Solitaire," "I Won't Last a Day without You," and "Please Mr Postman."


Ticket to Ride; A Song for You (1972, featuring "Hurting Each Other," "It's Going to Take Some Time," "I Won't Last a Day without You,""Goodbye to Love," "Top of the World"); The Now and Then Album (1973, "Yesterday Once More," "Da Doo Ron Ron," "One Fine Day," "Sing," "This Masquerade," "Jambalaya," "I Can't Make Music"); Horizon (June 1975, "I Can Dream, Can't I," "Desperado," "Solitaire," "Only Yesterday," "[I'm Caught between] Goodbye and I Love You," "Aurora," and "Eventide"); A Kind of Hush (1976, "I Need to be in Love," "Sandy," "One More Time," "Breaking Up is Hard to Do"); Passage (1977, "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft," "All You Get from Love is a Love Song," "I Just Fall in Love Again," "Sweet Sweet Smile"); Voice of the Heart (released posthumously, "Your Baby Doesn't Love You Anymore," "Now," "Ordinary Fool," "Look to Your Dreams").

"There must be … for every woman a correct weight, which cannot be discovered with reference to a weight chart or to any statistical norm," writes author Kim Chernin . "If we should evolve an aesthetic for women that was appropriate to women it would reflect this diversity, would conceive, indeed celebrate and even love, slenderness in a woman intended by nature to be slim, and love the rounded cheeks of another, the plump arms, broad shoulders, [large] hips, full thighs … of a woman made that way according to her nature." But Madison Avenue has a slim definition of what is beautiful in a woman, and Karen Carpenter hated her hips. On February 4, 1983, she died of heart failure brought about by anorexia nervosa. "With her life and death," notes Chernin, "a generation of young women found their exemplar, the representative figure who spoke symbolically to their lives."

She was born 32 years earlier, on March 2, 1950, in East Haven, Connecticut, the daughter of Harold and Agnes Reuwer Carpenter . Her brother Richard, three years older, was the first to fall under the spell of music, while Karen was more interested in baseball, basketball, badminton, ballet and tap dancing lessons. But she worshipped her brother: "I idolized him so much and we were so close … that if he listened to music, I did. I did everything he did. … Every record we've ever listened to is embedded in my mind." She grew up to the eclectic sounds of Perry Como, Harry James, Frankie Laine, Theresa Brewer , Al Jolson, Spike Jones, Les Paul and Mary Ford , the Crew Cuts, and Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto. Throughout their youth, Karen and Richard sang along with records in their basement, then analyzed the arrangements.

By 13, Richard was studying piano at the Yale Music School. Karen put down the accordion and flute after a few lessons and continued with outdoor pursuits. Her brother began forming small bands, picking up work. At 16, he was featured on a record, though it was not sold nationally. Karen sat in on basement practice sessions, poised behind the drummer, watching intensely. As she entered puberty, her body began to change; now slightly chubby, she could be hurt by childish teasing. Recalled a childhood friend: "I think she always felt she was unattractive. Especially when she became a woman she had large hips. No matter how thin she got on top, her hips were always big."

In June 1963, in an effort to avoid the snow and further Richard's career, the family moved to the suburb of Downey, on the fringe of Orange County, California. Their father Harold got a job as a pressman, while their mother Agnes worked in the stockroom at North American Aviation. The money was tight, but the family was thrifty. Hardly eager students, Karen and Richard joined the band to avoid physical education classes at Downey High School. Though Karen was handed a glockenspiel, she surprised her parents with a request for a set of drums. This was no passing fad. "When I went to high school," she said, "I had no idea that I could do a blasted thing. I just kinda hung around and watched [Richard] be good." She taught herself the beat of Joe Morello who drummed for Dave Brubeck; she also followed the rhythms of Ringo Starr. Soon hooked, she practiced before and after school, getting better and better. When Richard began attending California State, Long Beach, he formed The Richard Carpenter Trio with Karen on drums and Wes Jacobs on bass. Though a female singing drummer was rare, Karen also began to do vocals.

By 1966, they were taking on regular weekend club work, playing old-style traditional pop. Karen was not enamored of her voice and preferred thinking of herself as a drummer. It was Richard who believed in her potential as a singer and convinced her to take instruction. In the fall of 1967, she joined him at Cal State, where both studied for degrees in music.

The turning point had come in May 1966, while attending a friend's audition for a small recording label named Magic Lamp. Before the session was over, Karen and Richard were also asked to audition. Karen, who had just turned 16, "was nervous as hell," said Richard. "When I heard the playback in the booth I just flipped because Karen's voice had recorded so well. When I heard it come out of those speakers, I thought: 'My God!' She had her sound." They began hanging out at the studio, experimenting, analyzing the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" and the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," and learning how to stack vocal parts on a four-track. Though the small label released a single with Karen as a solo, the recording company folded the following year, and the 500 records pressed are now collector's items.

On June 24, 1966, The Richard Carpenter Trio made the finals of the prestigious "Battle of the Bands" at the Hollywood Bowl, taking three awards. Richard, who was now experimenting with a "choral approach to pop," teamed up with fellow student and lyricist John Bettis. The twosome would compose hit after hit for the next 12 years. Karen, still struggling with baby fat (she weighed 145), preferred singing from her position behind the drums. With their career looming, she went on a Stillman water diet prescribed by a doctor. Though she hated it, she stuck to it rigidly. Losing 25 pounds in six months, she remained at her new weight, 120, from 1967 to 1973. "She kept trying to get rid of the hips," said her then boyfriend Gary Sims, a guitarist who had joined the band along with several others. The new group, called Spectrum, quickly sank. Richard began to believe that success was to be found in a simple duo, he and Karen, calling themselves Carpenters, minus the The.

But they could not get a recording contract. Though not yet aware, Karen was fighting her image on two fronts: weight and the vogue of the day. This Age of Aquarius—a time of Beatle haircuts, Haight-Ashbury fashion, and a hippie drug culture—appeared less than accommodating to the old-fashioned love songs of the non-smoking, non-drinking, square-looking Carpenters. Then a friend of a friend managed to put one of their tapes into the hands of Herb Alpert of Tijuana Brass fame, who was founder and one-half of the operation of A&M records—the house of Joe Cocker, Cat Stevens, the Sandpipers, and Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick .

Alpert put on their tape in early 1969, while sitting in his garden in Lake Arrowhead: "I remember staring up at the speakers thinking Patti Page 's voice was in my lap," said Alpert. "It had so much presence." He was stunned by the soulful, haunting, purity of voice. Karen had always been struck by the clarity of Page, so had Alpert. Taken with Karen's voice, the harmonies, and Richard's arrangements, Alpert offered them a contract. With 19-year-old Karen underage, and her parents doing the signing, the Carpenters quit college and joined A&M on April 22, 1969. Alpert's associates thought he had gone mad.

The Carpenters' first album, Offering, was released on October 9, 1969, but the marketing people at A&M didn't know how to package this staid, brother-sister act in the same month that hundreds of thousands throughout the nation were participating in the first Moratorium Day to protest the Vietnam War and 35 black coeds seized control of the school-administration office at Vassar. Though the album included a slower version of "Ticket to Ride," which sold modestly as a single, its respectable but hardly earth-shattering sales fueled the naysayers at A&M. Convinced that their superb musicianship and "seductive delicacy" would find an audience, Alpert gave them another chance. Their next single, a Hal David-Burt Bacharach reject called "Close to You," was recorded three times before Richard was satisfied with the sound. It made its debut at number 56 on the Billboard charts; by July 22, 1970, it was number one and would quickly sell one million copies. Three months later, "We've Only Just Begun" by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols was released, and the single went gold. An album featuring both hits sold 5 million copies and grabbed six Grammy nominations, including Record of the Year and Album of the Year. Karen and Richard won Grammys as Best New Artist and Best Contemporary Vocal Group. In January 1971, "For All We Know" ("Love, look at the two of us/strangers in many ways"), from the movie Lovers and Other Strangers, was released, becoming their third million-selling record.

The bashful 20-year-old Karen, who still considered herself a drummer who sang, was now in the limelight. When Richard demanded that she come out from behind the drums, they reached a compromise: for the love songs, center stage; for the novelty songs, behind the drums. "Pulling her out from behind the drums was a big deal, very hard for Karen to do," said John Bettis. "Karen's whole view of show business grew up with Richard standing right there beside her." As the critics began to take potshots at the "tomboy" who was most comfortable in T-shirts and jeans, Karen went shopping for dresses and a new image.

In an age when it was uncool to identify with the projected innocence of the Carpenters, the duo would often be critiqued on their image rather than their music. They were portrayed as goody two shoes, said Karen, "and because we came out in the middle of the hard-rock things, we didn't dress funny, and we smiled, we ended up with titles like 'Vitamin-swallowing, Colgate-smiling, bland Middle America.' … They never touched our music. We would get critics reviewing our concerts, they'd review the AUDIENCE."

Released in 1972, A Song for You album contained the hit single "Top of the World." Next came "Rainy Days and Mondays" (another Williams-Nichols song), which was their fourth million seller, followed by "Superstar" (by Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett ), which also went gold. Yet, while their recordings sold and won Grammys, the Carpenters remained objects of derision. "The criticism of us was divisive," said Richard, "making it appear like two camps. People who liked us were cast as having no musical sophistication or any idea about what was hip. They could not appreciate Led Zeppelin and the Carpenters, and that was wrong. Not so. If someone really likes music, they can tell something done well in any genre."

Karen Carpenter was a perfectionist, with a demanding yardstick, who never measured up to her own expectations. Convinced that she owed her success to her brother, she was bothered that the spotlight was on her and that she got all the credit. She bemoaned her appearance. Because she was so unsure of herself, she was shattered when critics ignored all the work they poured into their music and turned to her looks. "Take hairdo's," wrote one, "Karen, who never really had one before, has added a few curls and looks positively done up. Not gorgeous, but at least she's trying." Her voice, said Henry Mancini, was "the manifestation of everything within her. Maybe if she had more self-esteem, it wouldn't have been the same voice."

The next five years (1970–75) were spent on grueling road tours—U.S., Europe, Japan, Australia. Though Karen was a caring friend and played the mother on tour, the Carpenters were both perfectionists and expected the best out of themselves and the band. It was a lonely time. They seldom stayed anywhere at length, eroding the potential for long-term romances. In February 1975, she would meet Terry Ellis, the British recording executive who had founded Chrysalis with Chris Wright. She and Ellis began to live together, but the living arrangements were over quickly, and Karen remained forever saddened by the loss. She would also maintain a brief relationship with Tom Bahler, co-producer of The Wiz (with Quincy Jones) who would write "She's Out of My Life," a hit for Michael Jackson in 1980.

Viewing replays of herself in concert during August 1973, Karen was appalled by her appearance. She hired a personal workout doctor, bought a "hip cycle," and went on a high carbohydrate diet. Rather than drop weight, she gained muscle and talked of her fleshy arms, her thick butt. She hated her "hourglass" figure and sought to "do something" to control her body. By 1974, she had lost some weight, but her family began to notice that dieting had become an obsession. Her food portions were tiny; she would stab at dressing-less salads and make soup with bouillon cubes, cutting them in half. Down to 115 pounds, she wanted to weigh 105. In 1975, anorexia nervosa was still a phrase in the clinic stage; the public was unaware of the insidious disease.

During their 1975 tour, audiences gasped as she came on stage. She was now down to 80 pounds. Though she was exhausted between shows, her voice was still surprisingly strong. But the singer who had been known for her humor was now easily upset and caught every bug in sight. She became too ill to finish the tour. Still, she could not slow down. "I go to bed at night with a pad by the bed," said Karen, "and the minute I lie down it's the only quiet time of the day. My mind starts going. 'This has gotta be done; you've gotta call this person.' I find myself with a flashlight in bed writing down about fifty things that have to be done by ten o'clock next morning. … It's going, going, GO." The new album, Horizon, released in June 1975, sapped more of their energy.

Though it was hard for her, in late 1976 Karen moved out of her parents' house, despite her mother's protests, and bought a condo in Century City. She was 27 years old. But she returned to Downey two or three times a week with an endless need to please her parents and her brother. When her parents visited her, they would take her across the street to Hamburger Hamlet, where her mother would demand that she order something substantial to eat. Karen would obey, but she had learned the methods common to an anorexic, pushing food under a lettuce leaf, slipping meat into her purse, or buttering a roll for an inordinate amount of time, only to take a small bite. They began to notice that her refrigerator was invariably empty. "No milk, no bread, nothing," her secretary Evelyn Wallace told biographer Ray Coleman. "If I'd have had to live there, I'd have starved to death." Agnes Carpenter denied that her daughter was deeply troubled and saw Karen's lack of eating as symptomatic of a personality trait she recognized in herself—stubbornness.

Richard was popping Quaaludes, prescribed by his doctor because he was too revved to sleep. By late 1978, he was taking 25 a day and could barely play the piano with his shaking hands; his weight dropped to 139. Because of his panic attacks and obvious addiction, the duo had to end their live performances at the MGM Grand a week early. It was to be their last concert.

Meanwhile, the sales of their records began to taper off. Before the Horizon album, all their records had gone platinum; Horizon only went gold. Their next, A Kind of Hush, was not up to Richard's usual standards, except for Karen's rendition of "I Need to be in Love." Though it also went gold, their career was beginning to slide. They signed with master agent Jerry Weintraub, whose wife, singer Jane Morgan , was a fan. Morgan, who had recorded the 1950 hits "Fascination" and "The Day the Rain Came Down," regarded Karen as a superb vocalist. On December 8, 1976, with the push of Weintraub, the Carpenters aired their first TV special to good ratings. Karen had gone from a size 14 to a size 2; Weintraub began calling her "a Biafra child."

On January 10, 1979, Richard flew to Topeka, Kansas, to seek treatment in the chemical dependency unit at the Menninger clinic. When his sister visited, he begged her to face up to her own disease. Karen said she'd think about it. Richard returned home with his addiction under control. "Doing something out of the family" became important for Karen, said her close friend Olivia Newton-John , "a show of strength, of independence." On May 1, 1979, Karen flew to New York to make her solo album, but the producer was wrong for her needs, and the album would eventually be scrapped. That same year, Richard bullied her into seeking help. Karen went to an internist in Beverly Hills, gained weight to 106 pounds, "and got some color back into her cheeks," he said. Then, exhibiting her strong will, she quit and conned the doctor into telling her family she was not anorexic.

Within two months of meeting Tom Burris, a divorced real-estate developer nine years her senior with an 18-year-old son, Karen was engaged. They married in 1980. She clearly wanted children, but after 15 months the marriage was pretty much over, reaffirming her long held belief that she had traded in marriage and motherhood for success. She would die six hours before an appointment with her lawyer to sign divorce papers.

By 1981, Karen Carpenter's relentless battle with her body was in its seventh year. Starting with continual dieting from mid-1974, she was, by 1978, sometimes packing only 79 pounds on her 5′4″ frame. She brushed friends' comments off, saying she was in control and that the weight loss was actually caused by a gastrointestinal problem that caused colitis. In reality, she was disappearing after meals to the bathroom, was taking 80 to 90 laxative tablets a night, and was ingesting 10 thyroid pills a day to race her heart and burn more calories. The only person she turned to was Cherry Boone O'Neill, daughter of singer Pat Boone. Known to have conquered anorexia, Cherry had written the bestseller Starving for Attention and was happily married by the time Karen came to her. Boone was emphatic: see a specialist.

In November 1981, Carpenter moved to New York. She lived there for a year, seeing specialist Steven Levenkron, author of The Best Little Girl in the World, five days a week. He later spoke of the desperateness of her situation: anorexics "do lots of terrible things to themselves, but this was unique. Ten thyroid pills would speed up her metabolic rate so that her heart was beating 120 to 150 beats a minute. You run the heart at that rate while you're emaciated, and you wear out that little muscle. So now I had somebody who had been emaciated for six or seven years, worked very hard doing singing tours, and had taken enormous quantities of laxatives and God knows how many bottles of thyroid, all of which cause enormous cardiac stress. So she had pushed herself to the physical limits."

Until a visit to her aunt's house in Connecticut, Karen had taken care to avoid mirrors. On these sojourns from New York, reports Coleman, she slept "in her cousin's pretty bedroom, which had a long mirror on the back of the door. Stepping out of the shower, Karen slumped into a chair in her aunt's bedroom next door—and wept. She had caught sight of her pathetic frame in that mirror and realized just how thin she had become." Said Levenkron, "Here was a lovely person who didn't want to die but was unstoppable. She would sit here and say, 'Why do I have this horrible illness? I do love my life, I love my career, I love my family—why do I have this?'"

After an eight-week stay in a New York hospital, where she was fed by a tube, Karen gained weight and was released on November 8, 1982. That Thanksgiving, having gained a total of 30 pounds, she quit treatment against Levenkron's advice and left for home. She now weighed 108. Within weeks, Richard and her friends noticed that the problem was unchanged. Karen's mother, however, continued to believe that her stubborn daughter was just not using common sense.

Karen continued to return home to Downey weekly, staying the night. On the evening of February 3, 1983, she arrived there intending to shop locally for a washing machine the following morning. That night, when she went out to dinner with her parents, they were amazed at her appetite, though they noticed she was tired. The next morning, they found her dead, lying on the floor of the wardrobe closet of her brother's room where she had spent the night. The autopsy report stated pulmonary edema (heart failure) brought on by emetine cardiotoxicity (emetine poisoning caused by using ipecac syrup to induce vomiting). Neither her family, experts, nor her biographer saw any proof of Karen taking ipecac. She was buried in a mausoleum in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Cypress, California.

Karen Carpenter was the first celebrity to die of the effects of anorexia nervosa. As of 1995, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, founded in 1976, estimated that eight million people suffered from eating disorders in the United States, 95% of them women, 6% of the serious cases were fatal. Gymnasts, such as Cathy Rigby , are especially susceptible, along with performers like actress Tracey Gold . Striking primarily females between the ages 18 and mid-20s, it can affect rich and poor, young and old, black and white. It can also affect males. In England, by the end of the 20th century, over 60,000 were battling the disease, including Diana Spencer , Princess of Wales . Said model Christine Alt about her teen years, "I remember looking at Karen Carpenter's picture in People and thinking: 'God, how lucky she was because she died thin.'"

While striving endlessly to please her brother, her family, her listeners, Karen Carpenter used her body as a means of exercising control over her own life. Her death at age 32 silenced one of the most talented singers of her generation. "Twenty years later," writes Coleman, "while many of the artists who jeered at them have burned out, their music has grown in stature. … Their CD sales are booming. … Karen and Richard Carpenter's craft is now admired openly—particularly by a young audience that even considers it 'cool' to admit it, pointing out the beauty of that voice and the quality of those songs and arrangements. If they were not particularly timely when they began, [they] have confirmed their appeal as timeless."


Chernin, Kim. The Hungry Self: Women, Eating, and Identity. NY: Harper and Row, 1986.

——. The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness. NY: Harper and Row, 1981.

Coleman, Ray. The Carpenters: The Untold Story. NY: HarperCollins, 1994.

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Carpenter, Karen (1950–1983)

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