Karen Carpenter, half of the Grammy-winning ’70s duo the Carpenters and wholly one of the greatest vocalists of all time, died 40 years ago today at age 32.
The lead vocalist and superstar drummer — alongside her brother, Richard, who played piano and sang backup vocals — had 12 Top 10 hits in a span of five years. The “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “(They Long to Be) Close to You” singers won three Grammys, including Best Contemporary Vocal Performance by a Duo and Best New Artist of the Year. They had their own TV variety show, Make Your Own Kind of Music, drawing A-list guest stars. Then-President Richard Nixon declared them “young America at its best.” The pair’s catchy, easy-listening tunes made them among the best-selling music artists of that time — and of all time. To date, more than 100 million Carpenters records have sold worldwide.
Perhaps Karen’s greater legacy is that — following her Feb. 4, 1983 death after suffering heart failure due to anorexia — the songbird with the angelic voice and standout drumming skills put a public face on the eating disorder from which she quietly suffered for years. Her death prompted widespread media coverage of anorexia for the first time. It became the catalyst for education and research — as well as treatment facilities focusing just on eating disorders.
“A lot of people see her as being one of the greatest singers of the century,” Randy L. Schmidt, author of Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter and screenwriter of the new documentary Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “Her voice is instantly recognizable, like [Frank] Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald. Sometimes she was relegated to just being [seen as] a ’70s pop singer. But Karen’s is a voice that could have been a hit at any decade. She could have sung anything and been the best of the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s [or whatever era]. That voice would have found a place. That’s what’s so unique about her and separates her from a lot of people who were recording at the same time as her.”
However, “she was a drummer first and considered herself a drummer who just happened to sing, which is crazy to think about because she was incredibly talented as a vocalist,” he continues. “She got her start as a jazz drummer, and that’s what she wanted to do. The voice was really an accident. She just accidentally had this voice that needed no training — just a refining. She was only 15, 16 when the voice started to emerge. But by the time she was 21, she recorded ‘Close to You’ — and and that was the first No. 1, of course. So she really grew up in in the spotlight in that way.”
To give a modern comparison of her talent and star status, Schmidt says “maybe Billie Eilish.” For one, there’s “a similarity with the dark, moody and melancholy kind of voice.” Plus, “the relationship with her brother is also really an interesting parallel,” as Eilish collaborates with her brother Finneas O’Connell. “A different type of music completely, a different generation, but similar in a lot of ways, [including] the brother sort of in the background surrounding the voice with his arrangements.”
Karen grew up “idolizing” her older brother, especially because he was “seen as this musical prodigy growing up,” Schmidt says. While she was outgoing, he was the more quiet and reserved one of the pair. She had a complicated relationship with her mother, Agnes, who her friends later told the New York Times “unabashedly favored Richard.”
While “Close to You” came out in 1970 and she quickly became the most famous singer of the era, she continued living at home. When she finally did move out in 1974, her first apartment was decorated with stuffed animals and Disney memorabilia. She began trying to carve out her own identity — and her own goals, including a solo career. In 1979, while Richard was in treatment for a Quaaludes addiction, she took the opportunity to recorded a solo album with producer Phil Ramone. The project ended up taking longer than expected and cost more — and it was not well-received by Richard or their record label. Her dream project was shelved and she felt back into her role as being one of the Carpenters.
By then, the mega-success of the Carpenters slowed. In addition to softer record sales, the Times noted they had become a punchline for David Letterman in the early ’80s and a trade paper mistakenly referred to them as “Richard and Linda.” Karen, still trying to carve her own way, married real-estate developer Thomas James Burris in August 1980, after meeting him just months earlier. She almost didn’t make it down the aisle after learning at the eleventh hour that he didn’t want more kids (and had a vasectomy) when she very much wanted children. Schmidt says her mother told her she had to go through with the wedding — not only had they spent a small fortune on it, but People magazine was covering it, so it was too late to pull out. Karen walked down the aisle, but divorced just over a year later in 1981.
Karen was plagued by the eating disorder for most of her adult life. It was clear to many that she was struggling — like in 1975 when she was hospitalized and called off a tour of Europe — but the condition wasn’t well known like it is today, there were few treatment options and mental health therapy was not as embraced as it is today.
“After about 1975, it was so apparent physically that she really couldn’t hide it anymore,” says Schmidt. “It went from, ‘Oh, I’ve lost a few pounds’ to ‘My god, what’s going on with you?’ Audiences would would gasp when she walked out on stage because it was such a shocking change in such a short amount of time.”
Schmidt interviewed the Carpenters drummer Cubby O’Brien for his new documentary and was told Karen’s eating disorder wasn’t talked about or was “pushed under the rug.” The singer employed “tricks and things” to mask that she wasn’t eating. However, friends in Karen’s inner circle, who Schmidt interviewed for his 2010 book, were well aware of what was going on because “there were so many hospital and doctor visits” — including many “her family didn’t even know about.” Her best friend, Frenda Leffler, helped her look for new doctors who could help or make her follow though with going to appointments.
Cherry Boone O’Neill, the daughter of singer Pat Boone, was recovering from anorexia and was working on a book, Starving for Attention, when she connected with Karen, she told People magazine in 1983. “She didn’t sound panicked, but she felt that she really needed some help,” O’Neill said. “‘I’m going to do it. I’ll get well — it’s just so damn hard.'” O’Neill connected her with the Seattle physician who treated her, who told the magazine Karen “wanted a quick fix. She told me she had all these contracts and just had to get well. But I said, ‘No, Karen, we don’t know how to treat this rapidly. It would take a minimum of a year, probably three, to get you well.'” He said she agreed to a treatment at New York hospital, where she underwent daily two-hour sessions for nearly a year.
Even though there wasn’t social media, Karen still faced body-shaming. Journalists would remark on her outfits, size and shape in reviews of the group’s music. “She struggled with expectations for femininity and being that 1960s ideal girl-girl with the pink frilly dress and a certain hairstyle,” Schmidt says. “She was a tomboy. She liked wearing jeans and a T-shirt and had a really interesting persona.”
Karen’s friends told Schmidt that as her fame skyrocketed, her management and those around her made an effort to “mold her into something that was more of the ideal, feminine singer.” Leffler told the author “even she was part of the effort to feminize Karen” and “soften her edges,” giving her tips for walking more gracefully. “That was tough for Karen. I don’t think she ever really felt like she fit in sometimes. It’s sad to think Karen couldn’t just be who she was.”
Schmidt says that was the case even within her family. She had “a very difficult relationship” with her mother, who also wanted to see Karen with “that same 1960s girl girl image that all of her friends daughters were portraying at the time.” Her relationship within her own family was also tricky because she was “the golden goose” — and there was a lot of pressure to keep working and going because she was paying so many people’s bills.
Schmidt says for his documentary, he unearthed a lot of different interviews Karen did over the years, not heard by the general public, and “she talks quite a bit about that quest for perfection, especially in their music. “I think that carried over in her life as well.”
He also interviewed Karen’s close friend Olivia Newton-John, who died last year. She “talked about that” quest for perfection “and how when she first went to Karen’s apartment, she realized: This person is OCD [or obsessive-compulsive disorder]. All of the hangers in the closet were exactly a quarter inch apart and everything color coded. She was a perfectionist to the nth degree. And I think that definitely played into the eating disorder as well, because it’s such a paralyzing thing to try and attain.”
On Feb. 4, 1983, Karen collapsed at 9 a.m. in the wardrobe closet of the room her parents kept for her in their family home in suburban Downey, Calif., People magazine reported at the time. She was raced to the hospital but pronounced dead at 9:51 a.m. Some of the first news reports noted she suffered from what Schmidt says was referred to as “‘the slimming disorder,’ anorexia nervosa. They really put the name with it almost right away.”
The coroner confirmed soon after that “anorexia nervosa was the basic problem” that led to heart failure. “Everything is tied to that.” Says Schmidt, “It was just a lot of self abuse, and never with the intent of of harming herself, or leaving, if that makes sense. As those who were close with her said, she never had a death wish.”
In the wake of her death, which sparked the national conversation about the eating disorder, her family started a foundation in her name and did handful of interviews. They also made 1989 TV movie The Karen Carpenter Story, which was criticized for its whitewashing, including by actress Cynthia Gibb, who played Karen and worked with the family. It was clear they felt fingers were pointed at them, specifically the parents, over Karen’s death.
For Schmidt’s documentary, he spoke with Barry Morrow, who wrote the script for the TV movie, who said that when he arrived at Agnes’s home to meet her for the first time while doing research for the movie, she came to the door and led with, “‘I want you to know, I did not kill my daughter.’ That’s how she started the interview. There were some guilt issues there.” However, Schmidt adds, “I don’t think they thought what happened was even a possibility. Yes, she was ill, and yes, she needed to get better. But I don’t think anybody thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, she’s gonna die.’ Because nobody had ever really heard of anorexia.”
Reflecting on the 40th anniversary of her death, Schmidt adds, “I don’t want it to all be down. That’s the sad thing about Karen’s story — it’s such a sad story, so you have to turn it back around to the music. We did have her recording for those 11 or 12 years and we can still enjoy that after all this time.”
Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection will premiere Friday at the Santa Barbara Independent Film Festival. In addition to Newton-John giving one of her final interviews, the doc features conversations with Carol Burnett and Suzanne Somers, who both knew Karen. Carnie Wilson, Belinda Carlisle and Kristin Chenoweth also speak about how Karen’s music and story impacted their lives.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.