Some music lovers would happily condemn Karen Carpenter’s songs to elevators and dentist’s offices, while others say the sound of her voice pierces their very souls. A president saw her as a role model for young Americans, and yet she went to some very dark psychological places in her short life. So who is the real Karen Carpenter? Read on to find out.
1. She Was Wholesome From The Start
New Haven, Connecticut was the place of Karen Carpenter’s birth in 1950. Her father, who worked in the printing business, was the child of missionaries in China. Agnes Carpenter was a proud stay-at-home mom. Karen had one older sibling Richard who would later inspire Karen to get into music. But it wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine. The two siblings would also end up being lifelong competitors.
2. She Played Ball
In their neighborhood, siblings Karen and Richard liked to play on the streets near their home. When the games turned into baseball, something surprising happened. Even though Karen was younger than her brother, and a girl, friends chose her before him for the teams. You go, girl! But sadly, in other situations, Karen was always picked last.
3. She Was Always Second
Karen and Richard’s mother Agnes Carpenter had a chilling mean streak. She did nothing to hide the fact that Richard was her favorite. In fact, it was for Richard’s music career that the family moved to LA—not for Karen’s. As a teenager, Karen waited around for her mom to notice her musical ability. Sadly, that never ever happened.
As we’ll see, this lack of maternal love led Carpenter toward a downward spiral of psychological distress.
4. She Followed A Beatle
Carpenter’s high school classmate and friend, Frankie Chavez, played the drums and Carpenter wanted to try her hand at the skins as well. She also idolized Ringo Starr, the drummer of the Beatles, and pictured herself in his shoes. Starr had a Ludwig drum set, and so Carpenter wanted the same. But there was a problem: the set cost $300—that’s $2,500 in today’s dollars.
5. She Walked To The Beat Of Her Own Drum
Karen Carpenter began to petition her parents for the money to buy the Ludwig drum set, and I expect it took a lot of pleading and begging. I’m sure it crossed her parents’ minds that this could just be a whim—I mean how many female drummers were there back then? Eventually, though, Carpenter’s parents surprised her.
6. She Broke Up The Band
The Carpenters agreed to put out the money for a drum set so that Karen could pursue her dream. With her drums in tow, Carpenter formed the all-girl group Two Plus Two. Unfortunately, the band didn’t last. Carpenter raised the anger of her bandmates when she wanted to add her brother to the mix. This didn’t sit well with the other three members, so they vetoed the idea.
Well, Carpenter was one to put family before friends, and so the band broke up. But that didn’t stop Karen and Richard from moving forward toward fame.
7. She Stayed Quiet
Karen Carpenter, her brother Richard, and a tuba player put together an ensemble called the Dick Carpenter Trio—but Karen was hiding a secret. Even though she had an astonishing three-octave range that would’ve blown audiences away, she kept quiet behind the drums, leaving the vocals to guest performers. They played nightclubs, and on the talent show: All-American College Show.
They were fairly small-time—until someone important took notice.
8. She Aged Well
In 1966, record producer Joe Osborne got 16-year-old Karen to sing on “Looking For Love,” which Richard had written. The song wasn’t a hit, but it didn’t disappear completely. Because of Carpenter’s eventual fame, the 45 rpm record has become a collectible. In fact, there are only 500 copies out there, and they’re each worth about $2,500. But at that moment, Carpenter still could only dream about that kind of recognition.
9. They Lit A Fire
The Carpenters’ next band was Spectrum, and they got a gig at Disneyland to play Dixieland Jazz tunes to a mostly family crowd. Don’t forget, this was the late 1960s—and it turned out that even hippies liked mouse ears. So, when some young kids in the audience called for more psychedelic songs like the Doors’ “Light My Fire,” Spectrum couldn’t resist.
10. They Exited In Shame
Once Carpenter and Spectrum started playing songs for the small hippie crowd at Disneyland, there was a devastating backlash. Victor Gruber, who was the head honcho of the theme park, heard that Spectrum was going off-brand for the family-focused show. He made his way over to their little stage and immediately heard Spectrum singing The Doors.
It didn’t take long before Gruber exiled Carpenter and her band from the Magic Kingdom.
11. She Was Worried
The big break for Karen and Richard Carpenter came in 1969 when A&M Records signed the sibling duo. The siblings released an album called “Ticket To Ride”—in honor of the Beatles song that they covered on the album. Carpenter must have been on pins and needles about what her heroes, the Beatles, would say about her rendition of their song.
12. A Beatle Sang Her Praise
It wasn’t Karen’s favorite Beatle, Ringo Starr, who first noticed their cover, it was Paul McCartney. He heard Carpenter’s version of the Lennon-McCartney hit song “Ticket to Ride”—and his reaction was astonishing. McCartney said that she had “the best female voice in the world.” For sure, McCartney’s words thrilled Carpenter.
It seemed that nothing could stop the brother and sister duo from huge success. Well, except for one thing.
13. They Lacked Focus
Karen Carpenter was only 5’4” tall, and her enormous drum kit dwarfed her so that she was basically invisible on stage. The duo had another problem: there was no focal point. Richard was failing to grab the audience’s attention. It was Karen’s voice on singles like “Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun,” and it was Karen they wanted to see.
So, Carpenter had a big decision to make: hide behind the drum kit or expose herself on stage.
14. She Moved To The Front
Karen’s brother Richard and their agent Sherwin Bash had the idea to hire another drummer, so Karen could be front and center on stage and become the focal point of the duo. Karen hesitantly let them hire former Mouseketeer Cubby O’Brien to take over on the drums. In 1973, Carpenters’ albums had more Karen on vocals and less Karen on the drums. As we’ll soon see, being in the public eye didn’t pan out well for Carpenter.
15. She Was Heavy Metal
By this time, Carpenter was clearly the lead singer of Carpenters. But in Japan, a journalist had trouble pronouncing Carpenter’s title. Fans thought the journalist was saying “Lead Sister.” The nickname took off and Carpenter herself seemed to enjoy it. She even wore—during several live shows—a shirt emblazoned with “Lead Sister.”
16. They Weren’t Totally Original
The Carpenters were quickly becoming a phenomenon and the hit song “We’ve Only Just Begun” was a big part of that. The public was going crazy for this happy tune about young love and starting a new life. As usual, Richard was responsible for the music and arrangement of the song. But was the song an original? What most fans don’t know is that the song has a very strange origin.
17. They Borrowed From A Bank
While trying to come up with a new hit song, Richard Carpenter was watching TV. He heard a song in an ad for a bank, and he liked the sound of it. Richard contacted the writers of the jingle and bought the rights to the little song. The ad for the bank featured a young couple’s wedding. So, when arranging the song, Richard and Karen worked with that theme—and soon enough, it became a phenomenon.
18. She Went Dark
The Carpenters’ hit song “We’ve Only Just Begun” has played at more weddings than you could possibly imagine. But surprisingly, the almost saccharine song has been used for more than a few dark moments in film. You can hear Karen’s soulful voice in, among others, the horror film 1408—based on a Stephen King novel, and John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, where you can hear Carpenter’s happy lyrics as the lead character enters an insane asylum.
Perhaps filmmakers could sense the uneasiness in Karen’s voice beneath the happy lyrics…
19. Something Was Missing
Karen Carpenter was truly on top of the world: She had number one hit songs and platinum albums. But Carpenter was still looking for something that always seemed to be out of reach: the love and praise of her mother. It was Richard who seemed to have a monopoly on that. No matter how hard she tried, Agnes Carpenter just didn’t seem to care about her own daughter. It had horrific ramifications.
20. She Saw Something Disturbing
In 1976, Karen saw a photograph of herself on stage—and as we’ll see, it eventually had dark consequences. She hated the photo. Her outfit, in her opinion, made her look heavy. Back in high school, Karen had started a diet because she’d thought she was a little chubby. The photo made Carpenter think back to those days in high school, and question her current appearance. It also made her do something drastic.
21. She Went Into Attack Mode
In the 1970s, personal trainers weren’t as common as they are today. But Carpenter really wanted to keep her weight under control—so she hired one. The trainer suggested that she give up the diet that she’d started back in high school. Carpenter agreed and followed the new regime to the letter. After giving the diet a fair shake, she stepped in front of the mirror and gasped: this wasn’t what she’d signed up for.
22. She Trashed The Trainer
To Carpenter’s horror, the new diet had caused her to build muscle. To Carpenter, the muscle on her body made her feel and look heavier—which was the opposite of what she’d wanted in a diet. Carpenter quickly dismissed the trainer, and started a diet of her own design. She used exercise equipment and started to obsessively count calories. She also had an unusual trick to keep the calorie count low.
23. She Shared
When Karen Carpenter went out to restaurants with friends, she appeared to be the most generous dining companion. She insisted that everyone at the table try portions of her meal. Her reasoning was that her meal was so good, they simply had to try it. But there was a darker reason behind it. She just didn’t want to consume the calories herself. Karen’s mother, however, eventually caught on to her little trick.
24. Her Mother Fought Back
Carpenter was able to appear to be eating a full meal by sharing the food on her plate with everyone at the table. Mom soon noticed this tactic of hers and did something to combat it. Agnes Carpenter, after Karen shared her food, would insist that her daughter try her meal as well. Carpenter’s mother was doing her best, but it certainly wasn’t enough.
25. They Let Out A Gasp
When Karen Carpenter made an appearance on stage in 1975, the sight of her caused audience members to gasp. Carpenter’s diet was working well—indeed, too well. Letters from concerned fans flooded the duo’s home. Carpenter kept her mouth shut about any problem, simply saying she was “pooped.” The pressure on her was building—and it was even coming from an unexpected place.
26. She Was A Role Model
Not only were the Carpenters in demand musically, they were also a model for the youth of America. President Nixon called them “young America at its best.” Well, that was clearly before Watergate showed that he was America at its most dishonest. In the meantime, however, Carpenter was realizing she needed something in her life to change.
27. She Flew The Coop
It was 1976, and Karen Carpenter was 26 years old and certainly financially independent. But, believe it or not, she still lived with her parents. So, when she was finally ready to leave the family home, she bought two apartments in LA’s Century City. You might assume the second was for brother Richard. No such luck, Richard. Karen combined them into one unit just for her.
It should’ve been a fresh start—but the isolation took its toll.
28. She Was Realistic
Early in her career, Carpenter didn’t talk much about marriage or even boyfriends. She felt very strongly that her life on tour didn’t make it possible to sustain a relationship. She didn’t even have any interest in just trying it out—just for fun or to see if it would work. But as she grew older and the touring didn’t stop, her longing for love made her change her mind.
29. She Played The Field
Once Carpenter decided it was okay to date, she did it like she did most things: with gusto. First, there was record producer Mike Curb, who ended up in politics. Following closely behind Curb was an Osmond brother, TV hottie Tony Danza of Who’s the Boss, and even funny man (and banjo player) Steve Martin. When none of these guys stuck, she threw herself back into work. The results were tragic.
30. She Ran Away
Karen Carpenter was clearly in need of emotional support, but instead, she made more bad decisions. She and Richard went on tour AGAIN, hitting South America and Europe. Carpenter brought along her gal pal Itchy Ramone, who was probably looking forward to some major sightseeing. Instead, Ramone spent most of her time trying to stop Carpenter from taking laxatives to control her weight.
31. She Got Ambushed
During the European portion of the tour, Carpenter and her brother had an interview scheduled on Nationwide on the BBC. The interview started innocuously enough, with the usual questions about touring and what it’s like to work with a sibling. But then interviewer Sue Lawley blindsided Karen with a very pointed question.
32. She Tried To Laugh It Off
It turned out that BBC interviewer, Lawley, wanted to talk about Carpenter’s weight loss. Lawley listed off Carpenter’s plunging weight statistics and even confused her by using the British stone as a measurement. Carpenter tried to laugh it off, but Lawley wouldn’t give up, going so far as to mention the term “anorexia nervosa,” which was fairly uncommon at that time.
Carpenter was getting more and more uncomfortable—until someone stepped in to save her.
33. She Had A Savior
Luckily, Carpenter had her brother Richard by her side. He saw what was happening to Karen and stepped in. He told Lawley that questions about his sister’s weight loss were off-limits, and went on to say that talking about that wasn’t what they were there for. They managed to get through the rest of the interview, but the appearance had damaged Carpenter. Unfortunately, her personal life was even worse.
34. She Fell Hard
You can’t get much further away from show biz than a job in real estate. Carpenter met developer Thomas James Burris in 1980—and things moved shockingly quickly. Burris was down on his knee proposing just two months after they started dating. They agreed the engagement would last at least a year, but that soon changed dramatically.
35. They Were In A Rush
Karen Carpenter was eager to be a bride, and one of the reasons was that she was excited to have children. It had been a dream of hers for many years. When Carpenter and Burris suddenly curtailed the long engagement and announced that the wedding would be just two months away, people assumed she must be pregnant. The truth, however, was far darker.
36. She Received A Shocker
A few days before the wedding rehearsal dinner, Burris had an announcement—and it was tragic. It turns out, Burris had had a vasectomy a few years before he’d met Carpenter. In a single moment, Carpenter’s dreams of being a mom evaporated. Surely, this was the reason he’d wanted to move the wedding up, so that his bride wouldn’t somehow find out first.
Carpenter was distraught, and so she turned to a family member for help—I’d say she chose poorly.
37. She Turned To The Wrong Shoulder
Karen Carpenter, devastated by her fiancé’s betrayal, called up her mother Agnes. She had convinced herself that she needed to cancel the wedding, and she needed her mother’s support. Well, she should have looked for that somewhere else. Agnes told her daughter that under no circumstances should she cancel her wedding.
They’d made too many plans and arrangements for this event. She told Carpenter: “you made your bed, now you’ll have to lay in it.” It was terrible advice.
38. It Got off To A Bad Start
The wedding between Carpenter and Burris went on as planned—but the marriage was soon a disaster. Burris seemed to be in it for the money from the get-go. He wanted cars and houses, but he didn’t have the means to pay for them. Carpenter was handing over sums of as high as $50,000 in spending money for her husband. She was running low on cash—but that wasn’t the worst of it.
39. She Suffered
Not only was Carpenter’s husband draining the young star’s bank account, he also had an even more disturbing side. Burris was also draining her emotionally. He had a cruel streak and treated her unkindly. It also became apparent that he had a short fuse—which meant he often lost his temper with her. In spite of all this, Carpenter still held onto the hope of having a family.
40. She Didn’t Give Up Hope
Karen Carpenter found out that surgery could reverse a vasectomy, so she brought the idea of having children up to her husband. Yet Burris was completely not on board with having a child with her. He seemed to want to make this more than clear, so he hurled the biggest insult he could think of at her. He said he would never have children with her because she was a “bag of bones.” Ouch.
With nothing left to give, Carpenter went over the edge.
41. She Said Good-Bye To Love
Karen Carpenter took the ordeal of her tour, the probing interview questions, and failing relationship badly, so much so that she finally sought out professional help. In 1982, she approached Steven Levenkron, who was a psychotherapist and a proven authority on anorexia treatment. Levenkron thought he’d seen it all when it came to sufferers, but something Carpenter told him made him stop in his tracks.
42. She Stunned Her Doctor
It would take a lot to shock a pro like Levenkron. He’d heard many stories about anorexia patients taking 80-90 laxatives a night—and that was what Karen told him. But then Carpenter made an even more gruesome confession. It was one he’d never even heard of before: she was taking thyroid medication to raise her metabolism—even though her thyroid was normal.
Levenkron took the pills from Carpenter and told her that it had to stop. Then he made surprising suggestion.
43. She Needed Her Family
Karen’s doctor decided to bring the family in for a session together. The Carpenters reluctantly came from the West Coast to bustling New York. Part of the therapy was for each family member to tell Karen that they loved her. Richard had no problem sharing his feelings with his sibling and partner in music. Her mother’s response, however, sent chills down Karen’s spine.
44. The Truth Came Out
When Levenkron asked Agnes Carpenter to tell her daughter that she loved her, Agnes started by correcting Levenkron, and saying he should call her Mrs. Carpenter. And that, well, that was pretty much it. Mrs. Carpenter couldn’t tell her daughter that she loved her. The session eventually ended, and Agnes and Richard flew back to California.
They left Karen on her own to work out her problems.
45. He Wasn’t Who She Thought He Was
Karen Carpenter had put all her hopes into Dr. Levenkron, but the treatment was frustrating her good friend Ramone. Not only was Carpenter not getting any better, but she also didn’t seem to even recognize that there was a problem. Ramone did a little research and found some disturbing information. Dr. Levenkron wasn’t actually a medical doctor. And that’s when things went from bad to worse.
46. She Went To The Hospital
Carpenter’s so-called doctor hadn’t helped, and she ended up in the hospital in need of artificial feeding. Surprisingly, this actually worked. Soon enough, Carpenter was eating three meals a day. With this upturn of events, Carpenter decided it was time to leave the hospital, the care of Levenkron, and New York City. Most people—except her family—felt it was too soon.
47. She Went Home
Back in LA, everything seemed to be coming up roses. Carpenter was eating, she wanted to record, and she was socializing. One night, while staying at her parents’ home, she went to bed in her old room. The next morning, Karen made coffee in the kitchen, and then went back to her bedroom to dress. Agnes Carpenter then made a devastating discovery. Karen had died alone in her bedroom.
48. The Truth Came Out
At first, no one could understand why Karen Carpenter had died. The autopsy later exposed the heartbreaking truth. Even though Carpenter had given up using laxatives, she’d turned to something more dangerous to control her weight: ipecac syrup. This is a substance used to induce vomiting and can, when overused, slowly dissolve the heart muscle.
49. She Rests In Peace
The legacy of Carpenter’s life is easy to see. She inspired singers like Madonna and Shania Twain, and critics have ranked her in many Top 100 lists for her singing and for her drumming. Also, both Karen and Richard Carpenter received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But there’s something perhaps more important. Her suffering with anorexia nervosa brought media attention to this crippling condition.
In addition, Carpenter’s family started the Karen A. Carpenter Memorial Foundation to help raise money for anorexia research.
50. She Is A Pop Culture Darling
The life and music of Karen Carpenter continue to have resonance. There was the grunge tribute album in 1994—”If I Were A Carpenter.” There was Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, the Todd Haynes biographical film told with Barbie Dolls. She also sometimes appeared in the most unlikely places, including a 1995 off-Broadway comedy called Party. As the outrageous show ended, seven unclothed gay men swayed while Carpenter sang “Close To You.”
It seemed everyone longed to be a little close to Karen Carpenter.