The Heartbreaking Saga Behind The Carpenters


During the 70s, siblings Karen and Richard Carpenter took their years of common interest in music and transformed it into a sensational career as The Carpenters. However, it was not always easy for Richard, and especially Karen.

We’ve Only Just Begun

As the pop group bearing their last name, Karen and Richard Carpenter tore through the 70s. They sold over 100 million records to date and have fans stretching to all corners of the world. No matter their success, personal problems continued to get in the way.

Following In Her Brother’s Footsteps

From a young age, Richard Carpenter became interested in music. He began hating the rigidity of piano lessons and taught himself to play by ear. Karen, four years his junior, joined the school band in high school to avoid gym classes as a drummer. They both began messing around with various bands until they decided to join forces in 1965 as the Richard Carpenter Trio. Within a few years, they would record hit songs, but not before Karen started heading down a slippery slope.

A Weighted Decision

When Karen graduated from Downey High School in 1967, she was 17 years old, a year younger than the rest of her classmates. At a time in her life where body image was everything, Karen began dieting. She was five-foot-four but weighed 145 lbs. After high school, Karen started the Stillman diet which focuses on lean meats and a minimum of eight glasses of water per day. The diet helped her get down to a healthy-looking 120 lbs. The stunning Carpenter was ready for the big time.

Battle Of The Bands

As the Richard Carpenter Trio continued to work hard at making music, they entered a battle of the bands at the famed Hollywood Bowl. Unlike many battles of the bands which rewards the winners with a cash prize, this specific contest would lead to a record contract with RCA. Karen, Richard, and Wes Jacobs were thrilled to find out that they won and would join RCA. Unfortunately, the company decided their music was not the right fit and released them without a record.

Beating Old Brother To The Big Time

Even though Richard was the musical savant working his tail off to become a professional musician, it was Karen who earned the first recording contract between the two of them. After tagging along to a session with bassist Joe Osborn, Osborn offered Karen a recording deal with his label, Magic Lamp Records. They were not interested in Richard as a musician but did release two of his compositions. Karen’s single did not do well and the label folded.

Doomed At Disneyland

Early into his music playing career, Richard picked up a gig on Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. with his songwriting partner John Bettis. They were forced to wear traditional Dixieland clothes and play era-appropriate songs. At one point, they decided to take requests from park visitors. Since it was during the Summer of Love, they would request psychedelic songs like The Doors’ Light My Fire. Disney showed them the door for not following instructions and breaking character.

A Ticket To Ride

After a variety of band names and lineups, Richard and Karen settled on the Carpenters. They signed their first big recording contract with A&M Records in 1969. At the time Karen was only 19 had to have a parent co-sign the contract. Their first single was a cover of the Beatles Ticket To Ride. It peaked at number 54 on the Billboard Hot 100. Paul McCartney would go on to call Karen “the best female voice in the world: melodic, tuneful and distinctive.”

Take It To The Bank

Over the next year, the Carpenters recorded and released two of the biggest hits of their career: (They Long to Be) Close To You and We’ve Only Just Begun. While Close to You was written by legend Burt Bacharach and rearranged by Richard, We’ve Only Just Begun came from an interesting origin. The song was originally recorded by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols for a wedding-themed television commercial for Crocker National Bank. Richard saw the ad and asked Williams for the full song.

Not Mommy’s Little Girl

Even though the Carpenters were now bona fide stars (their third album went four times Platinum), there was one person who was unimpressed with how far Karen had come – her mother. Agnes Carpenter always favored Richard and did everything to further his future without considering Karen. They moved to California from Baltimore, so Richard could be closer to the music industry. Karen began to outshine Richard publicly, but Agnes never acknowledged it, leaving a huge hole in Karen’s heart.

Marching To The Beat Of Her Own Drum

At the time of the Carpenters’ success, female drummers were few and far between. Even today, female drummers are rare outside of all-girl groups and Cindy Blackmon Santana of Lenny Kravitz and Santana fame. Although she was in a groundbreaking position for women in music, Karen was very against the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 60s and 70s. She felt a woman’s place was to cook for her husband throughout a marriage.

Tipping The Scales

By 1973, the Carpenters were a household name. Karen, still haunted by her chubbier younger days, saw a photo of herself from one of their shows in which she seemed a bit heavier. She hired a trainer to help her lose weight, but the high carb, low-calorie diet only made her bulk up in muscle without appearing thinner. Karen began taking greater extremes in her diet and quickly lost 20 lbs. Soon, Karen’s weight would become the focus of everyone around her.

Staying Away From Food

As she formed her own diet, Karen did everything to keep food off her plate. She said in 1973, “When you’re on the road it’s hard to eat. Period. On top of that, it’s rough to eat well. We don’t like to eat before a show because I can’t stand singing with a full stomach… You never get to dinner until, like, midnight, and if you eat heavy you’re not going to sleep, and you’re going to be a balloon.”

Getting Carried Away

Karen had great results from her new diet. However, she started to become obsessed with weight loss. Carole Curb, her ex-boyfriend and record executive Mike Curb’s sister, said, “She weighed 110 lb. or so, and looked amazing… If she’d been able to stop there, then life would have been beautiful. A lot of us girls in that era went through moments of that. Everybody wanted to be Twiggy. Karen got carried away. She just couldn’t stop.”

Richard Takes Notice

For a while, Richard was oblivious to his sister’s increasingly peculiar eating habits. Once he picked up on it, he initially assumed it was part of a comprehensive weight loss plan. He complimented her on her weight loss one day, telling her, ” You look great.” Karen replied, ” Well, I’m just going to get down to around 105.” Richard became worried by her answer and said, “A hundred and five? You look great now.” The comment fell on deaf ears.

Hiding Her Open Secret

Karen’s eating habits became more worrisome as she dropped to 90 lb. Those around her began pestering her about eating so she would do anything she could to hide her weight loss. Her agent, Sherwin Bash, began noticing one trend in 1975. “She would start with a long-sleeved shirt and then put a blouse over that and a sweater over that and a jacket over that… With all of it, you had no idea of what she had become.”

Audiences Pick Up On It

Her friends and family were not the only ones that were shocked by Karen’s skinny physique. Audiences could not believe how skinny she had become. Sometimes, an audible gasp could be heard when she would take the stage. Concerned fans began to approach Bash about his client assuming that Karen had cancer or some life-threatening illness. One critic wrote, “She is terribly thin, almost a wraith, and should be gowned more becomingly,” after praising her entrance from the drums to the mic.

Europe Will Have To Wait

Everyone began noticing major changes to Karen. She became overwhelmed with exhaustion frequently and would have to lie down. After some shows in Las Vegas in 1975, Karen checked into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. She was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, and her doctor said in a statement that she suffered from physical and nervous exhaustion. The Carpenters had a European tour lined up, but doctors would not clear her to perform. They refunded ticket costs for the 50 shows.

Not The Only Troubled Sibling

While the world’s attention stuck to Karen and her struggles with eating disorders, Richard developed a nasty habit of his own. He started taking prescription pills and began increasing his doses after their 1971 tour which lead to a major addiction. On September 4, 1978, even though they had shows lined up at the MGM Grand, Richard abruptly quit touring. He refused to make a UK television appearance, leaving Karen to fend off rumors of a split and perform on her own.

Karen’s New Man

Karen had had past relationships, but her relationship with property developer Tom Burris would define her love life. They got engaged in 1980 after only two months of dating. Her friends were worried, but Karen was head over heels for him. The good vibes died out however when Karen found out as they neared their wedding date that Tom had had a vasectomy years earlier. She wanted kids desperately, and she considered calling off the wedding before going through with on August 31, 1980.

More Trouble With Tom

Agnes refused to allow Karen to call off the wedding since it had been paid for. Things only got worse too. Karen assumed he had his own money, but Tom was broke and lavishly spent her money. He would ask for up to $50,000 at a time. Eventually, she only had investments left. In addition, he would berate her cruelly, once calling her a “bag of bones,” and would tell her that she’d never have his child. She filed for divorce after only 14 months.

Extreme Weight Loss Measures

Karen would seek any method possible to lose weight. She eventually found herself in the habit of taking tons of pills. Each night, she would take 80 to 90 laxative tablets. In addition to laxatives, she would take thyroid medication in the hope of speeding up her metabolism. Her thyroid was fine, so it put stress on her body. Karen began seeing psychotherapist Steven Levenkron. Anorexia was rarely discussed publicly, and Levenkron specialized in treatment of eating disorders.

Turning A Blind Eye

No matter who tried to help Karen, Agnes continued to ignore her daughter’s deteriorating health. Levenkron called Richard and their parents once to tell them just to tell her that they love her. Agnes scolded him for using her first name and said they don’t do things that way. Sherwin Bash had tried years earlier to approach Agnes about it, and he was also brushed off and told it was a family matter. Agnes believed psychiatrists were for the crazy, not her skinny daughter.

Denial Ain’t Just A River In Egypt

Richard returned from rehab ready to hit the studio. During a Europe trip and press tour, Nationwide host Sue Lawley surprised the sibling by asking Karen about the rumors that she was anorexic. Karen shot them down saying that she was just tired. When Lawley pushed further, Karen attempted to laugh it off before rolling her eyes at Lawley. Richard then came to her defense saying “It’s really not what we’re here for.”

The End Of Days

By the end of 1982, Karen weighed under 80 lbs. Richard became incensed with Levenkron’s treatment plan. Finally, her parents and Richard helped her move back home to Los Angeles. She seemed to be resuming a normal life, but curiously took more naps than usual. Her housekeeper found her lying on the closet floor once. On February 4,1983, Agnes found Karen passed out and naked in her wardrobe. She died of ipecac poisoning, a drug used for vomiting, as a consequence of anorexia nervosa.

Enshrined In Her Hometown

Karen’s death hit Richard hard. He called it “the worst thing in my life.” A little over a month after her death, Richard and Karen would receive a great honor which Richard was forced to accept on his own. They received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, not far from their hometown suburb of Downey. A teary-eyed Richard stood with their parents as a 32-piece choir sang We’ve Only Just Begun. Their final studio album was released that day.

I Ain’t Afraid Of No Ghost

For years, people have claimed to see the ghost of Karen Carpenter at the Jim Henson Company entertainment complex. They have described seeing a woman in the dressing room area at the soundstage with strikingly similar features to Karen. Her office used to be above the stage when A&M Records was in the building. The ghost witnessed claim that the woman stays in the dressing room but never exits the room.

Not Thurston For Moore

The Carpenters have had plenty of their songs covered over the years. In an interview on NPR, Richard openly discussed the Sonic Youth cover of Superstar. Not surprisingly, Richard cannot stand listening to the Thurston Moore fronted cover. He said, “At least when it comes to something like this, I will say I don’t care for it, but I don’t understand it. So I’m not going to say it’s good or it’s bad. I’m just going to say I don’t care for it.”

Turning Down A Night At The Heartbreak Hotel

Before her obsession with body image took over her life, Karen was incredibly beautiful. One of the biggest stars on Earth took an interest in her too. During one of Elvis’s shows in Las Vegas, Karen and British singer Petula Clark were hanging out in his dressing room. The King propositioned both women. Clark put an end to it and “shoved both of us out of the room.” Clark said he seemed quite amused by possibly his first rejection.

Returning To The Game

In 2008, Richard Carpenter made a shocking announcement: he was planning a comeback. Due to the Carpenters’ success in Japan, he first announced it at a luncheon for the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. He said, “It’s a different business. Music is a different world from when Karen and I were signed by Herb Alpert in 1969, but I feel I have some talent.” Richard planned to produce a Carpenters tribute album, a Christmas album, and a solo collection of original tunes.

Richard’s Reflections On Karen

In an interview with People magazine, Richard opened up following Karen’s death. He said, “I did a lot of soul-searching after her death, and I realize now that I did as much as I could have done. All of us who loved her did. But I still can’t believe she’s gone. We spent so much time together. There’s a void there now. I miss her more and more each day.” He continued, ” You simply have to deal with it. And I’m doing the best I can.”