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SORROW IN HER VOICE

In 1970, after the Vietnam War and a host of heated causes had turned the country into a mass of raw nerve endings, a young duo emerged on AM radio. Singing of “white lace and promises” and “so much of life ahead,” they offered America hope, and became sudden super­stars. The Carpenters were a sister and brother who lived with their parents in a West Coast suburb. Karen sang lead; Richard played keyboards, multitracked his voice into an electronic choral blur and arranged with an obsessive ear for perfection. Every rough edge was buffed away and bathed in Southern California sunlight.

Cool they weren’t. As Randy L. Schmidt points out in “Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter,” one critic called their music “polite plastic pop.” On a BBC special, the siblings looked like photos out of a ’70s high school yearbook: Richard wore a pageboy, a turtleneck and a bland smile; Karen was slightly bucktoothed, with large, sheepish eyes and waist-length hair piled high as a wedding cake. Everyone called them “nice.” President Richard M. Nixon proclaimed the proper duo “young America at its very best”; their manager, Jerry Weintraub, called them “the Perry Comos of today.” Bette Midler summed up Karen Carpenter’s image more bluntly: “She’s so white she’s invisible!”

Yet it was Karen who cut through the act’s gloss and gave it humanity. Her supple, pitch-perfect sweet-and-sour voice was so wistful and sincere that it made listeners want to protect her. In “Rainy Days and Mondays,” she sang of feeling lost in terms any youngster could understand: “Sometimes I’d like to quit / Nothing ever seems to fit.” Even in the cheeriest songs, she sounded fragile.

Just how delicate she was became painfully clear by the mid-’70s, when audi­ences watched her wither away before their eyes. Karen suffered from what were then mysterious eating disorders, anorexia nervosa and bulimia, and she was slowly starving herself to death. On Feb. 4, 1983, she collapsed in her childhood home. An hour later she was pronounced dead of heart failure.

At 32, Karen had joined the ranks of such ill-fated soft-rock stars as Jim Croce and Cass Elliot — gentle souls whose early deaths would forever steep their work in pathos. Richard endured a lesser crash: by the late ’70s, he had fallen prey to insomnia, panic attacks and depression, and gotten hooked on quaaludes. His mother is said to have given him his first pill.

The Carpenters’ story appeared ­custom-made for “Behind the Music,” and in 1998, an episode of that VH1 series purported to tell the whole grisly truth. But the show, which seemed authorized by Richard, stepped blindly around Karen’s demons; the family assumed no blame.

Schmidt, a Texas-based music teacher known for his research on the Carpenters, has delved into Karen’s troubled psyche in this heart-rending biography. Without sensationalism or undue finger-pointing, Schmidt proposes other reasons for Karen’s downfall. Foremost among them, he suggests, was her family’s refusal to let her grow up or feel in charge of her own life. Her mother, Agnes Carpenter, is portrayed as a controlling harridan who could never say “I love you” to her daughter; instead, she saw her as a mere accessory to the success of Richard, the family wunderkind, whom Karen herself adored and feared displeasing. Feeling helpless, the young woman sought a deadly form of control over her own body.

As explored by Schmidt, the Carpenters’ story is a pitiable variation on an old theme: that of a ’50s American family with its head in the sand, unable to grasp how anything could have gone so wrong. The duo’s roots are fairly mundane for their time. The father, Harold Carpenter, worked in the printing business; Agnes was a clean-freak housewife and an unashamed bigot. Richard and Karen grew up on the sanitized pop music of the ’50s; he played organ in church, and she studied drums, an instrument she would long hide behind during their shows.

It’s hard for Schmidt to inject much life into the family’s dry beginnings, but once the Carpenters land a deal with A&M Rec­ords in 1969, the pace picks up dramatically. Within little more than a year, the team had scored its first No. 1 single, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” and a gold album. As further hits — “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Superstar,” “For All We Know,” “Top of the World” — and enormous profits piled up, their management booked them relentlessly, just as these workaholic performers preferred. “Although she claimed to want nothing more than a traditional family life with a husband and children,” Schmidt writes of Karen, “business came first.” Each of her love affairs foundered, and someone was always there to discourage any relationship that might sidetrack the golden goose. One short-term beau, an A&M executive named John Adrian, found it impossible to break through the barriers erected around Karen. “She lived in a glass bowl,” he observes. Karen wound up defying everyone to wed a real estate developer whom her friends thought a gold-digging opportunist. It was, Schmidt says, a “disaster of a marriage.”

Musically, she made one effort to shake her girlish image and find an independent voice. But as Schmidt recounts, it didn’t stand a chance. While Richard recovered from his quaalude habit, Karen teamed with Phil Ramone, a star producer, to work on a solo album. Ramone encouraged her to record sexier, more mature songs; she even took a stab at disco. Karen’s excitement soared, then turned to devastation when she faced the appalled reactions of A&M and Richard. The disc went un­issued until years after her death.

By the time of that recording, anorexia had seized her. Karen’s self-consciousness about some minor chubbiness had given way to a dangerously skewed body image; she ate only bites and binged on laxatives and diuretics. Audiences gasped when she walked onstage in sleeveless dresses, looking, as one acquaintance said, like “a Holocaust victim.” In 1982, she engaged an anorexia specialist. But according to Schmidt, her mother (and, to an extent, Richard) stayed in denial about her illness, unable or unwilling to view it as anything more than a perverse addiction to dieting.

The author relates Karen’s story in writing as fluid and unaffected as her singing. Schmidt makes no ambitious re­evaluations of the Carpenters’ work, nor does he place them in any broad sociological frame. But he also avoids a fan’s effusiveness. And as Schmidt details Karen’s unstoppable fall, “Little Girl Blue” becomes one of the saddest tales in pop.

The endurance of the music helps brighten the ending. Whoever thought that a duo who epitomized vanilla would one day enthrall some of the coolest indie artists? In his 1987 movie “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” the experimental filmmaker Todd Haynes used a cast of Barbie-style dolls to depict Karen as the pawn of a selfish family and recording industry. (Richard had the film withdrawn over copyright issues.) In “If I Were a Carpenter,” a CD from 1994, alternative rockers attempted unconventional covers of the duo’s hits. The original “Close to You” album was reinterpreted in a 2007 concert by the gender-bending singer and monologuist Justin Bond, formerly Kiki of Kiki and Herb, the punk-inspired cult act. Now comes this compassionate book, which gives a tortured waif the third dimension she deserved. 

James Gavin’s most recent book is “Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne.”

The enduring fascination with Karen Carpenter-the '70s pop superstar famous for her crystalline voice, squeaky-clean hits with brother Richard and anorexia-related death at age 32 in 1983-has been partly fueled by her family's attempts to control her image. Apparently Richard has mellowed: Though he hardly gave Schmidt's bio his blessing, neither did he discourage the participation of his late sister's colleagues and close friends. The resulting interviews add new dimension and some alarming detail to a familiar story. (According to Schmidt, Karen's ubercontrolling mother shamed her into going through with her high-profile wedding, even when her fiance proved to be a scoundrel.) Karen's shocking abuse of laxatives, thyroid meds and ipecac-and her attempts to get help-are brought into heartbreaking focus. Though some overstuffed sections may try the patience of all but the most ardent fans, Schmidt succeeds in bringing a gifted, troubled musician to vivid life. 

A music teacher’s fresh perspective reanimates the rise and fall of an American recording icon.

As evidenced by Dionne Warwick’s fond introduction, Carpenter (1950–1983) was cherished by many. Schmidt (editor: Yesterday Once More: Memories of the Carpenters and Their Music, 2000) boasts that his biography is, unlike others, “free of an agenda and the Carpenter family’s editorial control.” The author affectionately chronicles the life of this diminutive daughter of a blue-collar father and a “persnickety,” meddlesome mother, whose rural Connecticut childhood was fortified by brother Richard’s intensive musical interest, a talent Karen honed by playing drums and singing in grade school, well after the family relocated to Southern California (19-20) in the early ’60s. In 1966, the “Richard Carpenter Trio”—Richard on piano, Karen on drums and Wes Jacobs on bass—garnered a short-lived record contact. A “chubby” music major, Karen debuted her vocal versatility in college choir and quickly wowed audiences together with Richard as The Carpenters, who were signed to A&M Records in 1969. Eschewing drumming for lead vocals, Karen stood out. Though somewhat reluctantly embracing her unique vocal blend of “intensity and emotion,” her popularity skyrocketed. High-profile appearances in the ’70s spawned dabbles in love, an ill-fated marriage and a deadly dieting compulsion (“Her face was all eyes” said friend Carole Curb). Her conservative family turned a blind eye to her struggles and only came to terms with her condition when Karen, at 32, was found face down in her closet in early 1983. Schmidt culled his comprehensive biography from interviews with friends, business acquaintances and family members, many of whom, he claims, spoke about Karen for the first time since her death.

Pages of photographs compliment this dense, fact-filled treatment, which carefully skirts sensationalism while exposing new truths in this haunting tragedy.

From the beginning, Richard, not Karen, was the talented musician whose parents moved across the country for a better career. Karen dabbled in music and tagged along on gigs, but it would be years before her show-stopping voice commanded the spotlight. And that shift, when the forgotten little sister became star of the act, Schmidt argues, marked the beginning of Karen's deadly, lifelong struggle with weight. Schmidt tracks the anxieties that seem to have driven her eating disorder, including a controlling mother and the lack of a stable love life. After the failure of her first solo effort, Karen made a bid for happiness with the dashing Tom Burris that would prove short-lived; he was only interested in her money. This was one setback too many for the gifted singer, and by 1983 she was dead, at 32. The self-destructive pressures of celebrity make for a familiar narrative, but Schmidt treats Karen's death not as an inevitability, but a tragedy that built slowly. His sympathies for the star border on fawning, but the copious research and quick-moving narration make this a volume that die-hard Carpenters fans and casual listeners alike will find interesting.

It's Yesterday Once More in 'Little Girl Blue'

You might be wondering if what the world really needs is yet another biography of Karen Carpenter, the drummer, singer and adorable front-woman of the saccharinely sweet ‘70s soft rock brother-sister duo, the Carpenters, who died tragically at the tender young age of 32 in early 1983 from complications resulting from anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder. After all, there’s been a 1989 TV movie-of-the-week detailing her life, numerous other television specials, and at least one other non-fiction book biography by Ray Coleman floating around out there.

While it may seem like the carcass of Carpenter has been picked pretty clean, and there can’t be anything else left to say to the casual observer, the thing is that most, if not all, of these other examinations of her life have all come with the Carpenter family seal of approval, scrubbing clean any notion of dysfunctional dynamics or otherwise overtly shocking revelations. Anyone who has tried to tell the unvarnished story of Karen’s life has been more or less struck down by a thunderbolt by, primarily, brother Richard Carpenter, who has seemingly strived to keep both the act’s clean-cut image intact as well as the portrayal of his mother as anything less than controlling.

Exhibit A on that front is filmmaker Todd Haynes’ 1987 short film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which is a roughly 45-minute examination of Carpenter’s life told using Barbie dolls. That film has been more or less “banned” as it hasn’t been in proper distribution since 1990 (though you might find it if you do a search of Google Video as I did a number of years ago), and you have to wonder about the official reason it has been shunned from proper viewing – that Haynes used numerous Carpenters’ songs in the soundtrack without obtaining proper permission first. If you see that film, you’ll note that an allegation surfaces there that Richard was a closeted homosexual (for the record, he obtained a wife and children after Karen’s death), which might be one of the unofficial reasons that Superstar fell off the map.

What’s more, even Randy L. Schmidt – in his relative new, shockingly unauthorized biography of the seemingly wholesome Karen Carpenter – takes great pains to point out that writers who attempted to surmount the topic of her gradual and tragic decline were more or less bound at the wrists to whitewash certain details of the family’s professional and private life. Therefore, it seems that Schmidt’s Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter – which was originally released in 2010 as a hardcover, and is now making its paperback debut – is anything short of a miracle. It’s a book that plumbs directly into Carpenter’s personal life by compiling interviews with some of her friends and closest confidants, some of whom were reluctant to talk about her life prior to the author’s probing.

Naturally, being an “unauthorized” account, Schmidt has gone to great lengths to dig up as much dirt as he possibly can that nobody has previously accounted for, which, truthfully, makes me a bit nervous to be actually reviewing this book. Given the Carpenter estate’s manipulative reputation when it comes to anything biographical, I have dreams of Richard Carpenter coming after anyone who even talks about this book with the intensity of a hit man or a rabid pit bull. Richard and a few people who were close to Karen chose not to participate in the making of this book by simply eschewing interviews and offering best wishes – a feat that Schmidt seems to believe, according to his introduction, is a begrudging endorsement, considering that the song-smith didn’t close down the project altogether by working the phones and contacting other would-be interview subjects, telling them not to speak to the biographer.

Perhaps, with nearly 30 years gone since Karen’s untimely demise and roughly 15 to 20 years since the death of her parents, Richard felt that enough time had passed and the Carpenters spotlight had sufficiently dimmed to allow this unfettered biography to pass any sort of scrutiny from the public. Who knows? What is evident, however, is that Little Girl Blue, so named after an obscure Carpenters number, is a damning and penetrating account of a tortured and tormented artist, and could just be one of the most depressing books you’ll ever read.

For those who didn’t come of age in the early ‘70s, a recap: the Carpenters were one of the decade’s most successful American acts, ringing up 16 consecutive Top 20 hits between 1970 and 1976. They were too soft to be rock, too streamlined to be country, too pop to be jazz – but they took on all of these genres with aplomb, even dabbling in reggae and calypso by the decade’s close. They were simply as white bread of a group as they came: a smooth and watered-down immensely popular act that served as a balm to the American public during the heady days of the Vietnam War and Watergate. As Schmidt himself notes, the Carpenters were a band that both parents and kids would turn up on the radio if one of their songs came up during a car ride to grandma’s house.

However, the Carpenters were never really a cool band. Record store clerks would turn up their nose if you came to the counter with a Carpenters record, rock critics abhorred the band, and any enduring popularity that the group has attained since their heyday seems almost ironic. (Sonic Youth, it should be noted, are big fans having contributed a cover of “Superstar” to a ‘90s tribute album and recorded the homage “Tunic (Song For Karen)” on 1990’s Goo.) Beneath the shiny and rubbed-down veneer of the impeccable songcraft, though, you get Karen’s voice: a soft, mellow cadence that calls out to the angels of heaven. While her voice is lilting, if you listen to a Carpenters record nowadays, there also seems to be an underlying hint of sadness and melancholy, that something wasn’t right beneath the surface.

It’s hard to believe, if you now hear songs like “Superstar” and “Yesterday Once More” (my personal favourite Carpenters song), that this is the voice of a woman in her early ‘20s. She seems so much older, wiser and more grizzled than she actually was while performing some of those hits. Little Girl Blue digs into that voice and offers its own hypothesises as to what wasn’t right in Karen’s all too short life.

Little Girl Blue starts out being pretty much a rote retelling of the duo’s formation and ascendant rise to fame. You could skip the first 80 pages or so and only skim through the band’s Wikipedia entry and not miss out on much. In fact, the story of Karen Carpenter is pretty much relegated to the backseat here, as there simply isn’t much story to tell. The Carpenter family, you see, saw early on that Richard was the musical beacon amongst them, and did everything in their power to support his budding talents as a pianist – even going so far as to move to California from Connecticut with the hopes that being close to Hollywood would provide an easier ticket for him into the entertainment industry.

This, of course, meant that Karen, who started to take a liking to the drums (which was a rarity for a girl at the time), was pretty much shunned to secondary status, even when it became apparent that she had a haunting, gorgeous voice that made her a natural for fronting Richard’s various band endeavours of the ‘60s. However, about a third of the way through the book, Karen’s story begins to take off as the band gets signed to a major label and almost immediately starts having hit after hit after hit. What Schmidt does well is invent imagined conversations that she might have had with her friends, lovers and various peers from interviews she gave as well as through primary research conducted by the author.

What Little Girl Blue does really successfully – and perhaps unconsciously – is mark the growth and maturity of Karen as a young woman. Schmidt has cobbled together print, audio and television interviews throughout her career, and there’s a marked maturity of thought and language as the ‘70s wear on and life begins to really wear down on her. Still, the striking thing about Karen as a personality is that, even though she was purportedly a tomboy growing up, she really was, at heart, a little girl throughout her life. She kept all sorts of plush toys on her bed, and then there’s the fact that she didn’t really leave the nest of her parents’ house until she was well into her mid-‘20s.

She had seemingly unrealistic expectations when it came to looking for a mate: she wanted perfection in a man, much like she wanted perfection in her singing. In some ways, she, too, was living in a prefabricated past, as most Carpenters albums contained covers or melodies of songs from the ‘60s. Perhaps her persistent dieting – which took root in the late ‘60s but really got out of control by 1975 – had to do with the fact that she was held up to a persistent and unobtainable ideal, and a warped sense of body image was the only thing she felt that she could have any power over. But that would be only half the story.

Joan Crawford Had Nothing Over Agnes Carpenter

There are some true villains to be found in Little Girl Blue, and it becomes quite clear that Karen was trying to fill a void of some sort by not eating and using laxatives (and later, poisonous ipecac, which induces vomiting but weakens the muscles of the heart) to lose weight. While she was adored by millions of fans around the world, Schmidt paints a picture that Karen was always put behind the interests of her brother and lacked any sort of love or affection from the members of her own family and inner circle.

Managers and her brother convinced her to step outside her drum kit and perform ballads live in concert at the front of the stage – something that Schmidt contends she never felt overly comfortable doing. Both her brother and her mother Agnes, who comes across here as a manipulative control freak, would use her as the bagman whenever a member of their entourage needed to be fired.

The same characters would almost always disapprove of any picks for a suitable romantic partner – which usually came from within the Carpenters own gaggle of stage hands – repeatedly and harshly. When Karen chose to cut her own solo album in 1979 while brother Richard took time off to kick an addiction to Quaaludes, she was chastised yet again by the same members of her family for almost trying to break up the band.

Her record label was equally unsupportive, leading the record to be shelved until 1996, naturally denying her the opportunity in life to assert any sort of independence as a maturing young woman and artist. When she learned that her husband-to-be, real estate developer Tom Burris, was a liar and not what he seemed to be—for instance, he seemed to indicate during his courtship that he wanted to start a family with Karen, but dropped a bombshell right before the wedding that he’d had a vasectomy—her mother shamed her into going through with the marriage on the guise that preparations were underway to such an extent that there was no turning back, and that she should sleep in the bed that she’d lay in.

Finally, when she finally tried to seek help for her eating problems in the early ‘80s, she fell under the spell of a shady doctor, Steven Levenkron (who wasn’t even a licensed practitioner), who sought to make her dependant on him. When asked by Levenkron to have Karen meet her family during an emotional session that saw the young singer reduced to tears, her mother simply refused to acknowledge her love for her own daughter. Honestly, Joan Crawford almost comes across as a more loving and dependable parent than Agnes Carpenter in this searing account.

Of course, Little Girl Blue leaves us with more questions than actual answers: questions that probably can’t be answered now that the principal characters are now six feet under. (That’s so to speak: Karen didn’t want to be buried, so she and other member of her family are actually interred above ground.) For one, what made Agnes such a domineering, controlling Tiger mother? The book sheds no light, other than to suggest that something wasn’t right upstairs with her from the get-go. Why didn’t Karen’s father Harold step in and try to be some sort of buffer between her and her mother? We don’t know. Why didn’t Karen’s closest friends do more to help the beleaguered star cope with her illness? Schmidt doesn’t really pry, except to acknowledge that things were different in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and that anorexia nervosa was unknown territory at the time.

And what about Richard? Richard took his mother’s side when it came to whatever disagreements were floating through the family, usually, since he was considered to be the Golden Boy and probably didn’t want to rock the boat or upset Agnes. There was probably some sort of maternal obligation he felt towards her but, without his involvement in the book, that’s a bit of heresay. Why did he side so much with his mother? Without his involvement, that subject gets skirted. All of these things make Little Girl Blue a little one-dimensional: it’s as though the biographer, in trying to get the truth behind Karen’s story, sacrificed some balance in his quest to finally look behind the velvet curtain. (Assuming, of course, there was any sort of balance that could be found in such a dysfunctional family).

Still, Little Girl Blue is a powerful and absorbing book, one that will make you never listen to the Carpenters’ music in quite the same way again. In the middle of my reading, I made the mistake of going out onto my apartment balcony with a beer on a late summer evening. I had just put the Carpenter’s double-LP Greatest Hits on my turntable. I had snagged it from a dollar bin of a Toronto record store some years ago. I was expecting pleasant background music, I hoped for a feeling of being swept away in the gorgeous multi-tracked harmony of Karen’s voice. I got something completely different out of the experience, though.

While listening to the record, I actually grew upset and agitated, and eventually had to take it off. I just couldn’t see the magic behind the music – all I could feel was anger and bitterness towards Richard, Agnes and the label executives who ran an unbelievable talent into the ground. I suppose that would mean that there’s a certain power and sway to the narrative of Little Girl Blue, making it an important look at the absolute waste of what should have been Karen’s salad years. Maybe a lot that has been said about the life of Karen Carpenter in the years following her death, but Little Girl Blue punches new buttons and, despite its odd flaws, it’s a must read for those interested in how some celebrities suffer behind the prettified scenes of their art. That’s something I’m sure that Richard Carpenter doesn’t want to hear – but, at least this time, he’s biting his tongue.

Books That Rock Us

Once upon a time, deep in my classic rock phase, my then boyfriend remarked that everybody has that one musical guilty pleasure they tend to hide from view, lest friends and family find a reason to mock that appreciation. He smiled slyly at me and guessed I probably had a Madonna album sandwiched between my Beatles and Doors collection (I did), but it never occurred to me that Madonna probably had a few Carpenters vinyl platters hidden away somewhere. Little Girl Blue, Randy L. Schmidt's look into the life of this tragic legend, intimates that Karen can count some of music's trend-setters as fans, and that's okay.

Repeat after me: it is okay to admit you like, even love, The Carpenters' music. Karen seemed to have held no shame in her role as a performer, and while reading Little Girl Blue I became more endeared to the woman behind the songs, even though I would still consider myself a casual listener. When The Carpenters enjoyed their peak recording and charting period, I was not likely representative of their audience demographic. By the time I developed an appreciation for popular music, it was all Duran Duran and MTV when The Carpenters would have been relegated to the easy-listening VH1 for moms and dads (you have to remember, this was way before VH1 essentially became MTV and MTV moved to Jersey). Nonetheless, when Karen died in 1983 I knew she was significant, and I watched the subsequent TV movie about her lifeBlue reads somewhat like an extended version of that film, and it would appear both had been conceived under similar circumstances.

In fact, Schmidt begins Blue with a short history of the movie, and how the creators met with roadblocks in the form of Karen's family, who stood protective of Karen's image and history - reading the rest of the book and the treatment Karen endured, a bystander might view these actions as attempts by the family to protect themselves. In the early passages of the book it's revealed that mother Agnes is adamant that she did not kill Karen, and already you get the sense that you're about to read 300 pages of familial discord.

Oddly enough, it's almost happy discord. Despite having no support from the Carpenter family on this project (the parents have since passed, Richard Carpenter refused to help and Karen's husband is legally prevented from participating), Schmidt manages to fill a book through interviews with close friends and associates and archived interviews given by The Carpenters. What we learn is really nothing one could not glean from the TV-movie: every move the family made served to help Richard's musical career. Mother Agnes acted as the driving force to ensure Richard's fame, leaving Karen literally to beg for a chance to participate. Her taking up the drums allowed her to share this family dream and stay in the background, but this posed a few problems in the plan. For one, Karen was quite good at it:

For two, when Richard's band moved from jazz instrumentals to vocal compositions, the world discovered Karen's other talent, which is more synonymous with the group's sound than her drumming.

Little Girl Blue records the group's career with care, detailing recording sessions and tours and interspersed romances Karen found difficult to maintain - the theme of Karen yearning to be loved intimately pervades the book as we read of her mother's distant affection and husband Tom's love for her money. The more you read, the more you definitely sympathize for Karen. Of course, her eating disorder is covered, but unlike the movie which implies Karen's battle with anorexia began following a critical review of her looks after a performance (the article in question was later revealed to have been fabricated for the film) the book doesn't really pinpoint whether or not her anorexia and career pressures were related. It is possible, for even today actresses and performers are held to observe unreal standards for the sake of beauty, and unfortunately Karen could not be helped - as friends and family did seek to get her to eat and take better care of herself, what she did when backs were turned proved too deadly to reverse.

As with many biographies I read here, general reviews are mixed. Does Little Girl Blue do Karen justice? I think Schmidt did the best he could with what he had - some may argue that the absence of family involvement gives this book credibility, that at least nobody has tried to sugarcoat Karen's story or disavow her personal pain. I found the story interesting but not wholly engaging - there were times I put the book down and left it for days while I did other things, I didn't feel compelled to finish it in one sitting. As an addition to Carpenters lore it provides a more accurate picture than the film, yet reads dry in parts and falls short of the same level of enthrallment that drew fans to Karen. Of course, it's difficult to compete with something like that.

4/25 update: Since posting this review, I have since gone back and sought out the Karen Carpenter TV movie, which is available for viewing via YouTube. If I have intimated that this book parallels the film, I should stand corrected in parts. One glaring item I notice in the movie is the implication that Karen bore the brunt of the disintegration of her marriage, almost to the point that it was her fault entirely. The book relays the exact opposite. Also, very little is mentioned of Karen's efforts to produce a solo album - in the movie, it's portrayed as an idea that Richard quickly dismisses.

Rating: B-

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author whose titles include Dead Barchetta and Pithed: An Andy Farmer Mystery

I’ve never been afraid to admit my love for the Carpenters; in fact, I’d say Karen Carpenter had one of the most expressive pop voices ever recorded. I adore the work her brother Richard and she did, and always found the story of her death — and the mystery attached to it — tragic. Author Randy L. Schmidt sheds light on that mystery in Little Girl Blue: The Life Of Karen Carpenter, an entertaining tome that unveils as many facts about the singer’s decline and death as he does the achievements of her life.

Meticulously researched with spoken testimonials from nearly 100 of Carpenter’s friends, business associates and family members, Schmidt covers ground previously denied other biographers. Access is usually blocked by family members, most notably the extremely private Richard Carpenter — in Little Girl Blue, however, we are finally given an intimate and honest account of the woman’s short life.

The book’s 368 pages encompass Karen and Richard’s childhood, starting in Connecticut then moving to California, with the entire four-member family determined to steer Richard’s obvious musical ability into a career. There’s some early biographical stuff about the budding band that becomes the Carpenters, especially Karen’s love for the drums. By including insights from business associates like songwriter Paul Williams and producer Phil Ramone, we get a good glimpse into how, why and where the Carpenters made their music — in the studio and on stage — and how Karen became the unique talent she was.

For the personal stuff — a side of Karen many people were not privy to unless they were very close confidants — we learn from girlfriends like Karen “Itchie” Ramone and Frenda Franklin, plus from interviews from Karen herself, about her on-again-off-again dating life, her tragic marriage and the desire she had to be a mom and have a steady family life away from a career that at times very much suffocated her.

There is no soft pedaling here. Schmidt indeed tells it like it was. He pulls no punches nor lays no blame; he’s to be applauded for getting this story out for the first time in such a no-nonsense way, while making Little Girl Blue such a sumptuous read.

In fairness to all, anorexia nervosa, the disease Karen Carpenter suffered from to the point of her demise, wasn’t very well known in the early 80s — leaving her mother, close friends and brother Richard without a clue of what to do for her. There are stories here that make your heart ache when you read how uncaring people could be to a woman who was literally withering away before their eyes.

What one comes away with, beyond the tragedy of a talented woman dying way too young, is the enduring nature of the music Karen Carpenter made. What the Carpenters created was truly unique — as powerful a musical legacy as any modern pop band has ever created. In the end, that’s really the measure of an artist and what Little Girl Blue: The Life Of Karen Carpenter is about — the enduring legacy of a great musician.

~ Ralph Greco, Jr.

WHAT SHE WANTED MOST

Karen Carpenter is almost as famous for her anorexia nervosa death as for being lead singer of the duo, The Carpenters, in the 1970s. Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter encapsulates two decades of research by author Randy Schmidt. He became fascinated with Karen when he watched the made-for-TV movie, The Karen Carpenter Story, as a teenager in 1989, six years after her death. “There was something about the way that film presented the pathos of her story, atop the soundtrack of her sometimes optimistic but often mournful voice, that drew me in,” Schmidt writes in an author's note. “I wanted to know more. And I have spent many years searching for those answers.”

He found answers by talking to friends and associates whose opinions had previously gone unheard. Karen's family approved the content of the movie and one earlier biography. By the time Schmidt wrote his biography, the parents were dead and Karen's brother declined to comment. Thus, Little Girl Bluecould be written with a broader perspective.

The Carpenter family moved from Connecticut to Los Angeles in 1963, partly so son Richard could pursue a career as a pianist. In 1966, Richard (age 19) and sister Karen (age 16) formed a band, with Karen on drums and vocals and Richard on piano. In 1969, they signed with A&M Records, co-owned by Herb Alpert, leader of the Tijuana Brass. Their first hit was “(They Long to Be) Close To You” in 1970.

Recordings such as “We've Only Just Begun” and “Top of the World” followed, and the Carpenters spent the decade touring the world. Between 1970 and 1976, every one of their single releases reached number one or two on the Adult Contemporary chart. On the pop charts, they had 16 consecutive Top 20 hits and five Top 10 albums. The duo won three Grammy Awards and an American Music Award.

Little Girl Blue recounts with excruciating detail the songs recorded and the musicians on each recording session. The book comes across as half musical history and half biography, which is fine for readers looking for history and too detailed for those interested mainly in Karen's story.

The two things Karen wanted most in life were her music and her mother's love. But both apparently belonged to Richard. He controlled her songs, her appearances, and her singing style, almost as if she were one of his musical instruments. He was also their mother's obvious favorite.

Sherwin Bash, their first manager, states, “Over the years, Karen Carpenter became beloved in the world as a very special artist, a very special voice, who reminded everybody of the daughter they wished they had. In her own home she never was told or maybe never even felt that [love] existed from her own parents, especially her mother.”

Schmidt summarizes the opinion of housekeeper Evelyn Wallace by saying, “Karen was well aware of her second-place ranking in the home and perhaps even felt it was justified. Agnes's adoration for her firstborn--to the point of idolization, according to some--was emulated and even proliferated by Karen.”

When Karen wanted to record a solo album, her family objected. According to the author, Agnes “was fearful a temporary split might lead to a permanent separation and the end of her son's career.” Karen went to New York City to record an album she and her producer brought back to Los Angeles with pride. Sadly, it was rejected by Richard and her record label and not released until after her death.

The singing star wanted to marry and have children, and she fell for a wealthy man who wooed her with great attention. Karen brushed aside her friends' suspicions about his wealth and character. The night before their extravagant wedding ceremony, her fiancé admitted he'd had a vasectomy. “Karen felt betrayed,” the author writes. “Tom had lied to her; he had withheld the information for the duration of their courtship and engagement, knowing full well that starting a family was at the top of Karen's list of priorities. This was a deal breaker. The wedding was off.” Her friends hated to see her in pain but were glad she'd decided not to marry him. Karen called Agnes, who talked about the expense and the preparations and then told her 30-year-old daughter, “The wedding is on, and you will walk down the aisle.” She added, “You made your bed, Karen. Now you'll have to lay in it.”

With her musical career and personal relationships closely controlled by her brother and her mother, Karen controlled the only thing she could--her body. On February 4, 1983, the day she planned to finalize her divorce, Karen died of complications associated with anorexia nervosa. She was 32 years old.

Little Girl Blue is an objective telling of Karen's life. Interviews with numerous friends and musicians provide a more accurate picture of the Carpenter family than had been depicted in the 1989 movie. Richard's conversations with previous interviewers are included to add his important perspective.

Several out-of-sequence events detracted from the overall smoothness, the main one being Richard's problems with drug addiction. After a chapter about the Carpenters' traveling and recording and relationship issues, the author flashes back in the next chapter to describe Richard's health problems and drug use. That information should have been blended into the previous chapter where it occurred. Another example is Carol Curb, whom the author quoted numerous times without an introduction. I thought she must have married Karen's former boyfriend, Mike Curb. Several chapters later, we learn that Carol and Mike are siblings.

These minor flaws don't detract from the telling of this talented and tormented woman's story. Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter is a must read for anyone who wants more knowledge of the Carpenters or the 1970s era of popular music.

seattlepi.com

If the disease that led to her untimely death at 32 was exacerbated by anything, as a new-in-paperback biography suggests, Karen Carpenter suffered from deep-seated feelings of inferiority and loneliness.

In Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter, author Randy L. Schmidt chronicles the often-troubled and ultimately tragic life of one of popular music’s most gifted voices.

In one particularly telling passage, the author notes that when Carpenter started making records and touring with her older brother, Richard, she considered herself foremost a drummer, then a vocalist. At the time she was, if anything, a bit overweight. Yet by all accounts Carpenter seemed either content with her curves or indifferent to them altogether. However, as the duo’s success necessitated that she step into the spotlight — literally, as concert audiences had difficulty discerning the five-foot, four-inch singer behind her drums and cymbals — her self-esteem and health began to deteriorate.

The author gives much consideration to Carpenter’s personal (mostly familial) relationships. While her father is rendered as being genial and supportive, her mother comes across as overbearing at best and, at worst, dictatorial. Richard Carpenter seems to fall somewhere between these two extremes, appearing as a musical perfectionist yet also a protective if, at times, condescending older brother. And yet even accounts of some rather heated arguments between the two can’t diminish the overriding impression that Richard loved his sister to no end.

In depictions of the behavior and various tactics she resorted to in maintaining and masking her illness — and over time she acknowledged she was indeed contending with something more than low self-esteem and poor eating habits — Karen Carpenter never comes across as willfully self-destructive. Her actions were, it seems, a means to cope with circumstances in which she felt helpless or inadequate. Anorexia nervosa instilled in Carpenter a false sense of security, providing her a means of control, the only kind she believed she had.

Though the author wrote Little Girl Blue without the Carpenter family’s participation or blessing, the narrative is nevertheless well-substantiated, insightful, and riveting to read. Karen Carpenter’s story, of course, remains heartbreakingly sad.

Randy Schmidt chronicles Karen Carpenter’s success, tragedy in “Little Girl Blue”

Nearly 30 years after her death, Karen Carpenter’s voice is among the most instantly recognizable in the pop music pantheon. Love it or loathe it, you can hear it right now, can’t you?

“Karen Carpenter made a lot of ordinary songs into extraordinary recordings,” says biographer Randy L. Schmidt, who will appear at the Ballroom Book Bash on July 11. (Details below.) “Songs like ‘We’ve Only Just Begun,’ ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’ and ‘Superstar’ are pleasant at best when performed by other vocalists. Karen took them to a new level of excellence.”

Schmidt, a 36-year-old music teacher in Texas, was born in the middle of the Carpenters’ heyday, so he missed it firsthand. “I think that fueled the fire for my research,” he said by email from his home in Dallas/Fort Worth. “I wanted to learn everything I’d missed. That’s how this book was born — from an innocent curiosity for knowledge about a favorite singer and her life story.”

Karen and Richard Carpenter seemed oddly out of time with their generation — too clean-cut Connecticut for the Southern California music scene. Talent trumped embarrassment, though, as new fans slinked into record stores and bought Carpenters albums by the millions.

In 1971, at the first Grammy Awards ceremony to be broadcast live, the Carpenters won for best new artist and for best contemporary performance by a duo, group or chorus, beating out the Jackson Five, Simon and Garfunkel, Chicago and the Beatles. By the end of 1976, the Carpenters had racked up 16 Top 20 hits.

Schmidt’s “Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter” (Chicago Review Press) is a deeply affectionate but not fawning biography of the singer, who died in 1983 from complications of anorexia nervosa. She was 32.

In conducting hundreds of interviews over eight years, the author gained some interesting insights into her music. And he struggled to make sense of the deeply creepy family dysfunction that haunted her life. Since cooperating with an “authorized” biography in 1994, Richard Carpenter has said virtually nothing about his sister’s personal life. He declined to be interviewed for Schmidt’s book but didn’t actively fight the project.

Schmidt relied largely on the recollections of Karen’s closest confidantes, including Frenda Franklin and Karen “Itchie” Ramone (the wife of producer Phil Ramone). Franklin was especially blunt about the Carpenter matriarch’s role in Karen’s inability to love herself.

“If your own parent doesn’t love you,” Franklin says, “you’re going to walk around with a giant hole that’s not ever going to get filled.”

In the 1989 TV movie “A Song for You: The Karen Carpenter Story,” Agnes Carpenter first emerged as a darkly fascinating, fearsome mother dearest. In that version, Agnes finally tells her daughter that she loves her only a few hours before Karen’s starved heart stops beating. That bittersweet scene, Schmidt assures us, was pure fiction. There are no happy endings or easy answers here.

At the low point of her anorexia, Karen Carpenter weighed less than 80 pounds. Now that anorexia and other eating disorders have become such a part of the popular lexicon — either as unofficial diagnosis or as punch line — it’s difficult to remember what unknown territory it was in the 1980s. As hard as it is now to fathom how she could have wasted away to the point of death, it was far more mystifying then.

As a music teacher, Schmidt is well versed in a huge variety of genres and styles. On his own iPod, though, he says he is most drawn to strong melodic music with a great lead vocal. “I rarely tire of listening to Karen sing,” he says. “I love that there are so many diehard Carpenters fans who never get tired of that sweet, sweet sound. It’s therapeutic and restorative in so many ways. Her voice is a place of solace.”

After finding little solace in her own life, Karen Carpenter’s recorded legacy still strikes a chord. And in this life story, her strangely optimistic yet mournful voice joins a timeless chorus of cautionary tales about the tragic excesses and limitations of stardom.

Karen Carpenter's Tragic Story

Karen Carpenter's velvet voice charmed millions in the 70s… but behind the wholesome image she was in turmoil. Desperate to look slim on stage – and above all desperate to please the domineering mother who preferred her brother – she became the first celebrity victim of anorexia. In a revealing new biography, extracted below, Randy Schmidt tells the full story . . . 

The Carpenters were one of the biggest-selling American musical acts of all time. Between 1970 and 1984 brother and sister Richard and Karen Carpenter had 17 top 20 hits, including "Goodbye to Love", "Yesterday Once More", "Close to You" and "Rainy Days and Mondays". They notched up 10 gold singles, nine gold albums, one multi-platinum album and three Grammy awards. Karen's velvety voice and Richard's airy melodies and meticulously crafted arrangements stood in direct contrast to the louder, wilder rock dominating the rest of the charts at the time, yet they became immensely popular, selling more than 100m  records. 

Richard was the musical driving force but it was Karen's effortless voice that lay behind the Carpenters' hits. Promoted from behind the drums to star vocalist, she became one of the decade's most instantly recognisable female singers.

But there was a tragic discrepancy between her public and private selves. Offstage, away from the spotlight, she felt desperately unloved by her mother, Agnes, who favoured Richard, and struggled with low self-esteem, eventually developing anorexia nervosa from which she never recovered. She died at the age of 32.

In 1996 journalist Rob Hoerburger powerfully summed up Karen Carpenter's tribulations in aNew York Times Magazine feature: "If anorexia has classically been defined as a young woman's struggle for control, then Karen was a prime candidate, for the two things she valued most in the world – her voice and her mother's love – were exclusively the property of her brother Richard. At least she would control the size of her own body." And control it she did. By September 1975 her weight fell to 6st 7lb (41kg).

Karen's quest to be thin seems to have begun innocently enough just after high school graduation when she started the Stillman water diet. Although she was never obese, she was what most would consider a chubby 17-year-old at 10st 5lb. (She was 5ft 4in tall.) She levelled off at around 8st 8lb and maintained her weight by eating sensibly but not starving herself. Even so, eating while on tour was problematic for Karen, as she described 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."

Karen was shocked when she saw photos from an August 1973 Lake Tahoe concert where an unflattering outfit accentuated her paunch. She hired a personal trainer, who made visits to her home and recommended a diet low in calories but high in carbohydrates. Instead of slimming down as she had hoped, Karen started to put on muscle and bulk up. Watching the Carpenters on a Bob Hope television special that autumn, she remarked that she had put on some extra weight. Richard agreed she looked a bit heavier. She was discouraged and vowed she was going to "do something about it". She fired her trainer, and immediately set out on a mission to shed the unwanted pounds on her own. She purchased a hip cycle, which she used each morning on her bed, and because it was portable the equipment was packed and taken with her on tour.

"She lost around 20lb and she looked fabulous," recalls Carole Curb, the sister of Karen's then boyfriend, record executive Mike Curb. "She weighed 110lb [7st 12lb] 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."

Having witnessed Karen's meticulous routine of counting calories and planning food intake for every meal, Richard complimented her initial weight loss during a break from recording as the two dined at the Au Petit Café, a favourite French bistro on Vine Street near the A&M studios. "You look great," he told her.

"Well, I'm just going to get down to around 105."

"A hundred and five? You look great now."

Karen's response worried Richard. In fact, this was the first time he paused to consider she might be taking the diet too far. Friends and family began to notice extreme changes in Karen's eating habits, despite her attempts at subtlety. She rearranged and pushed her food around the plate with a fork as she talked, which gave the appearance of eating. Another of her strategies involved offering samples of her food to others around the table. She would rave on about her delicious meal and then insist that everyone try it for themselves. "Here, you have some," she would say as she enthusiastically scooped heaps on to others' plates. "Would you like to taste this?" By the time dinner was over, Karen's plate was clean but she had dispersed her entire meal to everyone else. Her mother, Agnes, caught on to this ploy and began to do the same in return. "Well, this is good, too," she would say as she put more food on to her daughter's plate. This infuriated Karen, who realised she would have to find other ways to avoid eating.

By the time Karen's weight dropped to 6st 6lb, she looked for ways to disguise the weight loss, especially around those she knew would make comments or pester her to eat more. She began to layer her clothing, a strategy her agent Sherwin Bash noticed in the early part of 1975. "She would start with a long-sleeved shirt and then put a blouse over that," he explains, "and a sweater over that and a jacket over that… With all of it you had no idea of what she had become."

But family friend Evelyn Wallace was shocked when she caught a glimpse of Karen's gaunt figure as she sunbathed topless in the back garden of the Carpenters' home in Downey, California, one afternoon. "They put this screen around her so nobody else could see her," Wallace explains. "She loved to go lay out in the sunshine. I don't know whether it was to get a tan or get away from her mother. Anyhow, I happened to go out to the kitchen for something and I saw her out there. She just had on her little bathing suit shorts. You couldn't tell whether it was a girl or a boy. She had absolutely no breasts."

Karen's new slim figure required that she purchase a new stage wardrobe, and she opted for a number of low-cut silky gowns, some strapless or even backless. Bash was horrified to see her bony shoulders and ribs. Even her hip bones were visible through the thin layers of fabric. He asked Karen to rethink the wardrobe choices before going on stage. "I talked her into putting a jacket on over the bare back and bare arms," he said, "but the audience saw it."

There was often a collective gasp from the audience when Karen would take the stage. In fact, after a few shows, Bash was approached by concerned fans who knew something was terribly wrong but assumed she had cancer or some other disease. Even critics took note of her gaunt appearance. A review for Variety praised Karen's emergence from behind the drums to centre stage but commented on her deteriorating appearance. "She is terribly thin, almost a wraith, and should be gowned more becomingly."

No one really understood why Karen wasn't eating. To those around her the solution seemed simple: eat. "Anorexia nervosa was so new that I didn't even know how to pronounce it until 1980," band member John Bettis said. "From the outside the solution looks so simple. All a person has to do is eat. So we were constantly trying to shove food at Karen… My opinion about anorexia is it's an attempt to have control – something in your life you can do something about, that you can regiment. That just got out of control with her."

Band members witnessed her exhaustion. She was lying down between shows, something she had rarely, if ever, done before. They were shocked to see how she could be flat on her back one minute and on stage singing the next. Even when doing back-to-back shows, Karen displayed "a tremendous amount of nervous energy", said Bash. Unlike her parents, Bash had no qualms about confronting Karen on the issue of anorexia. "The fact that she was anorexic was discussed innumerable times… There was every attempt to get her to seek professional help, but I believe her family was the kind of family where the mother would say, 'We can take care of ourselves. We don't need to have someone help. This is a family matter.'"

When Karen dieted, or "overdieted", Bash explains, there was a rush of attention from the family, especially Agnes. "Karen had never had attention from Agnes before – her mother doted exclusively on Richard – so she liked it. The experts say that one of the things that seems to drive young girls to overdiet is that they were oftentimes the kids that never got attention. It's a way of getting the love from their family that they never got before."

By the autumn of 1975 Karen's failing health could no longer be ignored. In addition to her skeletal appearance, she was mentally and physically exhausted. Although she made it through a series of shows in LasVegas without a major incident, upon returning to Los Angeles she checked into Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre, where she spent five days while doctors ran tests. "She is suffering a severe case of physical and nervous exhaustion," said Dr Robert Koblin in a statement to the press. "She had a hectic four-week schedule lined up in Europe but I could not allow her to go through with it. In my opinion it would have been highly dangerous to her long-term health." Melody Maker reported that the Carpenters' tour would have been the highest-grossing tour in Britain and that approximately 150,000 people were set to see them during the planned 28-day European trek. Ticket sales for the 50 shows, which sold out in a matter of hours, were refunded. It was reported that the Carpenters may have easily lost upward of $250,000 due to the cancelled concerts.

Under Agnes Carpenter's close watch, Karen slept 14-16 hours a day. "My mother thought I was dead," she told biographer Ray Coleman. "I normally manage on four to six hours. It was obvious that for the past two years I'd been running on nervous energy." Her weight eventually climbed to 7st 6lb.

Over the next five years Karen continued to struggle with anorexia and bulimia nervosa. Meanwhile Richard Carpenter fought and won a battle with Quaalude addiction. Then in June 1980, after an unsuccessful attempt to launch a solo career, Karen announced her engagement to a property developer called Tom Burris.

Thirty-nine-year-old Tom Burris met a number of Karen's requirements in a potential husband. "He was very attractive, very nice, and he seemed very generous," said Carole Curb. Two months into their relationship, Burris told Karen he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. The couple's plan for a year-long engagement was ditched when they announced in July their plans for an August ceremony. The push to be married alarmed Karen's friends. According to Karen 'Itchie' Ramone, Karen's friend and the wife of producer Phil Ramone, "That's when everybody's antennas went up." Days before the wedding rehearsal Burris dropped a bombshell: he had undergone a vasectomy prior to their meeting. Karen was dumbfounded. He offered to reverse the procedure but their chances at a family would be significantly lessened.

Karen felt betrayed. Burris had lied to her; he had withheld this information for the duration of their courtship and engagement, knowing full well that starting a family was at the top of Karen's list of priorities. This was a deal breaker. The wedding was off. Karen picked up the phone and called her mother. She cried to Agnes as she explained the deceit that left her with no choice but to cancel the ceremony. But Agnes told her she would do no such thing. Family and friends were travelling from all over the country to attend the event. Moreover, the wedding expenses had already cost what Agnes considered to be a small fortune. "The invitations have gone out. There are reporters and photographers coming. People magazine is going to be there. The wedding is on, and you will walk down that aisle. You made your bed, Karen," she told her. "Now you'll have to lay in it."

Most of Karen's family and friends had assumed Burris's lifestyle and net worth were comparable to her own. The expensive cars and other possessions gave him the appearance of a multimillionaire, but what others did not realise was that he was living well beyond his means.

"It wasn't long after they got married that he started asking her for money," recalls Evelyn Wallace. "He'd give her some excuse, and she'd give him the money. He'd ask for $35,000 and $50,000 at a time. Finally it got down to the point where all she had left was stocks and bonds."

As Itchie Ramone recalls, "Tom couldn't afford the houses, the cars, her wedding ring; he couldn't pay for anything." Karen began to share with friends her growing misgivings about Tom, not only concerning his finances but also his lack of feelings for her. He was often impatient, and she admitted being fearful when he would occasionally lose his temper. "He could be very cruel to her," says Itchie. But Karen's longing to be a mother proved to be stronger than her desire to leave her husband. At their house in Newport Beach Karen expressed to Burris her desire to get pregnant and start a family. His response was brutal. She was still crying hysterically when she called Itchie Ramone for support. Burris had told her he wouldn't even consider having children with her and called her "a bag of bones". According to Itchie, this marriage was "the straw that broke the camel's back. It was absolutely the worst thing that could have ever happened to her."

Friends suggested she and Burris seek marital counselling. Instead, the Carpenters prepared to leave for Europe and South America. Itchie went along to keep Karen company. In reality, however, according to Itchie, "Laxatives were her major companion. When we were in Paris we made quite a scene in a pharmacy across the street from our hotel about her needing to buy more laxatives. I suggested natural food groups that might relieve her 'constipation' but she always won those arguments."

Following a brief stop in Amsterdam, the Carpenters arrived at London's Heathrow airport on Wednesday, 21 October 1981. They made numerous promotional appearances while in London, both in person and on television. On Thursday they taped an interview for Nationwide, a popular news magazine on BBC television. Barely one minute into their visit, host Sue Lawley surprised Karen by casting light on her darkest secret. "There were rumours that you were suffering from the slimmer's disease anorexia nervosa," Lawley said. "Is that right?" "No, I was just pooped," Karen said with an intense frown. "I was tired out."

"You went down to about six stone in weight, I think, didn't you?" Lawley asked. "I have no idea what 'six stone in weight' is," Karen replied, becoming noticeably uncomfortable and increasingly agitated. She struggled to fake a laugh, rolling her eyes at the interviewer, who quickly converted the amount to approximately 84lbs. "No," she said, shaking her head adamantly. "No."

In actuality her weight was hovering around 5st 10lbs even then. The interviewer's continued efforts to pinpoint a reason for Karen's skeletal appearance prompted Richard to come to his sister's defence. "I don't really feel that we should be talking about the weight loss," he told Lawley. "Maybe it's better to take a pass on the whole thing. It's really not what we're here for."

"I am just asking you the questions people want to know the answers to," Lawley replied.

Returning to Los Angeles in November 1981, Karen filed for divorce. Leaving behind the pieces of her broken marriage, she set out on a year-long recovery mission, relocating to New York City's Regency Hotel in January 1982. Manager Jerry Weintraub arranged for Karen and Itchie Ramone to share a two-bedroom suite. Cherry O'Neill, the eldest daughter of singer Pat Boone who had herself recovered from anorexia, had recommended Karen consider coming to the northwest and seeing the doctor who helped her. But in Karen's world, one name was synonymous with anorexia treatment, and that name was Steven Levenkron. He was a psychotherapist specialising in eating disordersand his successful book The Best Little Girl in the World had become a highly acclaimed television movie, which aired in May 1981. Levenkron agreed to treat her. He received £100 for each hour-long session five days a week, totalling $2,000 a month. "I liked Levenkron, at least in the beginning," Itchie Ramone says. "No one really knew why someone would get the disorder or how to treat it, so we were really looking to him to 'save' her."

Arriving at Levenkron's office at 16 East Seventy-Ninth in Manhattan, Karen weighed in at an alarming 5st 8lb. A week into their daily sessions, Karen admitted to Levenkron she was taking a large number of laxative tablets – 80-90 Dulcolax a night. This did not surprise Levenkron. In fact, it was a common practice for many anorexics. "For quite some time, I was taking 60 laxatives at once," admits Cherry O'Neill. "Mainly because that was how many came in the box… I would ingest the entire contents so as not to leave any evidence."

What did stun Levenkron was Karen's next casual disclosure. She was also taking thyroid medication – 10 pills a day. He was shocked, especially when she explained that she had a normal thyroid. Realising she was using the medication to speed up her metabolism, Levenkron confiscated the pills. This was the first case of thyroid medication abuse he had seen in his dozen years in the field.

According to Levenkron's 1982 book, Treating and Overcoming Anorexia Nervosa, the patient must become totally dependent upon the therapist. Once the patient has transferred their dependence on to him, he tries to teach them how to create their own sense of identity, and he helps them disengage from their dependence on him with new behaviours, habits, and thought patterns.

Karen took advantage of the beautiful spring weather and began a new exercise routine – to and from her sessions with Levenkron – a brisk two-mile round-trip walk. This was yet another method to burn extra calories. Outwardly Karen seemed committed to the idea of therapy, but as evidenced by her daily walking regimen, she was not as committed to making actual changes that would result in real progress. "She was still walking a lot, and she was exercising," Carole Curb says. "And then she was into throwing up and taking pills that make you lose water-weight. Debilitating things like that."

Several months into his sessions with Karen, Levenkron began to suspect that she had fallen off the wagon. He invited the Carpenter parents and Richard to a 90-minute family therapy session at his office. "They did come to New York –finally," Itchie Ramone recalls, "and only after a lot of nudging. By then, Karen seemed to be starting to turn the corner a bit emotionally."

The stigma surrounding mental illness and a need for therapy was frightening for the family, especially Agnes, who felt Karen was simply going overboard as far as dieting was concerned. If only she would stop being so stubborn and just eat. Over the years the family tried every possible approach to get through to her and make her eat. "Everyone around her did everything that they could have humanly done," Richard said in 1993. "I tried everything – the heart-to-heart, the cajole, the holler… It can just make you crazy. Obviously it wasn't about to work, and I was upset."

Levenkron explained that the family's attempts to threaten or bribe Karen out of her behaviours would never make them go away. According to his book, "Failure of the family to understand this produces division within the family that in turn results in feelings of anger and guilt. The family atmosphere is chaotic, reinforcing the anorexic's belief that she and no one else knows what is best for her." Levenkron suggested to the family that Karen was in need of a more tactile, demonstrative kind of love. Karen cried uncontrollably during the meeting. She told them how sorry she was for having put them in a situation where they felt a need to defend her upbringing, and she went so far as to apologise for ruining their lives. "I think Karen really needs to hear that you love her," Levenkron told the family.

"Well, of course I love you," Richard told her unreservedly.

"Agnes?" The therapist tapped the mother's shoe with his own.

Rather than address her daughter, Agnes explained how she preferred to be called Mrs Carpenter. "Well, I'm from the north," she continued. "And we just don't do things that way."

"Agnes couldn't do it," says Itchie Ramone, who discussed the meeting with Karen and Levenkron after the family left. "She couldn't do it… In therapy you're basically stark naked. Then your own mother can't reach out to you? And the way she doted on Richard. Most children would try to dance as fast as they could to make their parents love them, but it was at that point that I think Karen decided it was time to take a step back."

After the meeting with Levenkron, Richard became angry with the treatment plan, which he thought to be worthless. He was upset that Karen had not checked herself into an inpatient facility as one would do to conquer substance abuse. He and his parents returned to California and chose to keep their distance after this painful encounter. They made no further attempts to contact Karen's therapist. "What I find interesting," Levenkron stated in 1993, "is that in the entire time Karen was in New York, I got zero calls from the family. I have never treated anyone with anorexia nervosa whose family didn't call regularly because they were concerned." Likewise, Richard claimed to have never received a call from Levenkron.

Karen and Itchie were surprised to learn that Levenkron was not an actual doctor. "We used to call him 'Dr Levenkron' all the time," Itchie explains. "Then we found out that he wasn't even a real doctor. Any medical issues she had, we had to go see this other doctor at Lenox Hill Hospital."

According to Evelyn Wallace, "Karen picked the wrong guy to go to. He wasn't even a doctor. It seemed like Levenkron was simply trying to talk Karen out of having anorexia, but she'd talk to him and she'd go back to the same routine."

By the autumn of 1982 Karen showed no real signs of progress. In fact, her walks to and from sessions with Levenkron kept her body weight beneath the six stone mark. Itchie Ramone called Levenkron and voiced her concerns. "Look, Karen's getting thinner and thinner," she exclaimed. "Plus, it's obvious she doesn't have her usual energy anymore. When do you expect this turnaround? She's just skin and bone."

The therapist agreed that Karen seemed extra tired and was not responding as quickly as he had hoped, and vowed to try another approach. After her next session with Levenkron, Karen asked Itchie if she could borrow a swimsuit. "What?" Itchie asked. "There's no pool in the hotel. Besides, it's cold out!"

"No, I have to wear it tomorrow for Levenkron," Karen answered. The two stopped by the Ramones's apartment to pick up a size 2 light green bikini belonging to Itchie. Karen changed into the bikini and emerged smiling. Itchie was mortified and unable to hide her reaction. "What's the matter?" Karen asked. "It fits."

"Uh, yeah, it fits," she said hesitantly. "You can use it tomorrow, I guess."

Returning to Levenkron the following day, Karen was asked to change into the bikini and stand in front of the office mirror. He urged her to survey and evaluate her body. "She didn't really see any problem with how she looked," Itchie recalls. "In fact, she thought she was gaining a little weight. But she was 79lb."

In mid-September Karen phoned Levenkron and told him her heart was "beating funny". She was quite upset, anxious, and confused. She complained of dizziness to an extent that she was unable to walk. Despite not being medically qualified, he recognised her symptoms as those of someone suffering extreme dehydration. Karen was admitted to New York's Lenox Hill Hospital on 20 September 1982 to begin hyperalimentation, or intravenous feeding.

The next morning she went into surgery to have a small-bore catheter implanted within the superior vena cava (right atrium of the heart). An unexpected complication was discovered later that day when she complained to the nurse of excruciating chest pain, and X-rays revealed the doctors had accidentally punctured one of her lungs in their attempts to insert the tube.

As her lung began to heal, Karen's body quickly responded to the artificial means of feeding. The hyperalimentation process completely replaced all of her nutritional needs, and a precise daily calorie intake was dispensed through the catheter. This loss of control was known to often spark fear in patients, and doctors who oppose hyperalimentation argue that it does not teach the patient to eat properly. However, Karen went along with it and gained 12lb in only a few days. Solid foods were slowly reintroduced as the level of assistance from Karen's IV lessened, and she continued to gain weight steadily. Unlike many other patients she seemed pleased and excited to show visitors her progress. Richard flew in to visit on 25 October and, like most who saw her there, was shocked and saddened. She was still horribly emaciated and barely identifiable by this stage. "You see how much better I look?" she asked.

Richard nodded in agreement but only to appease his sister. In an attempt to divert the attention away from herself, Karen told him of other patients who were much worse off. But he was not sidetracked. "Karen, this is crap," he said suddenly. "Don't you understand? This is crap! You're going about this all the wrong way. This guy isn't getting anything accomplished because you're in a hospital now!"

By November Karen was eating three meals a day at Lenox Hill, and trying to stay positive about the weight gain, by then approaching the 30lb mark. The return of her menstrual cycle, which had ceased during the previous year, seemed to signify an improvement in emotional and physical wellbeing.

On 16 November Karen visited Steven Levenkron for the last time and presented him with a farewell gift, a framed personal message in needlepoint. The large green-threaded words "you win – I gain" served as tangible proof of the long hours Karen had spent alone in the hospital. Learning of her plan to leave, Levenkron reminded Karen she was abandoning the program much too soon, and that treatment takes at least three years. He suggested a therapist in Los Angeles so that she might continue a routine of some sort upon her return home, but she declined. She promised to call him and swore she would not take any more laxatives or diuretics. Agnes and Harold (Karen's father) met up with her at Levenkron's office that day. The couple had flown to New York City to bring their daughter and her 22 pieces of luggage home. It was obvious to most that Karen's treatment was inadequate and ending too soon.

"She tried to get help," says her longtime friend Frenda Franklin. "She went to New York to try. It just wasn't the right way to do it. If this had happened in today's world I think Karen would have lived. I think we would have had a good shot. They know so much more. We were dancing in the dark."

Karen ate heartily on Thanksgiving Day, much to the delight of her family, and she even called Itchie Ramone that night to tell her of all she had eaten. "She said to me, 'I ate this and that and all my favourite things,'" she recalls. "She was very proud of herself then. We were all very proud of her. It seemed like progress."

In the weeks following her return to Los Angeles Karen went back to shopping and socialising without delay. Although others felt she was still quite fragile and thin, Herb Alpert, who had first signed the Carpenters to A&M, saw Karen shortly after the New Year and recalled her looking terrific. She bounced into his office saying, "Hey, look at me, Herbie! What do you think? How do I look?" Alpert agreed that she looked happier and healthier than he had seen her in some time, and felt she appeared to have won the battle. "I am so happy," she told him.

"I'm ready to record again, and Richard and I have been talking about getting the group together and performing."

Despite her high spirits, she was taking more naps than usual and sometimes lying down by seven in the evening. Richard did not believe she was well, and he told her so. On Thursday 27 January Florine Elie drove to Century City for her weekly cleaning of Karen's apartment at Century Towers. There the housekeeper made an unnerving discovery. "When I was working up there I found Karen," Elie says. "She was lying on the floor of her closet." She gently shook Karen who awoke but was groggy. "Karen, is there something wrong?" she asked.

"No, I am just so tired," she replied.

"Maybe you better go lie on your bed," she said, helping Karen up and tucking her into bed.

Florine checked on Karen again before leaving. By then she was awake and adamant she was OK.

Tuesday 1 February found Karen dining with her brother, this time at Scandia on Sunset Boulevard. They were joined by stage producer Joe Layton, and the trio discussed plans for the Carpenters' return to touring. Karen ate with enthusiasm and after dinner returned to Century Towers. This was the last time Richard would see his sister alive.

The next day Karen spoke with Itchie Ramone, who was pregnant with her and Phil's first child. Karen shared her plans for the week. She would sign the final divorce papers on Friday and then prepare to leave for New York. "That weekend, 6 February, she was going to hop on a plane and be there for the birth," Itchie recalls.

Shortly after midnight, staying overnight with her parents, Karen went over her to-do list with Frenda Franklin by phone, and finalised plans for the next day. "OK, I am going to drive in. There shouldn't be a lot of traffic," she said. According to Frenda, Karen enjoyed keeping up with traffic reports. "Then we're going to go get the red fingernail polish." The two had a noon appointment for a manicure in celebration of her divorce.

On Friday morning, 4 February, Karen awoke and went downstairs to the kitchen, where she turned on the coffeepot her mother had prepared the night before. She went back upstairs to get dressed. When the coffee was ready, Agnes dialled the upstairs bedroom phone, but its ring, heard faintly in the distance, went unanswered. Agnes went to the foot of the stairs and called to her daughter but there was no response. Entering the room, Agnes found Karen's motionless, nude body lying face down on the floor of the walk-in wardrobe. Her eyes were open but rolled back. She was lying in a straight line and did not appear to have fallen. "She had just laid down on the floor and that was it," Agnes recalled.

The autopsy report listed the cause of death as "emetine cardiotoxicity due to or as a consequence of anorexia nervosa." The finding of emetine cardiotoxicity (ipecac poisoning) revealed that Karen had poisoned herself with ipecac syrup, a well-known emetic commonly recommended to induce vomiting in cases of overdose or poisoning.

Levenkron claimed to know nothing of Karen's use or abuse of ipecac. In their phone calls she assured him she was maintaining her new 7st 10lb figure and had completely suspended use of all laxatives. He never suspected she was resorting to something much more lethal.

In a radio interview taped shortly after Karen's death, Levenkron discussed the autopsy findings: "According to the LA coroner, she discovered ipecac… and started taking it every day. There are a lot of women out there who are using ipecac for self-induced vomiting. It creates painful cramps, tastes terrible, and it does another thing that the public isn't aware of. It slowly dissolves the heart muscle. If you take it day after day, every dose is taking another little piece of that heart muscle apart. Karen, after fighting bravely for a year in therapy, went home and apparently decided that she wouldn't lose any weight with ipecac, but that she'd make sure she didn't gain any. I'm sure she thought this was a harmless thing she was doing, but in 60 days she had accidentally killed herself. It was a shocker for all of us who treated her."

In one of Levenkron's most recent books, Anatomy of Anorexia, the author boasts of his above-average recovery rate in working with those suffering from eating disorders. "In the last 20 years I have treated nearly 300 anorexics," he wrote. "I am pleased to state that I have had a 90 per cent recovery rate, though tragically, one fatality." That was Karen Carpenter.

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Author of Karen Carpenter bio 'Little Girl Blue' comes to Memphis

People of a certain age remember the 1983 death of the pop star Karen Carpenter at the age of 32 as their first notice that anorexia nervosa was a lethal disorder. It was a time when you still might hear the question, "Why didn't people make her eat?"  
A 2010 Carpenter biography called "Little Girl Blue" (Chicago Review Press, $26.95) makes it clear how helpless people around the singer were when it came to getting her treatment, and how complicated her psychological landscape was. 

Author Randy Schmidt, who will be in Memphis at 6 p.m. Thursday to sign "Little Girl Blue" at The Booksellers at Laurelwood, writes by e-mail from Texas that he first heard Carpenter's lush contralto when he was 13.

"I fell in love with Karen's voice and was entranced by her story in one fell swoop," he writes. "I felt a strange and unexplainable connection to her through her voice.

"The longing, mournful qualities spoke to me and I could sense there was a deeper sadness, even behind the happier, more optimistic songs. Even as a teenager, I felt a great deal of compassion for Karen and wanted to learn more about her life."

He was also, apparently, an incipient music geek. "I was just getting interested in choral music sounds, so the Carpenters' multi-layered recordings were also appealing to me."

Karen Carpenter was among the most famous music stars in the world in the early 1970s, with a stack of hits that included "Close to You," "Rainy Days and Mondays," "We've Only Just Begun," "Superstar" and "For All We Know." But Schmidt's book  implies makes clear, a crippling lack of maternal love wouldn't be  repaired by global admiration. Karen's mother Agnes Carpenter is introduced in the prologue with her 1984 greeting to Hollywood screenwriter Barry Morrow: "I want you to know I did not kill my daughter." 


Schmidt, 36, teaches elementary-school music in Denton, Texas, and was recently named Denton Independent School District Teacher of the Year. "Little Girl Blue" is  testimony that he's also a dogged reporter, a thorough researcher and a clear writer.

Though Carpenter's  brother and lifelong musical collaborator, Richard,  wouldn't participate in this biography, he didn't discourage Karen's close friends from doing so. 

Among them was Mike Curb, the Nashville-based record producer who is the benefactor of Rhodes College's Mike Curb Music Institute. (Curb purchased Elvis Presley's onetime Memphis home on Audubon for $1 million in 2006, as part of the institute.)  

By the time he began dating Karen Carpenter, Curb was an established force on the American contemporary music scene. He had  produced Sammy Davis Jr.'s "The Candy Man" and Donny Osmond's "Puppy Love" in 1972, which helped earn him Billboard's Producer of the Year award.   

Reached by phone last week, Curb said  his sister, who is still president of the Curb company, introduced him to Karen. "She was so talented, so close to her brother. It seemed like every time I dated her, I dropped her off at the recording company -- they recorded very late. ...  When she would sing in the car, her voice was so soft you couldn't hear it, but with a microphone, she was  magical." 

The Curbs and Carpenters were a well-matched brother-and-sister combination in several respects, Curb said. He and Richard were both producers -- "but he was definitely more talented than I was" -- and the sisters were the same age, and shared the same concerning symptoms of  anorexia. 

Curb remembers taking Karen to Knott's Berry Farm theme park because she liked the mashed potatoes and fried chicken there. "I would tell her, 'If you don't eat, I'm gonna drive you to Knott's Berry Farm.'

"We dated for it seemed like a couple of years, then she went on a world tour, and I don't know what happened ...." Still they remained good friends,  and she spent her last Christmas Eve with the Curbs to celebrate his birthday. 

"I get the shivers when I talk about her. She should still be alive, she should still be singing. My sister and I talk about her all the time, can't get her out of our minds. She was so gifted. It's so hard to understand how we've lost her."

Schmidt says he found Carpenter friends receptive to his project. "I had the advantage of not being a journalist or someone seen as digging for dirt," he said by e-mail. "They wanted to know what approach I was going to take in regards to the mother-daughter relationship, or how Richard would be portrayed in the grand scheme of things. Most of all, I had to convince Karen's friends that I would not 'harm' her or do anything to tarnish her legacy, while still telling the truth."

Of Karen's musical melancholy, Schmidt said: "Someone at 21 singing 'Superstar' and 'Rainy Days and Mondays' with such conviction and understanding required her to tap into some soulful reserve. I do think there was some experience or perhaps familial relationship that played into that. She went somewhere inside that not too many young singers ever visit."

Agnes was famously devoted to her son, and Schmidt believes that may have been the accidental impetus for Karen's career. 

"Had Richard not been so into his music and Agnes not been so driven to see her son be a superstar, I don't know that we would have ever heard Karen play the drums or sing. Karen wanted to do something to help further her brother's career. She became his drummer."

 Schmidt dedicated his book to Lindeigh Scotte (1956-2001) and Cynthia Ward (1975-2005), in addition to his daughters. He says Ward was a Carpenters fan who made her collection of audio and video footage available to him during his research, and who died at 29 after suffering from anorexia. Scotte was a Carpenters devotee who planned fan gatherings in the 1990s.

Under The Radar

Little Girl Blue, the tragic story of Karen Carpenter's life, shows the heartache behind the wholesome, loving songs. Despite a frustrating lack of brother Richard's (and other key family members) participation, the book is a compelling, well-researched read that moves swiftly. One feels that Carpenter might have had a long, successful life had she been left joyously playing the drums, hidden from the audience, and making the music she loved. Instead, her amazing vocal talents pushed her out in front, and her life rapidly unraveled. In the '70s, anorexia nervosa was not commonly recognized, and, in the case of Carpenter's parents, never acknowledged. Carpenter wasted away in front of the people she loved, despite attempted interventions and her own desire to get the house/marriage/children she longed for so desperately. Sad, bitter family anecdotes are revealed, and despite the occasional upswings in her health and relationships, we all know how the story ends.

Randy Schmidt: An Interview with a SuperFan

Randy Schmidt has had three books published (to date) relating to the music of Carpenters. His first book, "Yesterday Once More: Memories of the Carpenters and their Music" was a compilation of newspaper, magazine and book reviews and articles all put into one book. This collection was published in 2000 and was a huge delight to all Carpenters fans. Eleven years later Schmidt released his prized work "Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter". Schmidt compiled data and interviews from Karen's friends and associates and wrote a compelling story attempting to tell the real story of Karen Carpenter. "Little Girl Blue" was a big success. Because of this success Schmidt decided to expand his first release "Yesterday Once More: Memories of the Carpenters and their Music" by adding several more articles to it. This new expanded issue is titled, "Yesterday Once More: The Carpenters Reader".

This interview gives us a nice insight into the workings of his books as well as an introduction into the person that Randy Schmidt is.

RH = Rick Henry, RS = Randy Schmidt

RH: In composing, compiling, editing and authoring these books have you ever felt like you were in any way entering the life of Karen Carpenter or maybe becoming part of Karen's soul?
RS: The Yesterday Once More book (YOM for short) was lots of research and digging and permission seeking, so it was not nearly the emotional journey of Little Girl Blue (LGB for short). For that project, there was something really special about the stories shared with me by Karen’s friends. Getting to know them and to witness the love they have for her nearly thirty years after she passed just goes to show what a special person Karen was. Karen was such a private person, though, so I don’t know that I felt I ever got to a soul level with her story. She didn’t let anyone get that close. Even Karen’s closest confidants were lied to and deceived, with no ill intent, of course, in her continued attempts to convince them she was okay. On some level, I feel she desired attention, but then she also just wanted to be left alone with her illness. I think she lived much of her life inside her head.
RH: "Little Girl Blue" was a touching tribute to Karen. A lot of it was very emotional and somewhat revealing to Karen's inner being. Did you ever become over emotional while working on this book?
RS: I certainly did get emotional from time to time. Imagine sitting in Frenda’s living room and hearing all this for the first time! I was numb with emotion that day. Witnessing Mike Curb, Olivia, Terry Ellis, and others choked up over “what might have been…” Those moments were so touching and at the same time I couldn’t believe I was on the receiving end of these deeply personal feelings. There were so many revelations in LGB and luckily for me they came sporadically. The tidbits of information were released by various interviewees over time, so I had time to digest the contents little by little. I was caught off guard by the emotional response of readers, but I guess I shouldn’t have been. It was the combination of all those tidbits that combined for an overwhelming amount of information. I realize now that sitting down and reading the book in a few hours or even over a few days often results in a truly heart-wrenching experience.
RH: What motivated you to write "Little Girl Blue"? Why did you see a need for this book?
RS: I’m reminded of a comment Karen would often make regarding her singing voice: “It just sorta happened!” After Yesterday Once More was published in 2000, I got the idea to do a children’s book about the Carpenters. I hoped to focus on their early musical influences, their experimentation with various instruments, attempts to get a record deal, and so on. The first person I interviewed was Debbie Cuticello, one of Karen’s childhood friends from New Haven. That children’s book project never really took shape, but the interview with Debbie proved to be the first of many I would do over the following years. The project took on many different shapes—from children’s book to a career retrospective to an oral history of the Carpenters’ music and recording sessions. But there came a time when I began to see a pattern in all of the research I’d been doing and especially in the responses of those I was interviewing. The common thread was Karen. And I am sure Richard struggles with this on a daily basis, but all I kept hearing was “Karen, Karen, Karen.” No joke. I don’t remember exactly what made the decision for me, but the focus shifted from the duo to just Karen, specifically. Of course you can’t tell her story without his and vice versa, but I began to realize that, even though she was one-half of a duo, Karen was important enough as an individual to warrant her own book. When considering a book proposal, one of the things publishers want to know is “what’s different” about this book. What sets this book apart from others on the same subject? There had never really been a KAREN Carpenter biography. I had so many unanswered questions after reading Ray Coleman’s book and seeing and hearing other accounts, so I knew other fans probably felt the same way. Richard wasn’t talking, so we weren’t going to get more of the story there. I had been secretly hoping Paul Grein would write the Carpenters bio that I wanted to read, but I finally took matters into my own hands, I guess you could say. I remember having dinner with Chris Tassin one night in early 2008 and telling him some of my thoughts and ideas. We went to a bookstore afterward and looked through lots of celebrity bios. I think it was that night that I knew it was going to happen. I left there ready to find a publisher for the project. 
  
RH: What was your most unusual or maybe funny experience during the process of collecting information/ conducting interviews to write "Little Girl Blue"?
RS: One that comes to mind is not necessarily funny, but it was certainly unusual. And frustrating for sure. I started trying to contact the Carpenters’ manager Sherwin Bash as early as 2002, I’d say. I sent an email here, left a phone message there, and the answer was always the same: “No!” And it wasn’t just “no,” at one point it was more of a “Hell, No!” He was not very kind or personable. At one point I was in contact with his daughter Randy Bash, but she wouldn’t talk and said her father didn’t want to either. I consider myself to be very tenacious, but I am not one to keep pushing to the point of making someone mad. I finally gave up. I’d discovered a nice interview Sherwin did with UK music writer John Tobler in 1990, so I ended up licensing that from him for Little Girl Blue. It wasn’t original to the project, but at least Bash’s thoughts and opinions would be included in some manner. Fast forward to 2010: A letter arrives at my home from Sherwin Bash saying, in so many words, “Why would you write a book about Karen Carpenter and not interview ME!?” I was dumbstruck. I responded, reminding him that he’d said “no” on numerous occasions, to which he replied saying I should have asked one MORE time! It was hilarious, in a way, but terribly frustrating. I responded again saying that I, of course, regret not having gone back to him again and told him I hoped he would consider granting an interview to help correct or append future editions of the book. His reply was “Too late!”
RH: What made you decide to expand upon "Yesterday Once More: Memories of the Carpenters and their Music" and release "Yesterday Once More; The Carpenters Reader" ?
RS: The original edition was much loved, but never received the distribution and attention I thought it deserved. After LGB was released and did so well, people started asking about YOM. I only had a few copies in my collection, Amazon sellers were pricing it over $100 since it was considered to be “rare,” but I wanted people to be able to find copies. I considered self-publishing the second edition, but first decided to send out book proposals to a few publishers I thought might give it a chance. As a last resort I took it to Chicago Review Press and basically explained the renewed interest in the book and that I planned to self-publish, but wanted to know if they’d have any interest. I’ve been told that LGB is their bestselling title to date, so I guess they figured that there might be enough residual interest from that book to carry another Carpenters title. I think they did a beautiful job with the new cover, layout, and everything else. They are a class act publisher. They really encouraged me to return to the roots of a lot of these articles, too, when we discovered a lot of the articles had been heavily edited and even shortened for the first edition, some with and some without my knowledge. It makes me really happy to know they’ve all been restored for this edition. I was also able to get rid of a few pieces that didn’t work well in the first printing and add a number of new pieces to this edition.
RH: Are there any plans for anymore books?
RS: There’s only one more Carpenters related book on my horizon, I guess you could say. That children’s book idea that started it all has finally developed into something pretty special. I hope to find a publisher that agrees, because I think it would be well received and something that would find a home in school libraries around the country. That manuscript is finished and just waiting for a chance. The success of LGB has opened up many other opportunities for other books, too. I am mostly into biographies and creative nonfiction at this point. My current project is tentatively called Through These Portals: Beryl Wallace and Earl Carroll’s Hollywood, and is the story of a beautiful showgirl, her impresario boss/lover, and their fascinating lives leading up to the couple’s tragic demise in a 1948 plane crash. It will be an illustrated history with 175-200 photos. A lot of people know of the legendary Earl Carroll Theatre on Sunset in Hollywood. It’s since been the Moulin Rouge, the Aquarius Theatre, and others, and it’s now known as Nickelodeon on Sunset where they tape shows like iCarly and Victorious. It’s a pretty fascinating and previously untold chapter of Hollywood history and I am so grateful to be working with members of the families of both Beryl and Earl.
RH: What was the first song you that really caught your attention?

RS: I’d have to say “Rainy Days and Mondays,” only because it was the opening title for the CBS TV movie The Karen Carpenter Story. I was 13 when I watched it and fell in love with Karen’s voice at first listen. I know there were some Carpenters songs buried deep inside somewhere, but that was the first time it really clicked. Instant connection. The “cry” in her voice appealed to me and there was a sense of longing that even a teenage kid could detect with ease. I felt from that moment that she was singing only for me. Little did I know that she had that effect on nearly every Carpenters fan!

RH: Which five Carpenters songs are your "desert island" songs?

RS: In no particular order, I’d have to say: 
Superstar, Only Yesterday, Road Ode, I Can’t Make Music, Now

RH: If you could choose one Carpenters album which would you say is the closest to perfect?
 
RS: A Song for You, with Lovelines running a close second (though made up of various outtakes, it’s a really cohesive album).
RH: I ask every fan I interview about Karen's solo album. I feel it's one of the most important albums in the entire output of Carpenters/Carpenters related music. 
Had the album been released in 1980 do you think it would have changed the way people viewed Karen Carpenter? 
RS: I think it might have given her a bit more edge than she’d had in the past. I do NOT think it would have done anything to tarnish her image or reputation.

RH: Do you think her solo album may have helped or hindered sales of subsequent Carpenters albums?

RS: If anything it would have helped. By 1980, the Carpenters’ albums were not selling like they did even five years earlier. It would have surely garnered more attention and sales than Passage and Made in America. It would have at least had people talking.

RH: Do you think the album would have changed Karen's course of life in anyway? If so how?
 
RS: I have said this before, but I firmly believe that Karen’s whirlwind romance with Tom Burris was a rebound from the disappointment and eventual shelving of the solo album. Had she been releasing and promoting an album in the spring of 1980, she would not have had time to devote to that relationship. In that manner, I do feel it would have changed the course of her life in a very big way. Also, I wish she’d stood up to Richard and the folks at A&M. Herb Alpert never liked their A Kind of Hush album, but it wasn’t stopped. There wasn’t pressure to go back and redo everything. It was terribly crushing for Karen to have this album—her most personal, creative product ever—deemed unworthy of release. Her friends told me she never fully trusted Richard after that. Their relationship was damaged and you can sense the tension in the interviews they did together for Made in America.

RH: Lastly is there any one of two... maybe three Carpenters tunes which hold a special memory for you?
 
RS: “Don’t Be Afraid” was one of my first favorite Carpenters songs and I remember singing it as a solo at a junior high choir concert. I sure hope no recordings exist! Other than that, I think “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again” gets to me because I remember hearing that for the first time in a record store in 1994, I believe. I ran across the Interpretations CD by accident. I didn’t even know it was out. I took the CD to the listening station and was moved to tears. I am not much of a crier, but another one that really hit me hard was “And When He Smiles.” It was another “surprise” song that I didn’t know even existed until I was face to face with it. The youthful spirit of innocence in Karen’s voice and the looks of optimism on her face in the BBC footage were chilling. 
RH: In ten words or less tell me, who are you?
 
RS: Dad of two, partner of one, and creative music lover

RH: What makes you happier than anything else in life?  
 
RS: Seeing my daughters happy and smiling and enjoying life. They love music, too, so I love to see them enjoying music of all genres. They both have beautiful singing voices, too.

RH: How old are your girls? Do they sing any Carpenters tunes?
 
RS: The girls are 13 and 8. They have been surrounded by Carpenters tunes since birth, of course, and sing along just about any time I play their songs, but they have their own tastes in music. My eight year old loves "Top of the World" and "If I Had You."

RH: Outside of your family is there an elder person in your life that you really look up to? 
 
RS: Frank Pooler is one of my idols. He’s become a bit of a mentor. I only wish we lived in closer proximity to one another so I could really spend time learning from him and absorb some of that creativity and energy. He’s such a kindhearted man and I really admire the relationships he maintains with his former students. It says a lot about him as a person and educator. There’s something, too, about the bond between singers and their conductor. It’s a very intimate, emotional thing to make music with others and when you work with someone like Frank, I imagine you can’t help but fall under his spell.

RH: In which way is Frank Pooler a mentor to you?
 
RS: It's completely unofficial, of course, but we've sat down at length and discussed music education, choral singing, and so on. He recommends various books and passes along links to songs and recordings he thinks I might enjoy. He's really like a music educator idol for me and he's willing to share anything and everything, the greatest being his knowledge. He's such a fascinating man!

RH: Care to share any embarrassing or humorous happenings in your life?
  
RS: Where do I begin!? During a trip to Los Angeles I went hunting for the Brady Bunch house. I finally found it but as I turned the corner I was so fascinated I wasn’t paying close attention and ran the car up onto the sidewalk. It blew out a tire on the rental car!

RH: What would you say are the 3 biggest achievements in your life? 
 
RS: 1. Being the father of two beautiful girls
       2. Authoring Little Girl Blue and seeing it go above and beyond my wildest dreams
       3. Figuring out that I don’t have to be who I thought everybody else wanted me to be. It’s ok being me!

RH: Who or what has/have played the biggest role(s) in the shaping of your achieving of goals? 
 
RS: My grandma Margie was a huge influence on my love for music during my formative years. I miss her so much and wish she  could have stuck around long enough to see all this. She would have thrilled.

RH: One thing I really appreciate about you is your sense of outspokenness. I haven't met you personally, but you seem comfortable at intelligently speaking up for what you believe, what you like and what you do. What drives this attribute of your personality?

RS: I came to a point in my life around the age of 30 where I had to stop living the life I’d been prescribed and start living the life I was always meant to live. I’ve always been such a people pleaser, so it used to really upset me to think I’d hurt or disappointed someone. But as it turns out, most people appreciate honesty and authenticity more than they do facades.

RH: Randy, I want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I also thank you very much for the three books you have released so far. All three of them have been valuable additions to my library.
 
RS: Thank you! It’s such a pleasure to visit with you. What a great discussion!

“Mmmm. This cake is delicious! Why don’t you try some of mine?” That was how Karen Carpenter used to work a room. By the time she had treated everyone, there was nothing left on her own plate. Which was, of course, precisely the plan.

Just a couple of weeks after Keith Richards explains how he has survived 67 years of being Keith Richards, comes this account of pop music’s least likely fatality. Karen Carpenter, one half of the famously wholesome Carpenters, died in 1983 at the age of 32. The cause of death was a heart attack, brought about by her years of anorexia nervosa, made worse by the drugs (laxative and emetic) that she used to rid herself of food. A rather more rock’n’roll and outsized figure, Mama Cass, had died some years before, supposedly after choking on a ham sandwich. That was a myth, but it didn’t deter a music business joke: if only Cass had given Karen that sandwich, they would both be alive today.

Of course the joke was tasteless, but when Karen died The Carpenters’ hits were slipping from memory. And the duo had never been fashionable to begin with. They had broken through in 1970 with their second single, (They Long To Be) Close To You, a Bacharach & David song rendered celestial by Karen’s angelic vocals. The Carpenters took the harmonies of West Coast folk, blended them with emerging 1970s soft-rock and created a pristine style that the radio loved. But hipsters scorned their conservative aura. That the follow-up, We’ve Only Just Begun, had begun life as a bank jingle seemed somehow apt. Karen, sniped Bette Midler, was so white she was invisible.

Another hit, Superstar, was the strangest choice of all. Leon Russell had writtenGroupie Superstar with Bonnie Bramlett, reportedly inspired by Rita Coolidge and Eric Clapton. To smooth the programmers’ objections, Delaney & Bonnie dropped the “groupie” part; then The Carpenters altered “I can hardly wait tosleep with you again” to “be with you again.” The odd thing is that Karen’s close-miked performance, despite her virginal, Young Republican image, made this song more smokily sensual than ever.

The deeper end of Carpenter’s range was as sexy as the higher end was pure. Her elder brother Richard was considered the musical brains, who not only played piano but chose the material, co-wrote much of it and crafted that phenomenal studio shimmer with obsessive dedication. Even when they covered a song as obvious as The Beatles' Day Tripper, the resulting sound was uniquely their own. Yet, to the rest of the world, his sister’s voice was the defining fact of The Carpenters. That’s why she was coaxed out from behind her drum-kit and placed centre-stage. Though she was a good drummer, it clearly made sense to put her in the spotlight. But Karen hated the change: she not only missed her drums, she thought her slim figure too “chubby”.

And at this point Karen’s “body image issues” become the focus of Randy Schmidt’s carefully factual, sensitively-pitched book. It seems that anorexia nervosa was much less understood in the 1970s. Karen’s treatment veered from ineffectual therapy to invasive force-feeding. It didn’t help. We inevitably speculate about her private unhappiness. The record company’s rejection of her solo album was definitely a blow. There seems a consensus among the interviewees that her mother, Agnes, was a domineering and unsympathetic character, who lavished all her love upon Richard. Well, Agnes is no longer alive and Richard declined to be interviewed. There was Karen’s brief and disastrous marriage to someone else the author cannot interview, as the man is subject to a gagging order.

So, in the end, we don’t really know for sure. Schmidt cannot be faulted for he’s explored the avenues that were open. The pressures of success and the claustrophobia of that close-knit family also got to golden-boy Richard. Even so, Karen’s background was hardly the horror story we associate with Brian Wilson or Michael Jackson. It’s true The Carpenters’ career dipped, but so does everyone’s. The weight fixation is the whole mystery and final tragedy of this tale. And though she did not want for willing friends, nobody could turn Karen Carpenter’s life around.

Midler’s quip was coming true: Carpenter really was turning invisible. On promotional TV duty in London in 1981, she wearily evades Sue Lawley’s questions: “I have no idea what ‘six stone in weight’ is,” she says. It’s about 84 pounds, says Lawley. In fact the singer would soon weigh even less than that. When Karen had given away her last slice of cake, she could find no other purpose in life and the angelic sound was silenced.






Gary James' Interview With  
Randy L. Schmidt, author of the book Little Girl Blue. The Life Of Karen Carpenter

Karen Carpenter, along with her brother Richard, created one of the most successful musical acts of the 1970s - The Carpenters. They enjoyed sixteen consecutive Top 20 hits from 1970 to 1976, including "Close To You", "We've Only Just Begun", "Rainy Days And Mondays", "Superstar" and "Hurting Each Other", selling over one hundred million records in the process. During their time, The Carpenters released ten studio albums, toured more than two hundred days a year, taped five television specials and won three Grammys and an American Music Award. Then, on February 4th, 1983, Karen Carpenter, who possessed one of the greatest voices of all time, was pronounced dead at 9:51 A.M. Pacific Time. She was 33 years old. 

What happened to Karen Carpenter? Randy Schmidt has written what can only be called the definitive biography of Karen Carpenter. It's titled Little Girl Blue. The Life Of Karen Carpenter (Chicago Review Press www.chicagoreviewpress.com, distributed by Independent Publishers group www.ipgbook.com. Randy Schmidt talked with us about his book and Karen Carpenter. 

Q - Randy, we don't hear much anymore about Karen Carpenter. Of course there was a made-for-TV movie about her life and a couple of documentaries, one of which was on E!, which you had something to do with. 

A - Yeah. Exactly. 

Q - But lately, nothing on Karen Carpenter. 

A - I'm hoping this might be a bit of a resurgence. It seems to be going beyond just the die-hard circle of fans and reaching some of those people who just have an affection for the music and remember it. It's attached to a lot of memories from the '70s I think. 

Q - What a great voice Karen Carpenter had! I love Karen Carpenter. 

A - There's never been another voice that has touched me in that way. That's what inspired me to do this years and years ago. I was inspired to research and got the idea of doing a book just for my own curiosity, but I've never had the connection with a voice before. 

Q - How long did it take you to put this book together? 

A - It was kind of a about a twenty year thing, but like I said, not with the intention of a book. I started research when I was kid in middle school, going to the local libraries. It was just something that I kept accumulating all this information, articles and interviews and concert reviews. It was probably about nine years ago (2001) that I got a chance to start interviewing some of Karen's childhood friends. That's where this began. I didn't know yet what I would do with those interviews, but I wanted to jump on the opportunity. It's kind of evolved over the last decade now since I started working on it with the idea for a book. It's taken several different turns along the way, then at one point I realized I considered doing a book about The Carpenters as a duo, but there had been an authorized biography from the early '90s that was endorsed by the family. I saw this as probably something that would get a little more attention. Karen's name and image seems to attract even just the general population. It seems like they're coming out of the woodwork for this book this time. 

Q - You didn't get co-operation from Richard Carpenter for the book, did you? 

A - No. I didn't get any trouble, if that's the right word. 

Q - He didn't say he was going to sue you if you went ahead with the book. 

A - No. He never tried to stop it actually, but he didn't want to contribute either. 

Q - I've approached Richard Carpenter a couple of times for an interview and I've been turned down. I'm wondering if he feels it's just too painful to talk about or he did enough interviews in his time, or there was something going on in the family he doesn't want revealed to the public. 

A - I haven't yet figured out what makes him agree to some interviews and decline others. He's done quite a few over the years, but they've been very selective. I can't quite see what the pattern is necessarily. But with me, I think I contacted him back in 2002. The book was just starting to take shape. At that point I wanted it to kind of be an oral history of The Carpenters as a group and was going to focus more on the music. The response at that time was something on the lines of "Richard has said that all that he wants to say. He wishes you the best with the project, but does not wish to participate." 

Q - You received that from his secretary, correct? 

A - Yeah. This was through their management from a guy named David Alley, who had been with them for many, many years. He was actually a one time boyfriend of Karen's in the '70s, but he was managing Richard's, I don't want to say comeback, in Japan for awhile and he'd done a tour over there. This guy was managing him. But the response was not "stop now", but it just was he wasn't going to participate. 

Q - It seems that whenever Richard was asked about Karen's eating disorder, he always acted bewildered or astonished. I don't know if that was put on or genuine or there's just some family secret he doesn't want to go into. 

A - I know the family at the time, even when Karen was still alive, no one wanted to admit that it might be something psychological going on with her. It seemed to be viewed by the family as just stubborn dieting. The solution in their minds was she just needed to eat. They didn't want to go beyond that and look at what might be the underlying cause of some of her problems. Even when she committed to therapy in 1982, the year before she died, they were still not real supportive. They didn't put much stock in the business of psychiatry, which is a shame because it was her making an effort to get better. But, I think they were afraid there might be some fingers pointed. 

Q - When did this eating problem of Karen's start? I've always been led to believe it started when an insensitive TV producer said she was ten pounds overweight. 

A - The whole thing was the idea of some producer. I believe the TV movie about Karen alluded to the idea that Billboard magazine had a review that called her the chubby sister. I've never found any proof of that and nobody else has either. I know that Billboard printed an editorial shortly thereafter saying this was not something that was not printed in their magazine. They wanted to have it retracted basically. It was very careless of the movie's producers and it was something that the producers of the movie I think did to show the pressures of fame and those external things that might have been pushing Karen to lose a few pounds. In my research, what the manager's wife was saying is definitely correct. I don't think it's the only factor that played into Karen's eating disorder, but very early on in her life, from the time Karen was little, she was kind of seen as Richard's back-up, especially by her mom. He was the golden boy. He was the one with all the talent. They made big plans for him to be sort of like the next Liberace, a showy pianist kind of act. They went as far as moving from Connecticut to California to get him closer to the music industry. Karen began to show talent finally in high school, as a drummer first and then shortly thereafter the singing voice started to emerge. But even though talents as great as they were within the family were seen more to be what they could add to Richard's career. She could drum along with his Jazz trio or she could sing the songs he was writing at the time. It wasn't really celebrated for the fantastic talent or talents that they were. I think from that point on, even throughout The Carpenters hey-day, Karen's star began to outshine Richard's. I don't really know that that was accepted well by the mother, because Richard was the star in her eyes. Karen kind of struggled for attention from her mother and validation and she never really got that. One of her good friends told me, when we were talking about the root of her eating disorder, she said that there was a hole in Karen's heart where a mother's love and affection should have been. It couldn't be filled by the love of friends or a good marriage or even the love of millions of fans around the world. She said that hole seemed to manifest itself in this eating disorder. People also look at the lack of control Karen had over so many aspects of her life. She wasn't really in control of anything. She was living at home 'til her mid-20s. Everybody else was making decisions for her. Like a lot of people who suffer from eating disorders say, this is one way for them to gain control of something in their life. It seems like that's what kind of happened with Karen. You asked when it kind of surfaced. Externally you could start to see the changes in Karen in 1975. Well, at first she looked incredible. She lost a little bit of weight and she just looked stunning. Very quickly after that, the pictures show she began to go downhill rather quickly and looked more weak and frail by the end of 1975. People were saying this diet, you look great, but you need to stop. You've lost too much now. They ended up having to cancel a European and Japanese tour for the Fall of '75 and this was the first time they ever cancelled anything like that. She was hospitalized for a short period of time, but nobody really knew a name to attach to it. It was seen as like stubborn dieting. I think Karen knew shortly thereafter that it was more than that. She was reading books about anorexia. She was contacting people she knew in the entertainment industry. One being Cherry Boone, who is Pat Boone's daughter. She was contacting her because she knew she was writing a book about her own struggle with anorexia and bulimia. So, she was kind of secretly researching and finding out what was going on with her and I guess finding kindred spirits in a way, but wasn't really ready to admit she had a problem. It really began to surface in an extreme way after a solo album she had cut in 1979 / 1980 with Phil Ramone. It was rejected by the record label and Richard horribly. They basically told her it was unreleasable. That, paired with a horrible, horrible marriage, for about a year, it only served to intensify the condition she was already in. She lost weight at a rapid pace in 1981 and was just a skeletal figure by the end of the year. 

Q - I always thought that when you're as rich and famous as Karen Carpenter was and you have that beautiful of a voice, if someone says "you're overweight", you can tell them to go to Hell. But obviously it was a much deeper problem than that. 

A - She was such a sensitive person. I think it was hard for her to ignore those things that she was hearing or that she was feeling about her weight. She was extremely sensitive. I think anything that was said really hurt her deeply. She took everything personally, very much so. She wasn't the type to say "Go to Hell" to somebody. (laughs) 

Q - I recall reading in the Random Notes section of Rolling Stone one time that Karen and Richard Carpenter were in a supermarket shopping and a fan came up to them and asked for an autograph and Karen reportedly told the person to "fuck off!" Did that really happen? 

A - That's very close. There's actually a mention in my book. I don't know if they were in a restaurant or supermarket or what exactly. I'd have to reference it. She said "Oh, fuck!" Just like, when is this going to stop? I don't think she told the people to fuck off, but from what I remember, it was still that exclamation of "Oh, fuck!" 

Q - I'm pretty sure I read a different version of what you're telling me in the Random Notes section of Rolling Stone

A - I am surprised because they did, on almost ever date and city they would do, they would do a complete autograph session afterward, until every last person went home. I don't know that all that many groups would do that. They seemed to be pretty appreciative of their fans. I would think that was probably a very remote happening. 

Q - Don't you feel that Karen needed to create some space between her and Richard? 

A - I've kind of thought of this over the years. I see it almost as though when a baby is crawling and the mom picks it up and says "No. Go over here." They think there might be danger or they're going to get into something. They pick 'em up and move 'em away from that and turn 'em in another direction. It seems like Karen didn't really ever leave that phase with mom. It seems like they were picking her up and pointing her in the direction they wanted her to go. 

Q - And she was a willing partner. 

A - Yeah, she was and every once in awhile she would have the urge to do something on her own, that urge to spread her wings and find herself. But then it seemed like she always came back. I had somebody tell me she would come back to Downey and not just Downey the city but Downey the state of mind, this feeling of home, she would always come back to, just as soon as she almost broke free and almost did something on her own that would have been a way for her to grow. The solo album was one of those instances. Had she just said "I poured my heart and soul and pocketbook into this project and I want to see it released." Herb Alpert wasn't crazy about their "Kind Of A Hush" album. He didn't think it was a very strong album, but he still let them release it. I think this solo album was a big threat. 

Q - I thought I heard in the early 1980s that Richard Carpenter owned a lot of real estate in Downey. Is that still true? 

A - At one time they owned some apartment complexes and even back in the '70s they had some shopping centers. They did invest a lot in real estate, but at this point I don't know that Richard even has anything left in Downey. He and his family all moved back in 2000 to Thousand Oaks (California) and it seems like they are kind of pouring everything into that community at this point. They were named Ventura County's Philanthropists Of The Year a couple years ago. The Richard And Mary Carpenter Plaza is what they call one of the Thousand Oaks Fine Arts Center Plaza now. He's kind of leaving his name and mark in different places. As far as Downey is concerned, I think they've pretty much cut off most ties and probably real estate. I know they sold the apartments and things there. 

Q - So, what does Richard do these days? Actually, he probably doesn't have to do anything when you get right down to it. 

A - It seems like every year or so there's a new compilation that comes out here in the United States and especially in Japan, re-packaging of The Carpenters' hits. But you can only do that so many times. He has five children from college age all the way down to I think middle school age. So, I think he's busy being a dad and involved in the music industry in small ways. Every now and then he'll be part of a benefit or he might record a couple of tracks. He's been doing a Christmas album for like ten years, recording bits and pieces of it. It's never come out. Petula Clark and some other singers were set to do some vocals on that. But it's never developed. 

Q - How about the parents? Are they still alive? 

A - Actually, no. Both parents have passed away. The father, Harold, passed away back in 1988, just about five years after Karen. Agnes, the mother, passed away in '96. I've had several people tell me my book would never have been written if Agnes were still alive. It was one of those things that with this book I felt like at first I felt disappointed that I didn't get Richard's blessing or input. I didn't get the interview with him. Then I realized over time it was a much better book for that reason. A lot of people who never really had a chance to tell their story came forward because they knew Richard wasn't going to control, wasn't going to edit and have that control over the whole piece. 

Q - Is it possible that he's working on his own autobiography? Have you heard anything along those lines? 

A - I haven't heard anything along those lines, but I would hope so. As a Carpenters fan, I would love to read it. From what I understand from people who are close with him, he really considered that 1994 Carpenters: The Untold Story by Ray Coleman to be the official, authorized account. In many ways it was his autobiography, not that it was from his pen, but in many ways he was controlling that whole thing. They sought out Ray Coleman to do the project. Kind of like the TV movie, the family ended up initiating it through their management because they were afraid someone else was going to do it. They wanted their version of events to be told. 

Q - Has anyone expressed interest in making a made for TV movie from your book? 

A - We've actually had some interest from both TV movie producers and theatrical and that's just something that's kind of up in the air right now. The rights have not been purchased by anybody at this point. The New York Times review that came out a few weeks ago sparked some interest and got the word out there to some of the people that would be interested. 

Q - I used to hear more of The Carpenters being played on the radio than I do today. And that is a shame. Again, I wish Richard would do more. 

A - Well, it seems like his focus has been overseas because there is such a huge response. Even as recently as 2009, they had a number one album with a collection called "40/40", which was 40 of The Carpenters' classic hits. It was their 40th anniversary of signing with A&M Records. That collection came out and was number one in Japan. He seems to have focused the energies for the overseas market. As far as new recordings, I don't think there's much, maybe a box set or something like that would be in the works in the next few years, but I don't think he's planning much for the United States. 

Q - Karen Carpenter's story only reinforces the idea that this fame game is no good. 

A - The good thing is, there seems to be a turn around to be interested in Karen for the music and re-evaluating what a fine singer she was. Whether or not they liked The Carpenters' music or are into their sound. The fact that she sang '70s love songs is eclipsed by the fact that she was one of the greatest female vocalists of all time. I think people are starting to see she had one of those voices that was right up there with Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, those instantly identifiable voices that people hear two seconds of on the radio and you can identify who it is. It's attached to a memory or an event in someone's life. It's just one of those voices that comes along once in a life time.

‘70s Music Stars Karen and Richard Carpenter Subject of New Book and Tour of SoCal Landmarks

The top selling U.S. recording act of the 1970’s was singer-drummer Karen Carpenter and her composer-producer brother Richard, who performed as “Carpenters.” The Downey, CA-based pop duo produced some of the biggest hits of the era including “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Superstar.” Tragically, Karen lost her battle with the slimmer’s disease anorexia nervosa in 1983 at only 32 years of age, cutting short the siblings’ Grammy-winning career.

A new book, Yesterday Once More, The Carpenters Reader by Randy Schmidt, reviews their remarkable musical legacy, much as his recent Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter detailed the intimately personal life of the famous pair. Schmidt will be appearing at a book signing at Larry Edmunds Bookshop on Oct. 18, and a public tour of Carpenters Southern California landmarks follows on Oct. 21.

The book, including photos, is a compilation of select essays and articles from the early ‘70s to today. Among the most compelling: an interview with Karen and Richard in 1975 at their career peak (“It’s just Elton and us,” states Richard matter-of-factly about their hit-making power), to a sadder article after the hits stopped coming in 1978 and Karen’s desperate plea: “If somebody would just let us know what the problem is.”

There is also an excellent Q&A with Schmidt about Little Girl Blue and why he thinks Karen descended down a dark road she never could return from. But there’s no denying the talent. “As a singer,” Schmidt rightly claims, “no one really can compare. She sang so effortlessly and with so much simplicity. Most of all she communicated her songs in every tiny detail, from the intonation to the phrasing and all the subtle nuances."