Travel back with your crusty chronicler through the mists of time, to a decade now called the ‘70s. It was during this era that silky-voiced Karen Anne Carpenter (drums and contralto range vocals), born March 2, 1950, and her brother Richard (keyboards and harmony vocals), were known as the soft rock group The Carpenters. They were a hit-machine.
Their airy, light melodious music was in striking contrast to much of the gaudy music of the time. While the majority of the musicians who mocked them are now forgotten, the Carpenters’ carefully-crafted cuts have notably stood the test of time. While her drumming was skillful enough it quickly became apparent that her true talent was in her singing.
Her vocals became a hallmark of the Carpenters’ signature sound. Her brother once referred to their tuneful trademark as “a choral approach to pop”. They released nearly two dozen hits including: “(They Long to Be) Close to You”, “Yesterday Once More” and the popular wedding song “We’ve Only Just Begun”.
As the decade drew to an end, however, so too did the duo disintegrate. Richard, her brother was all too often strung out on assortment of meth-amphetamines and Karen Carpenter grew short-tempered and was almost always strangely fatigued. In late November at a gig in Vegas, her brother informed everyone that the Carpenters were taking an extended break from touring. Indeed, that performance would be their final engagement.
As it turns out, Carpenter’s then mysterious fatigue was due to her self-induced starvation. Carpenter had anorexia nervosa—a then little known eating disorder of extreme weight loss dieting. Over the few following years Carpenter would try to control her disease and this would send her body on a rough roller-coaster ride. She would get psychological counseling which would aid her in gaining weight but soon would be secretly fasting once more.
February 1983 would find Carpenter with an improved attitude. Her weight would be up to 110 pounds and she seemed to be mentally balanced. Still, while she appeared to be healthy her body had already been malnourished for over a decade.
On night early that month, Carpenter and her mother went to a Bob’s Big Boy restaurant. There she enjoyed a shrimp salad. After dinner, they arrived at her mom’s house in Downey, California. Carpenter complained she was tired and went to her childhood bedroom where she decided to spend the night.
The following morning, February 4, Carpenter’s mom heard her rise and open the closet door. When Carpenter did not come downstairs her mom went upstairs and discovered her dead on the floor of her old walk-in closet, eyes rolled back and not breathing. Carpenter, a month short of 33, was dead from heart failure.
She was pronounced dead, 20 minutes later, at Downey Community Hospital. The L.A. coroner reported her cause of death as “heartbeat irregularities brought on by chemical imbalances associated with anorexia nervosa.” An autopsy revealed that her death was due to emetine cardio-toxicity and that she had poisoned herself with ipecac syrup which is an emetic used to induce vomiting.
This was later disputed by her family who claim they never found any evidence of her use of the syrup or of her vomiting. Her brother also stated his sister would not have used it because of the potential damage the syrup could have done to her vocal chords. He believes she only used laxatives in order to keep her weight down.
A funeral service was held at the Downey United Methodist Church on February 8, 1983. She was laid to rest in Cypress, California at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Her brother Richard had her body re-interred in 2003, along with both their parents, in the Carpenter family mausoleum located in the Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park in Westlake Village, California, which is located nearer to his home. Unlike some artists of the era and despite Karen Carpenter’s demise decades ago, the music of the Carpenters continues to thrive worldwide to this day.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.