Karen Carpenter (March 2, 1950 – February 4, 1983)
Karen Anne Carpenter was born in New Haven, Connecticut, moving to California at age 13. She began to play the drums in high school, joined the Long Beach state choir after graduation. She and her brother Richard formed the band the Carpenters and were signed in 1969, achieving much commercial and critical success through the 1970s. Initially Karen served as drummer, slowing becoming the frontwoman and reducing drumming to studio sessions. During a hiatus in the late 1970s, she recorded a solo album that wasn’t released during her lifetime. Karen was briefly married in 1980 to real estate developer Thomas James Burris. Despite finding success as a drummer in what was at that time a male dominated field, Karen held old fashioned ideas about marriage and the role of women. When she finally married, she did very much want a family. Unfortunately, Burris was 9 years her senior and had undergone a vasectomy that he didn’t want to reverse to have more children. The marriage ended after 14 months. There were reports of abuse and a close friend (Karen Kamon) claimed the marriage was “…absolutely the worst thing that could have ever happened to her.”
Another highly guarded fact in Karen’s life was her health. Karen had begun dieting while still in high school. She weighed 120 pounds until 1973. After seeing a concert photo which made her appear “heavy,” Karen hired a personal trainer who advised her to change her diet which helped her to build muscle and appeared to make her heavier instead of slimmer. She quickly fired the trainer and undertook her own exercise regimen and diet. Her new diet saw her excessively counting calories which sometimes meant not eating. She quickly lost 20 pounds. By 1975, Karen weighed a scary 91 pounds. Fans wrote to her asking what was wrong. Finally in 1981, Karen admitted to Richard and her parents that she had a problem and needed help. Unfortunately the damage was already done. Karen’s anorexia caused the food she did ingest to pass too quickly through her system and she grew increasingly dizzy and her heart continued to beat irregularly. She was hospitalized in September 1982 and placed on intravenous parenteral nutrition. She quickly gained a much needed 30 pounds but the sudden weight put a strain on her heart which was already too weak from years of improper diet. Not that this fact was known yet. She returned home (to California) in November 1982, intending to finalize her divorce and start on a new album. Karen’s last public appearance was January 11, 1983 at a gathering of past Grammy Award winners celebrating the show’s 25th anniversary. She was vibrant and outgoing that evening. On February 4, she was scheduled to sign the divorce papers making it official; instead Karen collapsed in her bedroom at her parents’ California home. Her heart was beating once every 10 seconds! She passed away by 10 am that morning. Coroners reports attributed her death to ipecac syrup overuse (ipecac induces vomiting after suspected poisonings or overdoses). Relatives dispute saying they never saw her take ipecac and blaming her abuse of laxatives and thyroid medications to maintain her low body weight. Nevertheless, Karen died from heart failure due to or as a consequence of anorexia nervosa. Karen was 33 years old. Her family started the Karen A. Carpenter Memorial Foundation to raise money for research of anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders.