What happened to Karen Carpenter?
The following is an excerpt from Ray Coleman's
1994 biography, 'The Carpenters, The Untold Story ', on the 24 hours leading up to her death.
Early in the afternoon of Thursday, February 3, 1983, a distraught
Karen was on the phone to Richard from her condominium to his home in
Lubec St, Downey. Their mother had just given her a hard time, she
said. Karen wanted to plan a weekend with Olivia Newton-John, but her
mother's view was that she was not fit enough to be running around as
much as she had been doing, and that she should rest. When Richard
asked how she felt, Karen admitted that she had been yawning a lot, but
said she felt OK. "She was griping about how mom was trying to tell her
to do everything, but then mom had said about the visit to Olivia 'So
go!'- and that put Karen in a spot".
Karen said, "What am I gonna do?"
Richard instinctively registered that nothing had changed and that even
after treatment, she seemed neither calm nor psychologically improved.
"This was the same kind of thing I'd been hearing from Karen for years".
They spoke about a new video cassette recorder which she needed and
then Karen said she would have to decide whether to go to Olivia's home
for the weekend or appease mom.
Whatever she decided to do for the weekend, she evidently felt she
needed to mend fences in Downey first. And so, about two hours after
that conversation with Richard, Karen's red Jaguar swept into her
parents' driveway without the customary advance phone call to her
mother to say she was on her way.
Agnes was surprised but delighted to greet her. It quickly became
evident that Karen had a practical, as well as a social, reason for
At her apartment, Karen's washer/dryer had broken and she needed new
one, she told Agnes. Most artists of her means would lift the phone
for instant delivery, but Karen still preferred what she called
"normal" behaviour like this to a pampered life-style. And her
practicality never left her. The best place to buy a new washing
machine, she told mom, was still Gemco, the general store Karen often
described jokingly as "the Gucci of Downey".
And there was another shopping outing on her agenda for the days ahead.
Triumphantly telling everyone around her that she had maintained her
new weight of 108 pounds, Karen said to her mother that needed a new
wardrobe. Those skinny-size dresses- at one stage she was down to
anything from a size two to a zero in certain styles- were getting too
Agnes told her that Downey was the wrong place to
buy a washing machine
since the space reserved for one at her apartment called for a small
and vertical model- and Gemco would surely stock only regular sizes. As
ever, Karen was not to be deterred. She knew and trusted all those
assistants at Gemco, she said. She had known them for many years, and
they would order anything for her. Here were two lifelong
characteristics of Karen encapsulated into the mundane act of replacing
a washing machine: Whenever possible, she sought the security of
dealing with people she knew. And she would have her own way.
For Agnes Carpenter, her
daughter's impromptu visit was welcome enough for she truly doted on
her children. It merely brought the problem of what to provide for
dinner. The fridge was rather empty that night, and discussing a menu
with Karen was not the simplest of tasks. To Agnes's surprise, Karen
said she fancied a shrimp salad so why didn't they go to a favourite
local chain restaurant, Bob's Big Boy? Harold happily drove them there.
As he and Agnes enjoyed their chicken they could
scarcely absorb the sight of Karen heartily tucking into a particularly
huge portion of shrimp salad. Karen asked for an extra portion of salad
and tackled that voraciously.
Agnes was both astonished and delighted. After all
those years worrying about her daughter's infinitesimal food intake, it
was an enormous relief to see her eating enthusiastically. As the
plates were cleared, Agnes pondered to herself that the dieting problem
may well have been conquered, despite her scepticism.
In recent weeks, Karen's appetite had veered to
spicy foods. Leaving the restaurant, she spotted a taco place next door
and asked her parents to wait momentarily while she went inside and
bought a take-out meal. "I almost passed out," Agnes says, "I couldn't
believe she'd want a taco". Impulsively, Karen continued her upbeat
mood when she came back to them, asking if she might have the treat of
driving her dad's Cadillac home.
she went to the kitchen counter, devoured the spicy taco with hot
sauce, and pronounced to her baffled but smiling mother, "Boy, that was
By nine o'clock, Karen seemed tired. She had
complained lately by phone to Steven Levenkron of a lack of energy, but
as she moved to the living room to rest on the couch, Agnes again
thought there was evidence that her appearance had improved.
Her face seemed slightly chubbier, her body more
formed, since she had returned three months earlier from that full year
of therapy in New York. Agnes had told Richard so, but he disagreed.
While he acknowledged that she had gained weight, he
could not ignore those pouches under her eyes- though she did her best
to hide them. "And even now, when I look at the pictures of her in that
period, it's clear from her eyes that she was really not well. Now, of
course, I wish I had been even more of a bear on her".
Karen and her parents settled down to watch a television favorite, Richard Chamberlain in Shogun.
Just after ten, as it ended, Agnes answered the phone. Quietly, she
suggested that since Karen seemed tired, perhaps the caller, Frenda
Leffler, could phone back the next day. But when Karen heard it was her
friend on the line, her soporific position on the couch ended. She
jumped up and took the phone, almost reprovingly, from her shielding,
Agnes was miffed. She reasoned that Frenda and Karen
saw plenty of each other in Beverly Hills. Clearly weary, Karen needed
the restorative power of a good night's sleep more than the stimulation
of yet another long phone chat.
A mother's instinct that her daughter needed rest
may have been correct, but Karen rarely heeded advice about her health
from any quarter, particularly now. She was telling everyone that she
had recently devoted a full year to kicking anorexia- and even though
she admitted to Frenda that she was seeing spots before her eyes, Karen
felt in better shape that when she started on that slippery road seven
She spread her proof of her recovery adroitly: Agnes
noted with delight Karen's passion in recent weeks for chilli and
prepared cups of it, which Karen took back to her apartment to store in
the freezer. What few people knew was that the freezer and refrigerator
were invariably empty.
Yet despite simmering fears about her condition by
her brother and others, Karen was restructuring her life. "I've got a
lot of living to do," she had recently told one friend, Dionne Warwick.
Her pride in her appearance was good, and she planned to have her
brunette hair streaked blonde. Her career was in renewal, her
relationship with her family more stabilized now that those dark days
had apparently gone and she had made that effort in New York.
So it was a contented Karen who turned in for bed
eventually, leaving her parents to watch Knots Landing on television.
She didn't care for the program so she decided to lie in bed and watch
a video of Magnum PI in the room once used by Richard. In recent weeks
she had often slept there rather than in her own room, since she
enjoyed watching a video and there was no equipment in her bedroom.
Friday morning for Agnes meant a ritualistic visit
to her hairdresser. Karen was planning to go and order the new washing
machine before driving back to Century City. At 8:45, Agnes rose. As
she did so, she heard the sliding rumble of the door to Richard's
closet. "Gee, Karen's up," Agnes said to Harold. "I'll go out and start
some hot cereal and fix the coffee".
In the kitchen, Agnes discovered the percolator was
hooked up, ready to be switched on- Karen had obviously been down to
fix it. Preparing the cereal, Agnes called out "Karen" twice. There was
no reply. "I went to the top of the steps, saw the closet door was
open, rushed in to the closet, and there she was, face down on the
floor. Her eyes were open, but she didn't seem to be breathing". Karen
was lying straight, as if she ahd become tired and lay down, only four
feet from the bathrobe she was clearly heading for. She had not hit
anything in going to the floor.
screamed for Harold and Florine Elie, their house-keeper, to call the
paramedics and an ambulance. They dialled 911. Then Agnes called
Richard, who lived two miles away.
Morning was never a time to phone the home of
night-owl Richard Carpenter. He was asleep when the 8:55am call from
his hysterical-sounding mother jolted him. "Karen.... I found her on
the floor...I tried to get her up, called her name....Her eyes had
rolled back.....We called the ambulance". As his mom's words tumbled
out, Richard feared the worst.
Slipping on his contact lenses, jeans and a T-shirt,
he raced his black Jaguar through the overcast Downey streets. With his
fast, immaculate driving, it was a mere five-minute trip but long
enough for an avalanche of emotions to torment this normally
phlegmatic, pragmatic man.
against the odds that she simply collapsed, he said to himself as he
drove: "I knew this was gonna happen. I knew she didn't look well.
Maybe she's just in a bad way; she was weak; maybe they can revive her;
maybe this will finally drive home to her just how serious her health
problem is". Alone, he had maintained that even after that year of
therapy, she was not right. Deep down, he just knew his sister was dead.
Rounding the corner into Newville Avenue, he saw a
fire truck, then an ambulance. He began to cry. He raced into the
house, but Karen and her mother had already been put into the
ambulance. A fireman, noting Richard's distraught state, advised him to
drive very carefully if he planned to follow the ambulance. At Downey
Community Hospital, he joined his parents in a conference room while
surgeons tried resuscitation. The news came after twenty minutes when a
doctor walked in to say, "I'm sorry, but Karen is dead".
It was February 4, 1983. Agnes and Harold wept, but
Richard was overtaken with numbness and anger. Glorious years, raging
frustration, and embattled times with his sister and partner had ended
in appalling tragedy. His main feeling was silent fury at being robbed.
The tears would flow later.