“I want you to know I did not kill my daughter.” Agnes Carpenter’s first words to Barry Morrow, scriptwriter of 1989 TV movie, The Karen Carpenter Story, were revealing. Not least since there is no mystery vis-à-vis Karen’s anorexia-related death 40 years ago last month and certainly no suggestion of parental involvement.
Yet, as Dr Lucy O’Brien explains in a biography which takes much the same path as Randy L Schmidt’s occasionally footnoted Little Girl Blue: The Life Of Karen Carpenter, Agnes is one of the villains in this wretched tale of a most peculiar family.
Like Schmidt, O’Brien is both hamstrung and liberated by the absences of Agnes who died in 1996; easy-going father Harold (died 1988); Richard, her older brother and musical partner in the 90,000,000-selling Carpenters, who speaks only on his own terms and venal husband Tom Burris, who, O’Brien explains, was barred from discussing his wife in public when he received the marital home in Karen’s will.
Once almost universally regarded as smiley, naff-jumper-wearing kitsch, time and the sheer quality of their output has given The Carpenters a veneer of gravitas. O’Brien’s take is that Karen was a heavyweight talent, more than a voice, albeit one of the indisputably great 20th-century voices.
For all the sunshine of “Top Of The World” and “Jambalaya”, Karen dispensed desolation and despair like few others, even in the lush settings Richard provided for her. She was a drummer before she was a singer; although not a songwriter, she contributed in the studio and she paved the way for generations of female singers and musicians.
Those truths are self-evident, but feminism bypassed Karen, whose only political act was to visit the Nixon White House in September 1972 (he gave Karen a gold powder compact; cufflinks and golf balls for Richard) and play there in May 1973. O’Brien’s submissive Karen is sustained and suffocated by the family cocoon, emotionally crippled by Agnes’s lifelong conviction that Richard was the talented scion. Agnes may have been unfeeling, but she had a point: Richard was a piano prodigy, a songwriter and a remarkably gifted producer. Karen deferred to him, even when he was whacked out of his gourd on Quaaludes or the sleeping pills he guzzled six at a time, three times a night.
Immature and unworldly, Karen collected cuddly toys as an adult and her doorbell’s chime was “We’ve Only Just Begun”, although nobody laughed harder when band members brought penis-shaped cakes into the studio. Having acquiesced to Agnes’s insistence that a succession of well-meaning, solvent boyfriends were only after the Carpenters’ money, Karen married the spendthrift Tom Burris after a two-month courtship. Despite knowing Karen longed for children, Burris neglected to mention his vasectomy. When Karen tried to call off the doomed marriage, Agnes wouldn’t hear of it. Karen meekly accepted.
Regarding Karen’s illness, O’Brien is empathetic in tone but unsparing in detail. In an era where understanding of eating disorders was primitive and Agnes suggested her daughter’s illness was merely “dieting gone too far”, Karen was a victim once more, this time to her body dysmorphia. “It’s like being haunted,” she admitted in a rare moment of non-denial.
Karen’s final descent was accelerated by her disintegrating marriage and the rejection of her solo album, a sexually charged (Agnes hated that) embrace of cutting-edge disco into which she sunk $400,000 of her own money. She died on 4 February 1983 at her parents’ home of anorexia-related heart failure.
For all its highly readable rigour, Lead Sister isn’t going to rehabilitate Karen Carpenter. There’s no need, since her extraordinary voice did that decades ago. Instead, O’Brien’s Karen emerges as a smart but naive woman enslaved by both her disease and the expectations of those around her. She should have been treated better: Lead Sister treats her well indeed.
Lead Sister: The Story of Karen Carpenter by Lucy O’Brien is out now (Nine Eight, £22)