A Book for Karen
Randy L. Schmidt was asked by one of Karen Carpenter’s close friends Frenda Franklin to “Do good for Karen” and in his book “Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter”, he delivers that.
Mr. Schmidt explains how after watching the television biopic The Karen Carpenter Story (authorized by the Carpenter family) that he became spellbound by Karen. He wanted to know more about her life because the film seemed to provide more questions than answers. In his search for the answers he has taken good care of the details and information provided by numerous friends like Dionne Warwick, Phil Ramone, Olivia Newton-John, Frenda Franklin and Karen “Itchie” Ramone ( the latter two being Karen’s closest confidants). Though he has met with Richard Carpenter he declined to be interviewed for this book but said he would not interfere. In my opinion that was a good thing because it is Karen’s story and the reverence the author has for his subject is key to finding the truth. It should not be controlled by or influenced or manipulated by a families continuing denial.
Mr. Schmidt’s thorough research and information about Karen’s path sheds light on her struggle for acceptance like never before. Examples of this are that Karen at times had to have her love interests approved and usually rejected by family. Also, her passion to play the drums was sidelined and she was forced to come out from behind them to be the face of The Carpenters. The fact is she was never allowed to have her own identity. Though she stepped out of her comfort zone and fulfilled everyone’s wishes it was still Richard who gained the praise and affection of their mother Agnes (who is described by a childhood friend as a clean freak who cleaned the door locks with a toothbrush and was a bit of a racist). It seems Karen suffered and longed for the love of her aloof mother. Never having achieved that love seems to have triggered her Anorexia Nervosa.
It cannot be denied that Richard was a musical genius and The Carpenters sound was unique. Though at the time thought to be saccharine sweet really does sound contemporary and fresh even today. Ultimately Karen became the star. That stardom seemed to create even more artistic and family control. It’s almost as if the family didn’t have trust in Karen’s talent and treated her like a child. If one were to combine all of the comments and insight given by even the closest of friends and confidants there seems to be something not spoken of in this family. After all, Richard did eventually marry his first cousin Mary Rudolph (daughter of his mother’s sister Bernice).
Randy L. Schmidt gives Karen a voice about her wants which included a solo career and longing to settle down and have a family. He leads you to see the human rather than just the singer which makes you understand why someone who gave so much of herself never felt fulfilled. Karen’s own favorite quote told to her by her friend Petula Clark “We start out with the answers, and we end up with the questions” is so bittersweet and unfortunately not true in this case. We’ll never know what the answer is to our question to Karen. That is simply “Why?”
Karen had so many people in her life that cared and wanted to help her but I feel the pressure to devote time to her family and career stifled her. In the end she lacked the one thing she needed most; that was the freedom to be herself unconditionally. Karen’s inability to break free from her family’s control in every aspect of her life including a failed marriage, a rejected solo album and an unsuccessful attempt to recover left her to control the only thing she could, her body.
It truly is one of the saddest stories of our time. Though, through Karen’s circumstance and tragedy the world became aware of the disease Anorexia Nervosa. In death Karen still gave and gives to others by the telling of her story and I’m sure inadvertently has saved the lives of others.
In the end while drinking a glass of wine, well a bottle… reading “Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter” I could hear Karen’s voice singing “Close to You”, “We’ve only just begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays”, over and over in my head with a tear running down my cheek. The book made me realize what an effect her voice had on me throughout my life. I rediscovered Karen’s ability to emote her pain, sadness and longing in a way that makes you forget your own and lead you to her light. That’s what stars do. Karen Carpenter was a bright and shining star that will burn on in our hearts and minds forever. This book is lovingly written for Karen and her fans old and new as it should be.
I had the chance to chat with the Author to get his personal thoughts about Karen and the writing of his book;
MC: How has the reaction been from Karen’s friends and colleagues about the book?
RLS: The friends who contributed to the book have been very complimentary. It’s so nice to hear these people tell me that I captured the essence of their friend. Frank Pooler, the Carpenters’ college music mentor and co-writer on “Merry Christmas, Darling,” called it a work of art. That means a lot. I am still in touch with a number of her friends and colleagues and it’s nice to know that they feel the book is worthy tribute to Karen.
MC: What was the one thing you learned about Karen you weren’t expecting?
RLS: I was most shocked to finally learn the details of Karen’s year-long marriage. I had a feeling it was a bad situation, but I had no idea just how bad it was. Over the years, no one would talk about it. Richard made a deal with Tom Burris and the two never spoke of what happened. Finally, thanks to Karen’s best friend Frenda, we know the truth. It was a tragedy, any way you look at it. Within a year of getting married, her weight dropped below 90 pounds.
MC: I love some of the songs on Karen’s solo album. Do you think it would have been a hit if released?
RLS: I don’t know that it would have been a huge hit if released back in 1980, but it would have made some noise — this was such a departure for Karen and she was so closely associated with a goody two shoes, whitebread image. What I do know for certain is that it wouldn’t have done any worse than the Carpenters albums that came before and after. Passage and Made in America were not hits! Her solo album would have done as well as — if not better than — those two.
RLS: The solo album project was huge for Karen’s self esteem and gave her a glimpse at a life lived as an independent woman. She’d been so closely ensconced by the family that she never had the opportunity to grow up and be a normal person. Had that project been supported by Richard and the folks at A&M Records, I do feel that Karen would have received a big dose of confidence. Instead, she was told it was un-releasable and encouraged to shelve it and get back to work with her brother. That could have turned everything around for her. Instead, she rebounded with a marriage to a man who wasn’t being honest with her and eventually began to treat her poorly.
MC: Do you feel you learned all the answers about what led Karen to her illness and death?
RLS: Not at all. There’s still so much more to learn, although I don’t know many people with the answers, aside from Karen herself. She’s the only one who could really let us know what was going on in her heart and mind. Overall, I feel what killed Karen was the years of self-destructive behavior — the starvation, abuse of thyroid medication to speed metabolism, excessive use of laxatives and diuretics’, and in the end, the use of ipecac syrup. Her health became a ticking time bomb.
MC: What is your favorite Carpenters song?
RLS: “Superstar” — it’s dark and mysterious, with a haunting melody, catchy hooks, and a superb arrangement by Richard.
RLS: What’s your favorite song of Karen’s?
MC: OH! mine has got to be “Rainy Days and Mondays”, it’s such a classic and always makes me cry. I’m a huge Judy Garland fan but when people ask me who do you think has the best voice, I always put Karen Carpenter at number one. There is just something so clear and crisp about her tone that sits so perfect and close to me…