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 their visit.
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 tight.
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.
That done, she went to the kitchen counter, devoured the spicy taco with hot sauce, and pronounced to her baffled but smiling mother, "Boy, that was good".
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, well-meaning mother.
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 years earlier.
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.
Agnes 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.
Hoping 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.