As the squeaky-clean antidote to the early-’70s brew of antiwar protests and acid rock, Karen and Richard Carpenter were the most successful brother and sister act ever, with 23 hit singles and albums, some 80 million records sold, three Grammys, and an Oscar. But behind the smiles lay a tragic secret: For eight years, Karen battled the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. On Feb. 4, 1983, when she died at 32 of cardiac arrest brought on by self-starvation, her secret became public.
The Carpenters hit pay dirt with 1970’s ”(They Long To Be) Close To You,” followed by 1971’s ”For All We Know” and 1975’s ”Only Yesterday.” But under stardom’s pressures, the 5’3” Karen dropped to a skeletal 90 pounds, forcing cancellation of a 1975 European tour. By 1980, she had seemingly recovered and married real estate developer Thomas Burris. The marriage ended in 1982, driving the despondent singer into therapy in New York City, where she gained back 15 pounds. Shortly before she died, Karen said she thought her health problem was licked and she was looking forward to working on a new album. But her heart gave out from the years of abuse.
Her death spurred public interest in anorexia and stirred performers such as Jane Fonda and Sally Field to go public with their own stories of eating disorders.
Since her death, Carpenter has been immortalized in song (Sonic Youth’s ”Tunic — Song for Karen”) and on TV (1989’s The Karen Carpenter Story). A 1991 CD boxed set inspired revisionist praise for the singer, long thought vapid and sugary, and Tod Haynes’ 1989 film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (in which the characters are Barbie dolls), created controversy: It was taken out of circulation owing to Haynes’ unauthorized use of the Carpenters’ music.
For her brother, Karen’s death was a sad enigma. ”I still have no idea why this disorder struck Karen,” said Richard, who is now writing a book about the Carpenters. ”It’s just such a tragedy when people with so much talent and so much more to give are taken away from us when they’re young. Like Karen.”
Time Capsule: February 4, 1983
Toto topped the charts with ”Africa,” while serious 60 Minutes beat sudsy Dallas in the TV ratings. Dustin Hoffman cross-dressed for success in Tootsie and James Michener’s Space was the big best-seller.