Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter

January 01, 1970

(Chicago
Review Press Books)

 

www.chicagoreviewpress.com

 

BY STEPHEN M. DEUSNER

 

What makes Karen Carpenter such a fascinating biographical
subject is the very thing that has made most previous attempts to document her
short, sad life so lacking. As they did while she was alive, her family has
kept close guard over her and her image following her 1983 death of
complications from anorexia nervosa, notoriously whitewashing some of the
thornier conflicts between Karen, her brother Richard, and her mother Agnes.
Richard in particular has been fastidious in discouraging any depictions that
might reflect poorly on the rest of the Carpenters. When CBS commissioned Barry
Morrow and later Cynthia Cherbak to write a TV movie about the late singer,
they found themselves continually blocked and censored by her brother, who made
changes to scenes even as they were filming them.

 

Randy L. Schmidt’s new biography, “Little Girl Blue,” begins with the story of that ill-fated TV
production, detailing the writers’ frustrations and Richard’s manipulations in
what is a revealing and startling introduction. What he does not make
explicit-nor does he need to-is that this strict control over image and
substance did not arise after Karen’s death, but informed every single aspect
of her life. She was born the second of two children to Harold and Agnes
Carpenter in 1950; her father is barely a presence in “Little Girl Blue,”
ostensibly silenced by his overbearing wife, who loudly favored her son and
promoted his career aggressively. When the family moved from Connecticut
to Los Angeles, the primary reason was
professional: the then-teenaged Richard would have many more opportunities in California than on the
East Coast.

 

Even as the Carpenters became quickly successful as a
musical act, notching whitebread hits like “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “(They
Long to Be) Close To You” in the early 1970s, Agnes seems to have viewed Karen
as a supporting player to Richard, who co-wrote, arranged, recorded, and
produced all the hits. Karen was just the singer, the complement to her bother.
But she possessed a deep, smoky voice and an intuitive talent for
interpretation, which made her the face of the sibling act. In her mother’s
eyes, however, she became an active obstacle to Richard’s success. And herein
lies the strange contradiction that created so much conflict in the family:
Karen was beloved by millions of fans but most wanted the love of her mother,
while her brother received Agnes’ undistracted affection but never got the
popular recognition he felt he deserved.

 

As Schmidt claims in the introduction, “Little Girl Blue” is promisingly unauthorized. He writes that
Richard had agreed not to “discourage others from contributing” to this book,
“which is as close to an endorsement as anyone could hope for.” With that
implicit, hands-off authorization, Schmidt has written the fullest biography of
Karen to date, one that draws on and greatly expands Ray Coleman’s 1994
authorized “The Carpenters: The Untold
Story.”
Schmidt has obviously researched his book deeply, drawing from
previously available source material as well as from new, extensive interviews
with friends from every stage of her life-pre- and post-fame, pre- and
post-eating disorder-to get fuller, occasionally conflicting accounts of her
career: the early success, endless touring, doomed romances, drop-off in
popularity, shelved solo album, and ultimately her death.

 

“Little Girl Blue” doesn’t change the sad shape of Karen’s
story, but fills in some of the holes and adds vital new information to our
understanding of his contradictory and conflicted artist. More than that,
Schmidt recognizes that Karen often gets lost in that story, remembered more as
a pop-culture cautionary tale than a flesh-and-bone human. We know her story
ends, but Schmidt has made it as absorbing as it is deeply humane.

 

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