Karen Anne Carpenter (March 2, 1950 – February 4, 1983) was an American singer and drummer. She and her brother, Richard, formed the 1970s duo The Carpenters. She was a drummer of exceptional skill, but she is best remembered for her vocal performances. She suffered from anorexia nervosa, a little known disease at the time, and died at the age of 32 from heart failure, later attributed to complications related to her illness.
The song "Now," recorded in April 1982, was the last song Karen Carpenter recorded. She recorded it after a two-week intermission in her therapy with psychotherapist Steven Levenkron in New York City for her anorexia. The sight of Karen upon her return to California in April shook Richard and his parents, since she had lost a considerable amount of weight since beginning her therapy with Levenkron. In September 1982, Karen's treatment -- which had never convinced her family as being an effective method -- took a sinister turn of events when Karen called her psychotherapist to tell him she felt dizzy and that her heart was beating irregularly. Karen was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and hooked up to an intravenous drip, which would be the cause of her much debated 30 pound weight gain in eight weeks. Richard recalled visiting her in the hospital, saying "Karen, this is crap. Don't you understand? This is crap! You're going about this all the wrong way, this guy isn't getting anything accomplished, because you're in a hospital now!"
Karen returned to California in November 1982, determined to reinvigorate her career, finalize her divorce and begin a new album with Richard. She had gained 30 pounds over a two-month stay in New York, and the sudden weight gain (much of which was the result of intravenous feeding) further strained her heart, which was already weak from years of crash dieting. During her illness, Karen also took thyroid replacement medication (in order to speed up her metabolism) and laxatives. On December 17, 1982, Karen made her final public appearance in the "multi-purpose" room of the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, California singing for her godchildren and their classmates who attended the school. She sang Christmas carols for friends. Shortly after the new year, Richard tried to get through to Karen that she was still sick, saying many years later "Karen had marvelous, big brown eyes. And there was just no life in them." Speaking of a meeting with his sister and Werner Wolfen, the Carpenters' financial advisor, two weeks prior to her death, Richard said:
"Karen was hot as hell at me for even questioning how she looked. And I told her 'the only reason I'm bringing all of this up, and talking to people...is because I'm concerned and because I love you.' And am I glad I said that because within weeks, that was that. She was dead."
On February 4, 1983, less than a month before her 33rd birthday, Karen suffered heart failure at her parents' home in Downey, California. She was taken to Downey Community Hospital, where she was pronounced dead twenty minutes later. The Los Angeles coroner gave the cause of death as "heartbeat irregularities brought on by chemical imbalances associated with anorexia nervosa." Under the anatomical summary, the first item was heart failure, with anorexia as second. The third finding was cachexia, which is extremely low weight and weakness and general body decline associated with chronic disease. Her divorce was scheduled to have been finalized that day. The autopsy stated that Carpenter's death was the result of emetine cardiotoxicity due to anorexia nervosa, revealing that Carpenter had poisoned herself with ipecac syrup, an emetic often used to induce vomiting in cases of overdosing or poisoning. Carpenter's use of ipecac syrup was later disputed by Agnes and Richard, who both stated that they never found empty vials of ipecac in her apartment and have denied that there was any concrete evidence that Karen had been vomiting. Richard also expressed that he believes Karen was not willing to ingest ipecac syrup because of the potential damage it presented to her vocal cords and that she relied on laxatives alone to maintain her low body weight.
Her funeral service took place on February 8, 1983, at the Downey United Methodist Church. Dressed in a rose colored suit, Carpenter lay in an open white casket. Over 1,000 mourners passed through to say goodbye, among them her friends Dorothy Hamill, Olivia Newton-John, Petula Clark, and Dionne Warwick. Carpenter's estranged husband Tom attended her funeral, where he took off his wedding ring and threw it into the casket. She was buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Cypress, California. In 2003, Richard Carpenter had Karen re-interred, along with their parents, in a Carpenter family mausoleum at the Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park in Westlake Village, California, which is closer to his Southern California home.
Carpenter's death brought lasting media attention to anorexia nervosa and also to bulimia. In the years after Carpenter's death, there were a number of celebrities who decided to go public about their eating disorders, among them actress Tracey Gold, the Olsen Twins, and Diana, Princess of Wales. Medical centers and hospitals began receiving increased contacts from people with these disorders. The general public had little knowledge of anorexia nervosa and bulimia prior to Carpenter's death, making the condition difficult to identify and treat. Her family started the "Karen A. Carpenter Memorial Foundation," which raised money for research on anorexia nervosa and eating disorders. Today the name of the organization has been changed to the "Carpenter Family Foundation." In addition to eating disorders, the foundation now funds the arts, entertainment and education.