I’ll admit it, I am getting old. And, apparently, revisiting topics from one’s youth is an interest that older folks have. In the years right before his death, my dad would come home after a lively session at the senior’s center, watch a rerun of Gunsmoke on television, and take his afternoon snooze. While I remember Gunsmoke (along with Sky King, Fury, Roy Rogers, and even Bonanza) I have no desire to revisit them. However, I have a number of Carpenters CDs, because their music is still musical to me. I don’t like to watch the videos (and there are a boat load on YouTube) because their hairstyles and clothing remind me of just how long it has been since those tracks were recorded.
Because she knows how much I love the Carpenters music, some years ago my sister gave me the official biography of the Carpenters by Ray Coleman, which I enjoyed. I’ve seen the tv movie version of their story, which is also on YouTube, along with a PBS special celebrating their music.
Due to inclement weather here in the south, I’ve had more time to read lately, and I stumbled upon a “new” biography, Little Girl Blue— the Life of Karen Carpenter, which was actually published four years ago. This one is “unauthorized,” thus promising to shed some light upon the parts of their story that the Richard Carpenter would rather not have publicized. In some respects, Little Girl Blue delivers.
Most people will want to read this book to know more about Karen (and Richard’s) lives and their music, but some will want to know more about Karen’s battle with anorexia nervosa, a disease that was almost unheard of when she died. Non-fans will probably find it odd that anyone even cares, some thirty years after Karen’s untimely death, but I didn’t care if they weren’t cool in the 70s, and I don’t care now, so I’m interested in their lives, their music, and only a little in the disease that killed Karen.
I’m torn, because in some ways Randy L. Schmidt’s bio, a rather odd combination of the duo’s lives and their musical successes and failures, does succeed, but sometimes it reads like gossip. That is due to his reliance upon “those who knew her.” There are pages and pages of documentation, so there was quite a lot of research that went into this book. But the sources of “new” information are friends and co-workers, some of whom seem glad to finally be heard.
I’m not famous, so no one is going to write my biography, but if someone did, and used Schmidt’s approach, it might read like this: “Pamela J. Dodd did not even use her husband’s name on her books, which infuriated his sister-in-law, who had this to say—” or “in an email a close family member quoted Dodd’s son as saying ‘Rob once said, “Moms the boss…what she says goes.” ‘ In other words, well documented opinions are still, well, opinions.
On the other hand, there are some really interesting revelations about Karen’s financial situation, such as their mother had a trusted friend handle the money and basically put the duo on an allowance, as if they were still in high school. When they finally hired a money manager, there were bank accounts all over the place, because the mother would deposit the maximum covered by FDIC and then open a new account in yet another bank. Even more interesting was the portrait of Karen’s husband as exactly what Karen feared: someone who married her for her money, not for love. The scene where Karen is on the phone, almost hysterical, because the dealer was repossessing the Rolls Royce that her husband had “given” her, lets readers understand her naivete, as well as painting Burris for the gold-digger that he surely was.
Reviewers of this book often focus on the in-depth examination of Karen’s anorexia, especially her relationship with her mother and brother, and some have said that Karen’s mother was unable to say, “I love you” to Karen. That scene takes place in the office of Karen’s therapist, apparently the only therapist that she consulted during an eight year plus struggle with eating disorders, wherein Karen’s mother, Agnes, wouldn’t cooperate with the therapist’s directive to tell Karen that she was loved. In that situation, I might have been both angry and embarrassed, so I have some sympathy for the mom.
Over and over, Schmidt’s book explains the tragedy that Karen’s life became, even before the seemingly inevitable tragedy of her death. If fame and fortune come too early, there can be a terrible price to pay. The entire Carpenter clan was simply not prepared for the success that Richard’s brilliant arrangements and Karen’s amazing vocals brought the family. While Karen paid the biggest price, the whole family suffered, and that is ironic, as well as tragic.