Little Girl Blue is a damning and penetrating account of tortured and tormented artist, Karen Carpenter, and could just be one of the most depressing books you’ll ever read.
Joan Crawford Had Nothing Over Agnes Carpenter
There are some true villains to be found in Little Girl Blue, and it becomes quite clear that Karen was trying to fill a void of some sort by not eating and using laxatives (and later, poisonous ipecac, which induces vomiting but weakens the muscles of the heart) to lose weight. While she was adored by millions of fans around the world, Schmidt paints a picture that Karen was always put behind the interests of her brother and lacked any sort of love or affection from the members of her own family and inner circle.
Managers and her brother convinced her to step outside her drum kit and perform ballads live in concert at the front of the stage – something that Schmidt contends she never felt overly comfortable doing. Both her brother and her mother Agnes, who comes across here as a manipulative control freak, would use her as the bagman whenever a member of their entourage needed to be fired.
The same characters would almost always disapprove of any picks for a suitable romantic partner – which usually came from within the Carpenters own gaggle of stage hands – repeatedly and harshly. When Karen chose to cut her own solo album in 1979 while brother Richard took time off to kick an addiction to Quaaludes, she was chastised yet again by the same members of her family for almost trying to break up the band.
Her record label was equally unsupportive, leading the record to be shelved until 1996, naturally denying her the opportunity in life to assert any sort of independence as a maturing young woman and artist. When she learned that her husband-to-be, real estate developer Tom Burris, was a liar and not what he seemed to be -- for instance, he seemed to indicate during his courtship that he wanted to start a family with Karen, but dropped a bombshell right before the wedding that he'd had a vasectomy -- her mother shamed her into going through with the marriage on the guise that preparations were underway to such an extent that there was no turning back, and that she should sleep in the bed that she’d lay in.
Finally, when she finally tried to seek help for her eating problems in the early ‘80s, she fell under the spell of a shady doctor, Steven Levenkron (who wasn’t even a licensed practitioner), who sought to make her dependant on him. When asked by Levenkron to have Karen meet her family during an emotional session that saw the young singer reduced to tears, her mother simply refused to acknowledge her love for her own daughter. Honestly, Joan Crawford almost comes across as a more loving and dependable parent than Agnes Carpenter in this searing account.
Of course, Little Girl Blue leaves us with more questions than actual answers: questions that probably can’t be answered now that the principal characters are now six feet under. (That’s so to speak: Karen didn’t want to be buried, so she and other member of her family are actually interred above ground.) For one, what made Agnes such a domineering, controlling Tiger mother? The book sheds no light, other than to suggest that something wasn’t right upstairs with her from the get-go. Why didn’t Karen’s father Harold step in and try to be some sort of buffer between her and her mother? We don’t know. Why didn’t Karen’s closest friends do more to help the beleaguered star cope with her illness? Schmidt doesn’t really pry, except to acknowledge that things were different in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and that anorexia nervosa was unknown territory at the time.
And what about Richard? Richard took his mother's side when it came to whatever disagreements were floating through the family, usually, since he was considered to be the Golden Boy and probably didn't want to rock the boat or upset Agnes. There was probably some sort of maternal obligation he felt towards her but, without his involvement in the book, that's a bit of heresay. Why did he side so much with his mother? Without his involvement, that subject gets skirted. All of these things make Little Girl Blue a little one-dimensional: it’s as though the biographer, in trying to get the truth behind Karen’s story, sacrificed some balance in his quest to finally look behind the velvet curtain. (Assuming, of course, there was any sort of balance that could be found in such a dysfunctional family).
Still, Little Girl Blue is a powerful and absorbing book, one that will make you never listen to the Carpenters’ music in quite the same way again. In the middle of my reading, I made the mistake of going out onto my apartment balcony with a beer on a late summer evening. I had just put the Carpenter's double-LP Greatest Hits on my turntable. I had snagged it from a dollar bin of a Toronto record store some years ago. I was expecting pleasant background music, I hoped for a feeling of being swept away in the gorgeous multi-tracked harmony of Karen’s voice. I got something completely different out of the experience, though.
While listening to the record, I actually grew upset and agitated, and eventually had to take it off. I just couldn’t see the magic behind the music – all I could feel was anger and bitterness towards Richard, Agnes and the label executives who ran an unbelievable talent into the ground. I suppose that would mean that there’s a certain power and sway to the narrative of Little Girl Blue, making it an important look at the absolute waste of what should have been Karen's salad years. Maybe a lot that has been said about the life of Karen Carpenter in the years following her death, but Little Girl Blue punches new buttons and, despite its odd flaws, it's a must read for those interested in how some celebrities suffer behind the prettified scenes of their art. That's something I’m sure that Richard Carpenter doesn’t want to hear – but, at least this time, he’s biting his tongue.