Karen Carpenter: A Cautionary Tale That Lives on 30 Years After Her Death

| February 5, 2013

While Watergate was unraveling Washington, and America’s hippie counter-culture was reaching its zenith, the Carpenters were being introduced at the White House by President Nixon who called them “young America at its very best.”

In 1975, however, when the brother-and-sister duo was forced to cancel their tours, Karen Carpenter would unwittingly become the poster child of a mostly unknown eating disorder called anorexia nervosa. And just eight years later — with her body too damaged to fully recover — Karen Carpenter died. She was thirty-two years old.

But she appeared to have recovered.

Unlike many of the aural rabble rousers of her day, she didn’t dabble in substance abuse like Elvis, Janice, or Jimi: Rather, Karen Carpenter, who was suffering from what People magazine called the “good girl’s disease,” had a few lesser-known addictions: laxatives, starvation, thyroid replacement pills to speed her metabolism, and ipecac syrup to induce vomiting.

Just five months prior to her death, Carpenter, weighing only seventy-seven pounds checked herself into New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital. She was fed intravenously and a catheter was implanted in her heart. By December she’d already gained thirty pounds and with the promise to continue her therapy she left the hospital and returned home to California.

Friends said she’d not only appeared to have recovered from the heartache of her three-month marriage, which ended in divorce, but that she bore an ebullience they’d not seen from her in years.

“I have a lot of living left to do,” Carpenter told her friend Dionne Warwick. She visited her hairdresser for a new look, planned on recording a new album by that following spring — everything was on the upswing. She spoke about her treatment and tried to help others. But it was too late.

On February 4th, 1983, she awoke around 08:00, began preparing breakfast for her parents then returned to her bedroom to ready herself for the day. Moments later her mother discovered Carpenter in her nightgown, face down in her closet. When the paramedics arrived, her heart was beating once every ten seconds. En route to the hospital, she suffered a cardiac arrest and after an hour of trying to revive her, she died at 09:51.

The official cause of her death was cardiotoxicity caused by the drug emetine, an ingredient found in ipecac syrup. Years of its abuse had built up in her system and caused irreparable damage to her heart.

And though she’d stopped taking ipecac and laxatives and had begun a new life for Karen Carpenter, it was too late.


Mary always arrived on time to work and frequently early. She’d walk around and cackle with her coworkers  about the previous evening’s bar trawls while knoshing on an ever-present sack of candy.  Frail and sprightly she couldn’t have weighed more than seventy pounds and anyone who paid attention was aware that she had an eating disorder. She’d been in treatment off and on over the years but nothing seemed to work.

Oneday she didn’t show up. We phoned all morning long and when we failed to hear back from her several hours later, a few of our coworkers went over to check on her. Our friend Brett climbed in through the window of her East Village apartment and found her dead on kitchen floor from, what we would soon learn, was a heart attack.  She was twenty-seven years old.


Both women rose from their beds to start their days, just like you did today. One put on a cup of coffee and started to get dressed and planned to join her parents later at the breakfast table. Another woman was heading to work and later that night she looked forward to a birthday gathering in SoHo. And they died. Just like that.

Too late can come too soon.

If you know someone who has an eating disorder, please consider sharing this article with them privately or call the National Eating Disorders Association at 1.800.931.2237 for further information.


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Category: Analyze, Featured

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