DENTON, Texas – He was 13 when he first saw the woman who changed his life. She was already dead.
Randy Schmidt sat perched on his mother’s couch in Cordell, Okla., transfixed by the haunting voice flowing through the television speakers. The year was 1989. The program was “The Karen Carpenter Story.”
It was six years after Carpenter collapsed in her home and died from complications of anorexia nervosa. Schmidt, a pudgy teenager who was the only male in the school choir, connected immediately to the narrative of Karen’s life. They were both misfits. They both lacked self-confidence. They both struggled with their weight.
Schmidt began researching Carpenter’s life. He spent hours in his school library poring over dusty encyclopedias. His mother took him to thrift shops, where he spent his weekends rummaging through bins of cassette tapes and vinyl records.
Twenty years later, his quest for answers has turned into “Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter” (Chicago Review Press, $26.95). The Denton resident is making appearances on “Entertainment Tonight” and is speaking on talk shows and radio stations around the country.
It’s actually Schmidt’s second book on the subject: In 2000, he published “Yesterday Once More: Memories of the Carpenters and Their Music,” a collection of articles and reviews he’d found over the years. It’s now out of print. In contrast, “Little Girl Blue” was making its second round at the printer before it was officially released in stores, and rights have been sold for a British edition. Kirkus Reviews called the book a “dense, fact-filled treatment, which carefully skirts sensationalism while exposing new truths.”
Critics and fans have praised Schmidt for confirming the contentious relationship between Karen and her mother, Agnes Carpenter. He shares an e-mail from Frank Pooler, the Carpenters’ orchestral director and Karen’s vocal coach.
“I am astounded by the depth and understanding that you have had for Karen,” Pooler wrote. “Thanks for letting me relive an important part of my life … you have indeed done ‘good for Karen.”’
In a phone interview, Pooler says he thinks Schmidt “knows Karen better than she knew herself,” and that his book had captured her spirit well.
Karen Carpenter grew up in New Haven, Conn., as a shy, slightly overweight child, Schmidt writes. Her parents ignored her and lavished attention on her older brother, Richard. Agnes believed he was destined to become a musical prodigy.
After the Carpenters moved to Los Angeles in hopes of launching Richard’s career, Richard perfected his skills on the piano and Karen developed her own style on the drums.
After Karen began singing, the duo rose to fame, creating hits such as “Close to You” and “Rainy Days and Mondays.”
Schmidt writes that through the years, Richard overshadowed Karen despite their success. Agnes never recognized Karen’s achievements. After a decade of yo-yo dieting and sporadic bouts of good health, Karen died on a hospital gurney from cardiac arrest.
“She had a hole in her heart that could only be filled with the love of her mother,” Schmidt says.
After Karen’s death, some attempted to capture her life on screen and paper, but the family maintained strict editorial control. Karen’s parents were both dead when Schmidt wrote his book. Richard refused to cooperate, but others in Karen’s life spoke openly to Schmidt.
He is far from the only one fascinated by the duo. The Carpenters, once scorned by critics for their pop music, have influenced scores of musicians today. Karen’s voice is regarded as transcendent and versatile.
“There is a one-to-one connection, like she’s singing it only for you,” Schmidt says. “Even now, there would be some genre that would rope her in.”
Schmidt was roped in the moment he saw Karen on the screen. His mother, Linda Schmidt, says she had never seen a child so transfixed.
“He became totally fascinated with Karen and her songs,” she says. She would drop him off at music stores, come back a few hours later, and “he still wouldn’t be ready to leave.”
After Schmidt exhausted his school library, he explored university libraries and microfilm collections around the United States. Schmidt set up an online fan club for the Carpenters in 1994.
His research grew from dozens of folders into rooms stuffed with videocassettes, pictures and even a piece of crimson-colored shag carpet from the Carpenter house.
He says his favorite Carpenters’ song is “Superstar,” a dark and moody piece about a groupie and a rock star.
“Karen was so into it,” Schmidt says of the song. “It was like there was another world she would go into when she sang, and that song is a great example.”
Schmidt says that he still can’t figure out why he is so fascinated with the Carpenters and Karen’s voice. Whatever it is, one moment shaped the 13-year-old boy into the man he is today.
“It hasn’t let go for 20 years,” Schmidt says, sitting at his home. “I never connected to anything like this.”
Sarah Perry / The Dallas Morning News