Little Girl Blue
The Life of Karen Carpenter
By Randy L. Schmidt
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2010 Randy L. Schmidt
All rights reserved.
Harold Bertram Carpenter had a rather peripatetic childhood and even more itinerant adolescence. The eldest son of missionaries George and Nellie Carpenter, he was born November 8, 1908, in Wuzhou, a city in southern China where the Gui and Xi rivers meet. Siblings Esther and Richard were born several years later. The Carpenter parents were both fine pianists and often played and sang for guests at their frequent formal dinner parties. Although he greatly enjoyed their performances, Harold was not as interested in making music. Against his will he took piano lessons for a while but loathed practicing. More an appreciator of good music than a musician himself, Harold began listening to records on the family's beautiful Victrola. He especially loved the classics.
Harold's mother was greatly concerned about the limited education her children received in China, where they had no formal education, only tutors. In 1917 Nellie took the children and headed for England where the children were enrolled in boarding schools. Their father joined them four years later when granted a leave of absence. Harold's younger sisters Geraldine and Guinevere were born shortly before their mother moved with the children to the United States. There they stayed on Ellis Island for several months before settling with relatives in Wellsville, New York.
Waking each morning at 5:00 A.M., Harold delivered newspapers before going to Wellsville High School. After two years he was forced to drop out and go to work when his mother became ill with a lung ailment. His uncle Frank Stoddard, a night superintendent at a paper box company in Middletown, Ohio, offered him a job, and he moved in with his uncle and aunt Gertrude. Harold moved several times with the Stoddards, finally settling in Catonsville, Maryland, a small community just west of Baltimore, where the men found work in a printing firm. Harold's mother and father separated shortly before Nellie succumbed to pleurisy in 1927 at the age of forty-four.
* * *
Agnes Reuwer Tatum's childhood was somewhat less eventful than that of Harold Carpenter, or perhaps only less documented. She was born on March 5, 1915, in Baltimore, where she spent her youth. Her father, George Arthur Tatum, was part owner in Tatum, Fritz, and Goldsmith, a wholesale undergarment business. He and his wife, Annie May, were the parents of four girls: Jenny, Agnes, Audrey, and Bernice.
Agnes was athletic and played several sports, notably basketball, during her years at Baltimore's Western High School, the nation's oldest public all-girls school. She enjoyed sewing and became a fine seamstress. She made many of the Tatum girls' dresses and coats, in addition to the heavy, pleated, velour drapes that hung in the windows of the family home at 1317 Mulberry Street in Baltimore.
In 1932 George and Annie moved to nearby Catonsville, seeking a quieter existence for their daughters. Agnes's older sister Jenny was no longer living at home, but the other three girls were present when a neighbor introduced them to twenty-three-year-old Harold Carpenter. Agnes was smitten upon meeting the handsome young man and was surprised to see him again just a few days later driving up the street in his shiny Chevrolet. Noticing Agnes and Audrey waiting for a bus, Harold stopped to say hello and offered them a ride.
Agnes and Harold soon began dating, and a four-year courtship ensued. The two were married at Catonsville Methodist Church on April 9, 1935. Times were tough, and there was little pomp and circumstance. There was no wedding cake, and Agnes sewed her own wedding gown. The only gift was a General Electric iron from the bride's aunt Myrtle and uncle Arthur, who happened to work for GE. Instead of a honeymoon, the newlyweds went for a night out at the movies.
For the next three weeks the couple lived with Agnes's parents in the Tatum home. Following Harold's uncle Frank to yet another box printing company, the couple relocated to Richmond, Virginia, where their first home together was a five-dollar-a-week furnished efficiency apartment. After a year they moved into a larger furnished apartment on Fendall Avenue in Richmond's Highland Park area.
When Agnes's older sister Jenny separated from husband George Tyrell, she felt her sister and brother-in-law would offer a more stable future for the Tyrells' eighteen-month-old baby girl, Joanie. Agnes and Harold became surrogate parents and soon moved to Mechanicsville on the northeast side of Richmond, securing a larger home for the growing family. The Carpenters were Richmond residents for five years before returning to Baltimore for a few months and in 1940 finally settling in an apartment on Sidney Street in New Haven, Connecticut. Jenny reunited with her daughter and moved in with Agnes and Harold, where she remained until 1943.
Working for the New Haven Pulp and Board Company, Harold became skilled at running the company's color printing equipment. Agnes began working, too. She worked eight-hour shifts either six or seven days a week, operating a thread mill machine for Mettler Brothers, a subcontractor of Pratt-Whitney Motor Mounts. Agnes stayed with Mettler's until World War II came to an end in 1945.
* * *
After more than ten years of marriage, Agnes Carpenter became pregnant. With their first child on the way, she and Harold began house hunting and settled on a new construction going up on Hall Street in New Haven's conservative, suburban East Shore Annex neighborhood. Hall Street was cozy and inviting, an almost fairy-tale lane for young families looking to build homes after World War II. Its string of modest, colonial-style homes was just a few miles from Lighthouse Point, a popular beach and amusement park across New Haven Harbor.
The Carpenters and their live-in niece, by then ten years old, moved into the new $8,900 home at 55 Hall Street on August 27, 1946. In less than two months they welcomed a son, born October 15 at Grace-New Haven Hospital. He was named Richard Lynn for Harold's only brother.
As he grew, Richard became interested in his father's extensive record collection. The selections were varied and eclectic to say the least, encompassing everything from Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and Bourdin to Lannie McEntire, Red Nichols, and Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Even before he could read, young Richard would go through the records and listen for hours. He was able to distinguish the records by feeling the edges and grooves of each 78. At the age of three Richard asked for his own record of "Mule Train," a popular novelty cowboy song. His first 45 was Theresa Brewer's Dixieland-tinged "Music, Music, Music," and shortly after that he asked for "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?" by Patti Page.
At 11:45 A.M. on Thursday, March 2, 1950, just three days shy of her thirty-fifth birthday, Agnes gave birth to a little girl, Karen Anne. Her first words were "bye-bye" and "stop it," the latter a natural response to the antics of an older brother.
Numbering five, the family shared the tidy little 1,500-square-foot, two-story home and its three bedrooms and two bathrooms. "They had nice furniture, everything was neat, everything matched, and everything was clean and shiny," recalls neighbor Debbie Cuticello, daughter of Carl and Teresa Vaiuso. "It had a finished basement, a garage, a beautiful front yard and backyard we all played in. They had a screen porch in the back and neatly manicured lawns and landscaping. Everybody took pride in their neighborhood. There were always shiny cars in the front yards."
In a tradition that continues to the present day, the houses on Hall Street came to be identified by the names of the families that lived there in the 1950s and 1960s. Number 55 is the Carpenter house, across the street is the Catalde house, and so on. "The LeVasseurs were on one side, and they're still there," Cuticello explains. "The Catanias were across the street, and they're still there. The Jones family was next door. The Shanahans were a couple of doors down. It was just a wonderful 1950s neighborhood."
According to Frank Bonito, whose parents bought 83 Hall Street in 1960, "It was a middle-class neighborhood with a lot of working folks. My father was a butcher and owned a grocery store. The Vaiusos, Debbie's parents, owned a farm. He was a wholesale farmer in Branford, which is one town over. I was at 83. Debbie lived at 77. On the other side were the DeMayos. Mr. DeMayo had worked in the post office. Across the street was a family whose father was a professor at Yale. Millstone was their name. Next to them were the DeVitas. They were an older couple with no children, and the husband was a dentist."
The New Haven area was settled by a number of Italian immigrants, providing residents with some remarkable pizza parlors in the area. Nearby Fort Nathan Hale Park was the site of many family picnics and play dates. There the children could swim, fish, and fly kites. In winter the fun turned to sledding and snowballing.
The Bonito, Vaiuso, and Carpenter children spent a great deal of time in one another's homes. Debbie and her brother thought of Agnes and Harold more as aunt and uncle figures, an extended family of sorts. "My brother Joey played with Rich, and I played with Karen," she says. "Our parents shared the same values and seemed to enjoy the hardworking American ethics. As children, we watched very little television and were outside as long as we could stay ... playing basketball, baseball, roller-skating, hula-hooping, and playing in the yards. Everybody got along. ... We didn't have a lot of money, and they didn't have a lot of money."
For extra income, Agnes and Harold started their own car washing business, and the two took great pride in their work. Their pickup and delivery service became popular among the neighborhood families and proved to be a success for the frugal couple, who wanted to give their children a comfortable existence. It was the perfect job for Agnes. She was known to be so persnickety in regard to keeping a clean house that she was often seen standing in the front windows scrubbing the locks with a toothbrush. "Mom was known for having the cleanest garage in Connecticut," Karen recalled in 1971. "My God, if you mopped, the mop didn't get dirty!"
According to Frank Bonito, Agnes was "compulsively clean, almost to the point of having some kind of psychiatric issues. ... The woman made sure everything was immaculate. I can remember her going next door one time and cleaning the next-door neighbors' windows on her side of the house because they upset her. She was a very nice woman but very uptight. She seemed to be very stressed all the time."
Harold Carpenter hung swings from the rafters in the basement of the Carpenters' home, a favorite hang-out spot for neighborhood kids when it was too cold to play outside. It was a music haven for Richard, who even designated the area with a sign that read RICHIE'S MUSIC CORNER, his version of the family's favorite local record shop. The children would swing in the basement and listen to the music Richard selected from his library, which was categorized, alphabetized, and documented. "Richard had a beautiful sound system," Bonito recalls. "In those days they were called hi-fi's. He would have music on, and Karen and I would be swinging and doing our homework."
As she would do for much of her life, Karen took on Richard's interests. Music became their shared passion, and the two would swing to the music for hours. "I did everything that Richard did," she said in a 1981 interview. "If he listened to music, I listened to music. It was unconscious, but because I idolized him so much ... every record that we've ever listened to is embedded in my mind." They enjoyed the sounds of Nat "King" Cole, Guy Mitchell, and Perry Como, and both sat spellbound listening to the overdubbed sounds of Les Paul and Mary Ford, particularly on the duo's masterpiece "How High the Moon." According to Richard, Karen could sing every Les Paul solo. The first record she asked for was "I Need You Now" by Eddie Fisher on RCA-Victor. The two also enjoyed listening to the radio, notably WMGM and Alan Freed's Top 40 show on WINS, "1010 on Your Dial," out of New York.
Karen liked to dance and by the age of four was enrolled in ballet and tap classes. Prior to recitals she could be found singing and dancing on the sidewalk in front of the house in a full costume of sequins, satin, tap shoes, and a huge bonnet. Karen was a short, stocky little girl with her dark blond hair cut in a Dutch-boy style. Debbie Cuticello admits to having looked up to Karen, who was two years her senior: "She was my best buddy. I tried to do everything that she did, basically. She was older than I was, and the two years made a big difference back then. Richard was older. You looked up to him, not necessarily a ringleader but the oldest of the group. He and Karen loved each other. ... There was sibling rivalry — maybe a little pinching here and there — but it was typical; nothing unusual, nothing different."
While Debbie and Joey Vaiuso attended St. Bernadette School, a Catholic school in the area, Karen was a student at Nathan Hale School, just around the corner from Hall Street on Townsend Avenue. "Karen was a year younger than us," says Frank Bonito. "She was the youngest in the class and one of the best students in the class. We were very close through sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, and we always studied together." Karen and Frank walked to school each morning and returned home at lunchtime. "It was an era when women didn't work outside the house, so we'd come home," Bonito says. "There was no cafeteria or anything, so all the kids just went home for lunch. On the way back I'd stop and pick Karen up, and then we'd walk to school together, picking up other friends as we went along."
Like most little girls who grew up in the 1950s, Karen had the Ideal Toy Company's Betsy Wetsy doll, but she preferred playing with her dog, Snoopy, or her favorite toy machine gun or participating in various sports. A favorite was Wiffleball, a variation on baseball that used a perforated plastic ball invented just thirty miles away by a man in Fairfield, Connecticut. Karen pitched and sometimes played first base. "I was a tremendous baseball fan," she later said. "I memorized all the batting averages long before I knew the first word to a song. The Yankees were my favorites." She also delivered the New Haven Register on her paper route each day, sometimes adding weekend routes for extra money.
Teenage Richard was tall, thin, and gangly, somewhat uncoordinated, and not as physically active as Karen. He spent most of his free time indoors with his music. "It was slightly embarrassing," he recalled. "Karen was a better ballplayer than I was, and when choosing sides for sandlot games, she'd be picked first." The school bullies sometimes teased and picked on him. This left him temperamental, and he could be upset quite easily. Richard's rants were short and usually ended with him storming off and back into the house where he remained the rest of the day. Agnes encouraged him to fight back, but she also relied on Karen to watch over her older brother. "She can take care of herself and Richard," Agnes explained in 1972. "When they were little kids, she always defended him. She'd take on all the roughnecks and make them leave Richard alone."
* * *
The Carpenters' dining room was home to the family's piano and therefore one of the highest-traffic areas in the house. The piano was purchased by cousin Joan, by then a teenager, when Richard was eight years old. He grew disinterested after a frustrating year under the direction of the rigid Ms. Florence June, and in a mutual agreement both teacher and parent decided the talent and interest were lacking and the lessons should cease.
Three years later Richard taught himself to play by ear, excelling at flourishes and arpeggios. His parents decided to give it another chance, and he began studying with Henry "Will" Wilczynski, a student from Hartford. This time Richard's interest was sparked and his talent emerged. "During the summer when all the windows were open you would hear Richard play the exercises you have to play," Debbie Cuticello says. "There was always lots of music coming from that house."
Neighbor Bill Catalde saw the Carpenter kids in the same light as any others on Hall Street. "In our world we never thought of them as anything but the wonderful kids that they were. We were just children. With the possible exception of Richard, we never really projected ourselves into the future."
Karen looked up to Richard, his musical talents and intuition, so when he began accordion lessons with Henry Will, she wanted to take lessons as well. Will became a regular around the Carpenter house and soon began courting Joan. Although Karen enjoyed her lessons, she was more interested in exploring her other hobbies, most notably her fascination with drawing. She won a poster contest while attending Nathan Hale and expressed interest in becoming either an artist or perhaps a nurse. (Continues...)
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