Updated: Nov 21, 2022
Thirty years after death of "golden age" porn star, new clues suggest her biography may have hope.
Michelle Carpenter (Arcadia Lake), the star of over forty porn films in the '70s and '80s died in upstate New York of an accidental overdose in 1991. Google, IMDB (Internet Movie Database), IAFD (Internet Adult Film Database), and Find a Grave, all list her birth as September 3, 1958 and death as September 13, 1991 in Oswego, New York, a small county on the coast of Lake Ontario.
Problem is, this person was not Arcadia Lake.
It was a sad ending to a eight-year love affair. Michelle had fallen back to drugs. Like with all addictions, a return meant escalation. Shooting up heroin had been rough; the methadone clinics no joyride, either. Now, it was speedballs: a mix of heroin and cocaine injected into the veins, a deadly concoction that had recently claimed the life of John Belushi.
Her boyfriend, Rob, didn't know what to do. When she was drugged-out before, he'd flown her to Jamaica and slowly weaned her off her methadone. When she finally got clean, he took a photo of her making a "zero" with her hand. She was proud, beaming, and the world seemed alive again. They returned to New York but decided it was best to start over in Los Angeles. New social circles, new friends, more sunshine.
Soon, the drugs were back.
Rob suggested a return to Jamaica to repeat what had worked before. But Michelle wouldn't stop, couldn't stop, not even if it meant her life.
The couple was up in San Francisco for a film shoot. A porn shoot. And Rob couldn't leave her. If he did, he knew he'd never see her again. He had seen it before: Michelle surrounding herself with the wrong crowd like back in New York: a musician boyfriend that chipped her tooth, all-night parties, drugs and clinics and dangerous living.
"Let's get back to L. A.," Rob said, desperation in his voice. But Michelle refused. She was staying in San Francisco and wasn't going back with him. It was clear. That's when Rob did the only thing he thought he could do to save her and the relationship. Born out of a desperation that only comes from love and the fear of losing it, he shot up with her.
Rob Everett is Eric Edwards, one of the all-time legends, called the "Babe Ruth" of the porn industry. A classically trained actor, he started making porn back in the '60s, predating such veterans as John Holmes and Jamie Gillis and outlasting both. Together, he and Lake were and are icons in the porn industry to this day, talked about on forums, podcasts, and Reddit. Seen "The Deuce?" They lived it.
Edwards first met Lake making porn loops, small reels for the quarter machines. Their paths crossed again at Show World in New York City, where he acted in a live sex show with her. He'd neve done that before, but called to stand in for Marc Stevens, he figured it was like performing in front of a camera. Instead of a film crew, there would be heavy-breathing customers huddled in the dark.
Edwards was a tall, shy, loner that had found sex as a way to make a living. At that time, he still hoped to make it as a theatre actor. But sex work paid the bills. Lake was an exotic Japanese-American, who had grown up without a father and saw Edwards, 12 years her senior, as a stabilizing force. She moved into his apartment on 57th street, he introduced her to film directors, and they went on to make over 30 movies together as a couple, including 1978's Debbie Does Dallas, one of the top five highest grossing adult films ever made.
In a dingy apartment in San Francisco, the needle delivered its cargo into Edwards' arm, and the experience was beyond anything he'd ever felt. He was hooked, instantly. When they finally returned to L.A., they shot each other up and began to spiral. He wanted to be where she was for a while longer, and he was. But it wouldn't last, and he could feel it. Despite having joined Lake in her habit, she was drifting away.
"I'm going to leave you," she said.
"I know," he said.
He couldn't hold her any longer - couldn't save her from where she seemed determined to go - so, he wrote her a poem, "Little Bird."
Little Bird, lost and lonely in the night
Be strong and grasp the light of the morning star
For beyond it lies the dawn
Little bird soaring over the shining sea, chasing the sun and being free
To dance with the waves on waxen wings
Don’t fly too high my love
And when the darkness comes, and thy wings grow weary
Remember my light and hold on tight
For always shall it be, I love thee Little Bird
She left him that day along with all her belongings. He gave her his black leather jacket, his favorite, to stay warm.
The aftermath was brutal. Hooked on cocaine, Rob OD'd twice, once waking up on the floor not knowing how he got there. It would take eight months before he could right himself. He would move out, unable to stay in the apartment the pair had made a home. Still, he kept her things in a case under his bed for years, waiting for her to return. She never did.
Edwards has stated in interviews such as The Rialto Report that he was first told of Carpenter's overdose in the early '90s. He remembers the day precisely, as he was receiving a lifetime achievement award. It must have been a bittersweet moment.
But there's a problem with his story: the award from the Free Speech Coalition was actually in 1990, one year before she is said to have died. Also, he doesn't name the individual who told him; it was just "a guy," he says.
Given Michelle's past with drugs and the stigma that being in the porn industry brings, her death of accidental overdose has been set in stone for 30 years. But, what do we really know?
Here are the facts:
There is a grave stone with Michelle Carpenter's name on it in Oswego, New York, a community 300 miles north of Manhattan. The dates would resemble Lake's as Edwards believes she was around 20 when he met her in 1977. Some sites suggest she was living in the town of Mexico, New York, in Oswego county. One site gives the location as Pulaski, New York, also in Oswego. In fact, these two towns are only a few miles apart. South Richland Cemetery where Michelle Carpenter is buried is halfway in-between the two.
On September 14, 1991, there was an obituary for this Michelle Carpenter in the Watertown Daily Times. She died of cancer and her life story is not even close to Arcadia Lake's. Lake's mother was Japanese, family name Tamaya. By 1977, Lake was working as a live sex-show worker at Show World on 8th Avenue, where she performed with Edwards. That we know. This is confirmed by multiple sources: employers, employees, friends, and directors. This other Michelle Carpenter was finishing up business school in Syracuse at that time. On top of that, she wasn't even born a Carpenter. She was born Michelle Hageny and married a Carpenter, Stanley Carpenter in 1984.
This "Michelle Carpenter" was not Arcadia Lake.
To add to the mystery, there is currently one and only one Michelle M. Carpenter (the middle initial often attributed to Lake) in all of New York State that is in her 60s as Lake would be. This Michelle M. Carpenter is 62 (Lake would be 62 or 63) and happens to live near... Mexico, New York, the same town as the grave. As for size? It's a tiny place, population 5,072. And no, she is not Arcadia Lake either. But if you wanted to fool someone or an industry by faking your death, you couldn't pick a better place.
Past fake deaths in the porn industry
Lisa DeLeeuw and Brandy Alexandre were believed to have died from AIDS, only to be found alive and well, according to David Jennings in his book, Skinflicks. DeLeeuw's status is still unknown to this day. Hyapatia Lee, Moana Pozzi, Tawnee Stone, have all been assumed dead prematurely. Then there is Bambi Woods, perhaps the closest in many respects to Lake's story.
Woods was Lake and Edwards' co-star in Debbie Does Dallas, a surprise breakout hit and the most successful porn video release of its time, selling over 50,000 copies. According to Wikipedia, Woods' "meteoric success in the Golden Age of Porn and later disappearance intrigued adult industry writers and caused interest in her whereabouts, and a myth about her having met a sordid fate several years after her heyday began to be accepted as fact." This myth began to grow legs when The Age, an Australian newspaper, claimed she had died of a drug overdose in 1986. This would later turn out to be false, and the real "Bambi Woods" came forward in interviews through emails to state she was living an average life away from the stigma and infamy of porn.
It's not such an uncommon thing to want to start over, erase your past. These sex workers are often harassed their entire lives. Because of the internet and the recent restoration into 4k of many of the "golden age" porn films, Lake's videos are in wider circulation today than ever before.
But part of a person is still caught in time, remembering the love they shared, certain she is gone. Or, so he says.
What we know about Lake
It is often thought she took her stage name from a lake resort in Oklahoma, sparking speculation that she was from that area. However, the resort wasn't created until 1984. Michelle had been using the name since 1977.
She stated in a 1982 "Starlet" magazine interview that she didn't want to continue in the porn business, and her final credit is from that same year. In 1983, she did appear in a mainstream film, the mainstream horror flick, The Prey, but she had filmed her scenes in 1981. It is rumored that she appeared in The Story of O Part 2 in 1984. While there is a Japanese Geisha role, it was not played by Arcadia Lake.
When she left Edwards, she abandoned all her belongings and jewelry, which had always been a particular point of pride for her. She had an obsession with jade bracelets and rings. She left her clothes, bags, shoes. She was leaving a whole lifestyle. If she just wanted to continue using drugs, why leave porn? She was in demand and could've earned more in a week than other jobs paid in a month.
What's certain is that Edwards' love for her was genuine. In his interviews, you feel the pain, the loss. Of the three long-term relationships of his life, she was the only one he didn't marry. They never even thought of it, he says. They were having too much fun. Despite the drugs, they got along. She was intelligent, witty, and full of energy. He was successful, steady, decent. According to The Rialto Report, after she left, Edwards was in tough shape. "After Michelle left, my mental state wasn’t good. I was depressed because I was alone, and now I had a drug problem. How bad did the addiction get? Pretty bad. Over the years, I’ve tried to forget about it all. I haven’t mentioned it in interviews because it was such a dark period in my life."
It is possible that she saw how her drug habit was bringing Edwards down, and she didn't want that for him. She could have left him out of love, to save him from herself, and this is the version Edwards lives with. It's also likely that she was more desperate than ever to quit drugs. Now, Edwards was using with her. What else could she do but run away? Where? She had family in New York City and in Washington State, perfect places to hide. Another factor is the porn. Edwards was constantly working, and his sense of self was wrapped up in it. He was one of the most prolific actors of his day, and there wasn't an option on the table where he'd one day quit. She may have come to realize that fact; she would always have to share him. One moment in the film Honey Throat is almost suggestive. Even though Lake was completely untrained as an actress, her reaction while watching Edwards with another woman is sincere and compelling.
So, did she fake her death? Possible but not likely. She may have had something to do with starting the rumor or even more likely continuing it. Perhaps, Edwards was her avenue of escape as his word is all we have in relation to her death.
It would make sense that she would want Edwards to move on with his life as she wanted to move on with hers. After that, it seems coincidence took care of everything. She was linked to a woman who shared her name and age, who had died around the same time the rumors had started circulating. She happened to be from New York. Lake was from New York. Bingo.
Did Arcadia Lake die from an overdose? Could have, but there's no evidence to prove that either: no newspaper reports, no media coverage, no services. After all, to most she was just some porn actress. Isn't that the stereotype that they all meet some odd end?
Lake could very well be alive. If so, one person would like to know more than any other, says Edwards. On his bed, he still keeps the hand-sewn quilt Lake's family gave him 40 years ago. It's been with him through tough times. After battling cancer in 2005, it was with him. When bankruptcy put him in a tent in the woods outside L.A., it went camping too. Now, he has a home again but is bound to it most days with Diabetes; and the quilt sleeps with him. He's a romantic at heart. He and Lake burned hot, grounded in a true love for one another. Though he slept with over 300 women, porn was work. Michelle Carpenter remains the one who got away, and her memory stays with him, alive.
Jared is the author of 2019's In Search of Al Howie, a deep dive into an enigmatic Scotsman, who could literally run forever. Chosen by Kirkus as "Best of 2019."