Barbara Carlson’s was a life lived large, loud and, seemingly, without a filter.
In a career that boldly swerved from real estate to Minneapolis city politics to the bombast of talk radio, the self-described “broad” often said or acted on whatever came into her head.
In the end, the return of lung cancer she thought she’d beaten four years ago finally did what political opponents and the people she skewered on her radio show never could: Silence “Babs.”
Carlson, 80, died Monday, surrounded by loving family and friends. “Right before she died, we were all piled on her bed and she said, ‘I wasn’t a great mother. But, damn, I was a fun mother,’ ” Carlson’s daughter, Anne, said Monday afternoon.
“Oh my God, I never met anyone like her in my life,” said longtime friend Charles Leck, who helped throw a going away party for Carlson at St. Paul’s University Club in February after she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.
Nearly 300 people — from new neighbors to lifelong pals — were there. “She was always an outrageous person — her entire life,” he said. “
Barbara Duffy was born in Anoka, where her father ran the local lumberyard. In a 2017 story that detailed how she’d gone broke after a lifetime of comfort that included live-in help, Carlson said her father treated her lavishly.
“My mother almost died giving birth to my younger brother and was bedridden much of time” during Carlson’s youth, she said. “I became my father’s surrogate wife. When he wanted to go out to dinner, he’d take me. And we went to nice places where I’d wear white gloves.”
She added: “I’ve always just spent. My first words were ‘Charge it.’”
She became a real estate agent and, in 1965, married up-and-coming politician Arne Carlson who was soon elected to the Minneapolis City Council. Leck, a former minister, met her in 1968 — not long after he’d turned down a request from Arne to help him campaign for mayor on Minneapolis’ North Side. He and Barbara became fast friends. She even introduced him to the woman who is now his wife.
“She played Cupid on that one,” Leck said.
Barbara and Arne Carlson divorced in 1977 and, in 1981, she gave up real estate and launched her own political career, winning a seat on the Minneapolis City Council. And, yes, she was seen occasionally sucking a pacifier at council meetings — she was trying to quit smoking. She married Pete Anderson in 1983.
A Republican, Carlson leaned left on social issues, like abortion, which helped contribute to a high-profile falling out with the Republican Party in 1984.
In 1989, she completed her final term on the City Council, but her public life was just about to take off.
KSTP radio hired her in 1990 to host a talk show and it soon became known for being outrageous — and sometimes airing from Carlson’s bubbling Kenwood neighborhood hot tub.
The show would go on for 11 years, proving hugely popular for much of that run.
In part, audiences tuned in because few could predict what would come out of Carlson’s mouth.
On the air — or in her 1997 book “This Broad’s Life” — she wasn’t shy about sharing intimate details of her life, including sex, divorce, depression, alcoholism and stabbing Arne Carlson twice during a tumultuous marriage.
Want to know about her battle to lose weight? She’d enthusiastically tell you about her stomach-stapling surgery. Want to know what happened to her after the radio show ended and an unsuccessful campaign for mayor of Minneapolis? Carlson eagerly opened up about everything from suffering from congestive heart failure to going broke after a lifetime of carefree spending.
In 2002, she and Anderson divorced. That year also marked the end of her run at KSTP, following a series of health issues that forced her to retire.
Monday afternoon, only hours after saying goodbye to her mother, Anne Carlson said it wasn’t always easy being the daughter of someone with such an outsized personality.
“It was hard. It was challenging. I loved her so much, but it was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done,” she said of occasionally needing to bite her tongue and grit her teeth. “But she loved so much. She was quick to anger. Quick to forgive. And quick to love. And I am a better person for having known her.”
On Barbara Carlson’s CaringBridge site, Anne wrote of how her mother took her last breath wrapped in the love of those who surrounded her:
“She said everyone should die like this. It was so peaceful and heartbreaking at the same time. I’ve never known pain like this and our hearts have a huge hole.”
Besides Anne, Barbara Carlson is survived by a son, Tucker Carlson; a brother, George Duffy of Locust Grove, Va.; and several grandchildren. A memorial is being planned.