Changelings, centaurs, ogres and elves may no longer inhabit the earth, but occasionally we run into their descendants: people so monstrous, incandescent, or freakishly themselves that only a quasi-supernatural description seems to do them justice. In the 20th century they come in all shapes and sizes: from the obvious ghouls and werewolves (Rasputin, Hitler, Idi Amin, Jeffrey Dahmer) to various mid-rank demigods and unicorn-people (T.E. Lawrence, Wittgenstein, Che Guevara, Greta Garbo, Edith Sitwell, JFK, Maria Callas, Howard Hughes, Andy Warhol, Glenn Gould, the late Princess of Wales) down to minor bog-sprites such as Eartha Kitt, Cher or Quentin Crisp. (Such lists are infinitely expandable.) What links each of these disparate individuals is a singularity so tangible as to border on the uncanny. We register each as a unique assemblage of moral and psychic tics: and each, in turn, seems to connect us to some alternative world. We are deeply impressed when one of them weakens and dies.
The sort of singularity I am talking about is often accompanied by celebrity: one’s palpable strangeness makes one famous. Not always of course: mute inglorious oddballs no doubt spend all their days in obscurity – Unabombers without typewriters – while others shine for a time then disappear. Marion Barbara (‘Joe’) Carstairs, the subject of Kate Summerscale’s vastly entertaining new biography, The Queen of Whale Cay, would seem to fall into the latter category. In the Twenties, Carstairs (1900-93) was briefly yet wildly celebrated as the ‘fastest woman on water’ – Britain’s premier speedboat-racer, winner of the Duke of York’s Trophy, and world-record holder in the one and a half litre class. Voraciously homosexual in private life, Carstairs dressed like a beautiful man, smoked cigars, and was pursued from race to race by a gaggle of female fans. (Sir Malcolm Campbell of Bluebird fame called her – apparently without irony – ‘the greatest sportsman I know’.) Special ‘friends’ included the lesbian actresses Tallulah Bankhead and Gwen Farrar. Carstairs, the Evening News reported in 1925, could ‘dance a Charleston which few people can partner’.
By 1934, however, Carstairs had almost completely fallen from view. With several helpful millions inherited from her American mother, scion of the Standard Oil Company, she bought a sparsely populated island in the outer Bahamas and ruled over it for the next forty years in magnificent yet near-total isolation. True, a few celebrities continued to visit: the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marlene Dietrich (Carstairs’s lover in 1938-39), and the cabaret singer Mabel Mercer, along with the occasional reporter from Life or the Saturday Evening Post. But by the Sixties, Carstairs was all but forgotten – outside the Bahamas, she was known only to a handful of British and American lesbians, in whose doting hearts, pumping away like so many little speedboat engines, her glamorous feats were kept alive. I first read about her in a ragged back number of the Ladder, the pioneering lesbian magazine published privately in the United States in the Fifties and Sixties. There, in a breathless profile (‘Her Own Private World’), she was described as ‘possibly the 20th century’s most fabulous woman’. Even then, however, one had the sense of a mythical-beast-sighting, which the accompanying grainy photographs – showing Carstairs playing tennis, riding a motorcycle and patrolling the solitary reaches of her island, like a blonde Adonis in shorts – did little to dispel. As Kate Summerscale puts it, there was something so odd about Carstairs it was almost as if she had to be forgotten: ‘her projects were so outlandish that they took her beyond fame and notoriety to obscurity.’
Summerscale’s own interest was sparked, she tells us, when she was assigned to write Carstairs’s obituary for the Daily Telegraph in 1993. Conversations with surviving friends, lovers and relations led Summerscale to a set of tape recordings that Carstairs made in the Seventies, when she was contemplating having someone ghost-write her autobiography. That project came to naught – Carstairs was resistant to any real self-examination – but the tapes convinced Summerscale that even after this ‘self-made man’ had retreated from the public eye, she longed for applause and commemoration:
I imagined that Joe Carstairs hoped on her death to be left, like the island, to return to wilderness. Yet I also knew that Joe had wanted her extraordinary exploits to be celebrated. As much as she sought exile, she sought recognition. I thought she would be glad to have a book written about her; it was a question of what kind of book.
The kind Summerscale has produced is perhaps not what Carstairs would have relished – The Queen of Whale Cay is as sly, delicate and probing as its subject was unsubtle, butch and incurious – but it is nonetheless an eloquent tribute to Carstairs’s weird, larger-than-life, even daemonic, persona.
The book succeeds so well precisely because the biographer does not attempt to naturalise or explain away her subject’s manifold eccentricities. Certainly the elements of mystery, omen and arabesque were there from the beginning. No one is quite sure who Carstairs’s father was: he may or may not have been Albert Carstairs, a Scottish army officer who disappeared before her birth in London. Her volatile, oil heiress mother – subsequently a heroin addict and dabbler in bizarre rejuvenation therapies – seems not to have paid much attention to the odd little homunculus to whom she had given birth. (‘I was never a little girl,’ Carstairs said later; ‘I came out of the womb queer.’) And hardly surprisingly, Carstairs grew up with a changeling indifference to her wealthy family. In 1905, she was flung from the back of a bolting camel in London Zoo, knocked out, and after regaining consciousness, nicknamed ‘Tuffy’. As an adult, she liked to speak of this deliverance as a kind of symbolic death and rebirth – the moment at which her real life began. By way of such personal myth-making, Summerscale suggests, Carstairs ‘threw off the feminine, proper names of the old century and of her family’s choosing’, undid ‘the bonds of parentage and gender’, and assumed ‘the power of self-creation’. Later in life, she claimed not to know her father’s name and strangely mistook her mother’s. After christening a series of record-setting speedboats after her in the Twenties – Estelle I, II and III – Carstairs announced that she had belatedly discovered that her mother’s name was really Evelyn.
After a brief period at a boarding school in Connecticut, Carstairs experienced her first real liberation. Financed by the family trusts, she made her way in 1916 to the battlefields of France, where she drove an ambulance for the American Red Cross. Between runs to the trenches, she shared a flat in Montparnasse with several other girl-drivers, one of whom, Dolly Wilde, louche niece of Oscar and member of the expatriate lesbian circle around Natalie Barney, became an early and important love. Wilde introduced ‘Joe’ (as she was now known) to European art and culture, though it must be said that the ultra-athletic Carstairs remained throughout her life largely indifferent to mental or artistic exercises. Her personality was basically feral and unlettered, and despite a short introspective phase in her forties when she collaborated with another of her lovers on some moody sapphic verses –
The lustful lungings of the masses
Trundling home perambulators,
Striving to increase the nation –
is a representative sample – ‘Joe’ was to remain all her life a creature of action and not words.
Following the Armistice and a stint driving lorries for the British forces in Ireland, Carstairs returned to Northern France, where she assisted in the grisly work of reburying thousands of British soldiers who had been placed in temporary graves. This horrifying task seems not to have affected her spirits adversely; on the contrary, like many rebellious women of her era, she seems to have been curiously enlivened by the spectacle of mass (male) destruction. ‘If the men who had served in the Great War were exhausted and depleted’, Summerscale observes, women like Joe ‘returned replenished, brimming with vigour and ambition’. For Carstairs, the war was the necessary catastrophe on which much of her subsequent career – as sporting rival to men and virile lover of women – depended.
In 1920, on receiving an inheritance of $200,000 a year, Carstairs opened the X Garage, a fashionable London chauffeur service, the gimmick of which was to use all female drivers. When not driving her clients around, she was busy consolidating her reputation as she-male-about-town. She cut her hair in an Eton crop and took to wearing ties, cufflinks and Oxford bags. This was the time of her affair with Bankhead, about to star in Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels, and with the exotic Argentinian-American revue performer, Teddie Gerard. The comedian Bea Lillie, then making her name as a male impersonator on the London stage (‘I was known as the best-dressed man in London’), was another close friend.
A lover of the mid-Twenties, a hard-drinking ‘tough-faced’ young secretary named Ruth Baldwin, was responsible for what is unquestionably one of the most peculiar elements in Carstairs’s story. Around the same time that Carstairs began to take an interest in speedboat racing – she closed the X Garage and commissioned her first hydroplanes in 1925 – Baldwin gave Carstairs a weird little man-doll, just over a foot long, made of leather by the German toymakers Steiff. Dubbing him ‘Lord Tod Wadley’, Carstairs immediately made him the object of an extraordinary, often comical private cult. She spoke of Wadley as her dearest friend; had expensive outfits made for him on Savile Row; ordered tiny leather shoes for him from Italy; and placed his name, along with her own, on a plaque over the front door of her flat in Chelsea. After her racing exploits had made her internationally famous, she posed for publicity photographs with the quizzical ‘Lord Tod’ perched dashingly on her shoulder.
Wadley soon developed his own mock-life, which ran in tandem with Carstairs’s own. The admirably deadpan Summerscale reports that in 1929 one of Carstairs’s friends ‘dummied up a magazine feature in which Wadley was pictured yachting, riding, taking cocktails, writing a novel and sitting for a studio portrait’:
In one photograph he is depicted reclining among foliage, spectacles perched on the top of his head, empty bottles strewn about him and an open book lying by his side. Beneath runs the caption: ‘I am a thorough student, and when I feel I must have solitude, I take a day in the country – with my books.’ Another caption reads: ‘“Hullo! My dear fellow”: Lord Tod Wadley greets a friend.’
Wadley functioned for Carstairs as mascot, fetish and alter ego – as a miniature externalisation of her own glamorous, if cartoonish nature. ‘We’re like one,’ Joe said. ‘He’s me and I’m him. It’s a marvellous thing. If everybody had a Wadley there’d be less sadness in the world.’
Though Wadley was too precious to be taken on the water, Carstairs held him responsible – totem-like – for all her racing victories, beginning with the race which made her name: the Duke of York’s race in 1926. This was a brilliant win: in a heroic finish, in the course of which a rope got caught up in her propeller and she had to cut herself free while also keeping her wildly juddering balsa-wood craft under control, she defeated the world-class German racer Herr Krueger and became an instant national heroine. (‘Shingled Girl Beats German’ was the Daily Mail’s headline the next day.) As she piled up victory after victory over the next two years – the Royal Motor Yacht Club International Race, the Daily Telegraph Cup, the Bestise Cup and the Lucina Cup – the press had a heyday celebrating ‘a new type of river girl … keen-eyed and close-shingled’, ‘Miss M.B. Carstairs, foremost motorboat enthusiast in Britain’.
These triumphs, though spectacular, were relatively short-lived. In 1928 Carstairs commissioned an exorbitantly expensive speedboat, the Jack Stripes, which she hoped to race across the Atlantic at 50-60 mph. (As Summerscale reminds us, setting speed and distance records on land, air and water was a kind of international mania in the Twenties; Carstairs was undoubtedly inspired in part by Lindbergh’s monoplane crossing the previous year.) The Jack Stripes foundered on its first run in the English Channel (‘bucking like an insane bronco’) and the plan had to be scrapped. This disappointment was subsequently compounded by three successive losses in the Harmsworth British International Trophy, the most prestigious of all motorboat races. In one of these trials Carstairs and her engineer were thrown from their plunging boat and nearly killed. Carstairs maintained her usual aplomb – when she surfaced after the crash she was still chewing her gum – but the danger had been great. ‘Other racing boats were coming at us,’ she later said. ‘I thought we’d get our heads taken off.’ By 1930 not even the adoring women who sent her provocative pictures of themselves seemed enough to assuage her professional frustration.
At the same time it was becoming more and more difficult to be what she was: an imperturbably mannish woman. In the wake of the Well of Loneliness trial in 1928, there was a widespread public backlash against supposed ‘inverts’ and deviants. The editor of the Sunday Express publicly excoriated homosexuality as a pestilence threatening to destroy social life. In the new repressive moral climate, Carstairs, like other unconventional women, came increasingly under suspicion. Reporters began to comment on her tattoos and swearing and indelicate mannerisms: ‘She smokes incessantly,’ one of them wrote in 1930, ‘not with languid feminine grace, but with the sharp decisive gestures a man uses.’ When an American newspaper disparaged her pet, Lord Tod Wadley, as ‘an absurd manikin’, her patience ran out.
Escape came dramatically. In 1933 Carstairs spotted an advertisement for Whale Cay, a tiny island in the British West Indies thirty miles north-west of Nassau and ninety miles east of Miami. After visiting and chatting with its two residents – a black lighthouse keeper and his wife – she bought the island outright for $40,000. ‘I am going to live surrounded only by coloured people,’ she told the press: ‘I am not even taking a motor car, for when I bought the island there were no roads. Now I am building roads and a residence, but my only means of transport will be two ten-foot dinghies. The island is about a thousand acres in extent and is nine miles long. I cannot say if I will ever return.’
She did not. Hence the most uncanny of Carstairs’s turns: her transformation into the self-appointed Boss of Whale Cay. The island had beckoned her, she said, in a kind of sublime vision (‘When I saw the island I thought this is what I must do … Something great will come of it’) and she threw herself into rescuing it. With the help of cheap labour from nearby islands – unemployment was endemic in the pre-tourist West Indies of the Thirties – she cleared the land of its dense vegetation, laid out a lavish plantation (the Great House) for herself and her lovers and built cottages for her workers and their families. The local population grew to several hundred. She built a dock, a school, a church, a fish cannery and a general store. In the late Thirties she bought several neighbouring islands too – primarily to serve as markets for the goods produced by Whale Cay farmers and craftsmen.
Like a female Kurtz, Carstairs dominated her black subjects by sheer force of personality. Many were believers in obeah, a form of voodoo brought by African slaves to the Caribbean in the 18th and 19th centuries. Soon after her arrival on the island, while clearing a road with some of her men, Carstairs killed a snake by hurling her knife at it. ‘And by God I cut that goddamn snake’s head right off.’ The feat was taken as an omen and ever after, she told friends later, the native men followed her with unstinting devotion. Lord Tod Wadley’s conspicuous presence in her life – he sat on her lap as she tooled around the island on her motorbike – likewise encouraged popular faith in her magical powers. As Summerscale reports, the residents of Whale Cay believed the perky little doll to be her ‘witchcraft man, able to discover and disclose their secrets’. With Wadley’s help, Carstairs made laws and delivered judgments (adultery and alcohol were banned); officiated at marriages and births (she assumed the privilege of naming all children born on Whale Cay); established youth camps; and detained island miscreants with the help of a private militia, which she had had outfitted with uniforms and machetes.
For the most part the colonial authorities in Nassau regarded Carstairs’s seigneurship with complacency: in 1940, the Duke of Windsor, recently appointed governor of the Bahamas, paid an official visit to Whale Cay and was received by Joe with gratifying pomp. He was accompanied by the Duchess, in whom the renegade Carstairs seems to have found a kindred spirit:
Joe showed them her boats in the dock, and while the Duke was on the deck of one of the yachts she took the Duchess into the cabin. The Duchess saw Wadley. ‘Who is that?’ she asked (Joe was impressed that she said ‘who’ rather than ‘what’). Joe introduced her: ‘That’s my boy, that’s Wadley.’ ‘My God,’ said the Duchess, ‘he’s just like my husband.’
Which isn’t to say all was sobriety on Whale Cay. Up at the Great House (where the adultery and alcohol ban was decidedly not in effect), Carstairs continued to entertain friends and paramours and carry on much as she had done in London. Dietrich visited several times around 1940; though they parted acrimoniously, Carstairs left her a Whale Cay beach in her will. A succession of other girlfriends came and went: Charlotte, Blanche, Helen, Jackki, Jorie and the exquisite Mabs, ‘a manicurist with a small green scorpion tattoo’. Several of Carstairs’s lovers were black, though none, as it happened, Bahamian: in her intimate life Carstairs preferred the sophisticated women she encountered on annual holidays in New York and the Riviera to local beauties. No such scruples inhibited Father Julian Henshaw, the Firbankian priest Carstairs brought in from Capri to preside over the spiritual life of the island: on his merry way to drinking and fox-trotting himself to death, he delighted in pederastic idylls with his Whale Cay choirboys.
As the years wore on, Carstairs began to retreat more and more into reclusive eccentricity. In the Fifties, as her health broke down, she became increasingly unable to sustain the illusions of intransigent manliness. Perhaps by way of compensation Wadley’s exploits became more and more grandiose. In the Sixties Carstairs claimed that Wadley had known Jack Kennedy (‘They went to the Bay of Pigs together … He had a tremendous liking for him’), had been a moon astronaut, and had had numerous wives, mistresses and children. Yet even these fancies failed to stop the clock. With the rise of Bahamian nationalism Carstairs became disenchanted with her Whale Cay subjects, who were turning restive and disobedient. (While taking a walk one day she was horrified to see two of them copulating openly under a palm tree.) In 1975 she sold the island for $1 million and moved to Miami. There and on Long Island she lived out the rest of her life, watching wild animal shows and boxing on television (she idolised George Foreman), writing cheques for obscure philanthropic causes, and tending to Wadley and his friends and associates – a vast army of dolls and stuffed animals given to her over the years by various girlfriends. When she died in 1993 she and Wadley were cremated together and their ashes placed in a single grave.
Why commemorate the life of such a hallucinatory being? Summerscale is more inclined to describe than to analyse; nor does she try to extract from Carstairs’s life any larger cultural meaning or sociopolitical message. What commentary Summerscale provides is understated and of a literary and mythopoetic cast – as if she were describing a character out of Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Perrault’s fairy tales. For example, she explicates Carstairs’s fixation on Lord Tod Wadley by way of a suitably creepy passage from Djuna Barnes’s lesbian novel Nightwood:
In Nightwood, the narrator reflects on the significance of the doll given to her by her girlfriend, Robin. ‘When a woman gives [a doll] to a woman,’ she writes, ‘it’s the life they cannot have, it is their child, sacred and profane … Sometimes if [Robin] got tight by evening, I would find her standing in the middle of the room, in boy’s clothes, rocking from foot to foot, holding the doll she had given us – “our child” – high above her head.’
Like the doll in Barnes’s novel, Summerscale suggests, Wadley, too, was ‘a mock-child’, a ‘sacred and profane earnest’ of the love between Carstairs and Ruth Baldwin, whose death of a drug overdose in 1937 seems to have affected Carstairs more than any other private loss.
Elsewhere Summerscale compares Carstairs to Peter Pan, finding in her yearning for a secret hideaway and her dream of perpetual boyishness – she exercised fiercely all her life to ‘ward off womanliness’ – an affinity with Barrie’s perpetual boy:
As Wadley was an image of her soul, Whale Cay was its map. The island, Joe believed, was her own creation: ‘I didn’t make improvements,’ she pointed out impatiently. ‘There was nothing there. I made just what I wanted.’ By inventing a counter-kingdom, a fantasy world in which to live, she defied the censures and strictures of the adult world. In 1941 she was shunned again by that world [she had offered to help with the war effort and had been refused] and once again she retreated to her Neverland. Whale Cay was a region of her self, and so it had no chronology. Here she could be a boy who never had to grow up.
Summerscale’s point is bizarrely reinforced by Carstairs’s startling resemblance in photographs to the musical-comedy star Mary Martin – the first screen Peter Pan and, with Garbo and Dietrich, Hollywood’s reigning sapphic icon of the Forties and Fifties.
Perhaps most interestingly, Summerscale refuses to read any kind of heroism – mock or otherwise – into Carstairs’s sexual dissidence. She is not concerned with rehabilitating Carstairs for potential groupies, feminist or lesbian or both. Carstairs, she states, was hardly a feminist: ‘after all, the principle by which she defined herself was male.’ But neither should her life be treated as an exemplary lesbian story: ‘Joe Carstairs was too singular and strange to be representative of anything other than herself.’
One might challenge Summerscale on this last point: surely the first half of Carstairs’s life offers a revealing glimpse, at the very least, of the largely unexplored world of wealthy Anglo-American lesbian culture between the wars. However intermittently, Carstairs was part of an international lesbian clique – soignée, impudent, privileged and eminently creative – becoming ever more visible in Britain, France, Italy and the United States in the Twenties and Thirties. The links between Carstairs and various prominent figures in this extraordinary sapphic society – Radclyffe Hall, Natalie Barney, Vita Sackville-West, Gertrude Stein, Mercedes de Acosta, Gluck, Djuna Barnes, Ida Rubenstein, Romaine Brooks, Elsie de Wolfe, Eileen Gray, Wanda Landowksa, Winaretta Singer, Rose O’Neill, Violet Trefusis, Janet Flanner and numerous others – demand further investigation.
And odd as it might sound, one might wish to register Carstairs’s audacious achievements as lesbian seductress. Summerscale estimates that she had some hundred and twenty lovers, many of whose photographs are reproduced in The Queen of Whale Cay. Some of these women were undoubtedly brief flings (‘You let them sleep in the bed with you afterwards?’ she once asked a male friend). Yet when pressed, she would acknowledge she had always been sensational between the sheets: ‘I was made to think so. Everybody else thought so, so I thought so too. I would have liked me.’ Our culture has no term of awe for women who make love heroically: Don Juan and Casanova remain strictly masculine archetypes. Needless to say, heterosexual women get scant public appreciation for their erotic talents: the most gifted Venus or grande horizontale receives ambiguous praise at best. Lesbians fare even worse: no woman in Western culture, including the great Sappho herself, has ever won popular acclaim for her skill at bringing other women to sexual ecstasy.
With Carstairs, however, we are in the presence of world-class charm: Bedroom Eyes for the Ages. Of extraordinary interest is the as yet unwritten history of 20th-century lesbian libertinism: witness the tantalising vignettes we have of the young Elizabeth Bishop on Key West, for example, in bed with Billie Holiday; or Natalie Barney, who took her last lover at the age of 80; or Vita Sackville-West, one of whose lovers cherished the marks on her inner thighs left by Vita’s earrings. Carstairs would undoubtedly figure nobly in such a history – that is, if the history itself were considered noble. Her true artistry, one suspects, lay in her amorousness, which she approached as a vocation, with something akin to genius.
Yet perhaps Summerscale is right in the end not to turn her subject into allegory. The value of a life such as Carstairs’s lies ultimately in its preposterousness – the sheer exuberance of its strangeness and distance from the everyday. A figure as singular as Carstairs assails one’s sensibilities the way the god Pan might were he suddenly to materialise in one’s back garden. One would be tempted to pretend one hadn’t seen him, to explain him away as an optical illusion – a trick of light against the shrubbery. For sanity’s sake, one might even decide to forget him. But such luminescent creatures have a way of returning to view – of reminding us, in their pathos, of all the things we haven’t done, and the things we never will.