This biography falls outside the Project’s pre-20th century scope, but I already owned the book and since I featured an interview about a show based on Carstairs’ life on the podcast, it felt like a good excuse to cover it in the blog. The shifting experiences and receptions of Carstairs’s same-sex relationships over her lifetime provide something of a tour through 20th century lesbian history, though of course Carstairs herself was insulated to an astounding degree by her wealth and connections. Carstairs was definintely gender non-conforming and adopted a number of masculine-coded attributes, including a preference for the name Joe. However there seems sufficient evidence in her own writings to conclude that she did not consider herself transgender, and so I have followed the book's lead in using female pronouns.
And not to put too fine a point on it, Carstairs was not exactly a socially and politically progressive icon. While many aspects of her transgressive life appear glamorous, and while she did embrace some improvements with regard to social and economic conditions for “her people” in the Bahamas, she was solidly imperialist, colonialist, racist, and classist and when she was able to, she ordered the lives of those around her in a manner that was autocratic and sometimes cruel. But she is a part of lesbian history as much as more palatable icons are.
Summerscale, Kate. 1997. The Queen of Whale Cay. Viking, New York. ISBN 0-670-88018-3
Marion “Joe” Carstairs was born in 1900, heir to a fortune, courtesy of her grandfather’s involvement in Standard Oil, and became famous in the 1920s as a motorboat racer and celebrity. She dropped out of general notice in 1934 when she bought an island in the Bahamas and moved there to found something of a private kingdom where she entertained her fellow celebrities, such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, as well as a long string of female lovers such as Marlene Dietrich. She was know for eccentricities such as favoring masculine clothing and for her mascot, a doll named “Lord Todd Wadley” that she treated as something of an alter ego.
[Note: Like many eccentrics of her class and era, she was conservative in politics and unrepentantly imperialist, as well as embodying the racist and colonialist attitudes of white British culture of the time. While the author of this book tends to report these attitudes without comment, I have omitted some of the more offensive elements in my summary and so feel the need to point it out more explicitly.]
[Second note: I feel the need to embrace the possibility that, if born in a later age, Carstairs might have had a trans identity. Certainly she falls on the trans-masculine spectrum. But the information in the biography seems to me to fall solidly on the female and lesbian side, so I have followed the author in doing so.]
By the time of Carstairs’ death at age 93, she was essentially forgotten, both in her exploits and her scandals. The author of this biography was assigned to write her obituary for The Daily Telegraph and uncovered a story that she thought warranted more research and a full history. That story came from old newspaper clippings, friends and lovers still around to be interviewed, and a series of tape recordings that Carstairs made in the 1970s for an abortive project of having her autobiography ghost-written. The tapes are especially revealing, showing a woman who did very little self-reflection or analysis of her own life and motivations. She was; she did; but the whys and wherefores she dismissed as unimportant.
Although her inherited wealth made Carstairs’ transgressive life possible, she worked hard to dissociate herself from her parents, choosing her own gender-neutral nickname at an early age (before eventually choosing “Joe”), and later claiming she didn’t even know her father’s given name--though he left the marriage shortly after Carstairs’ birth, so this might be forgiven. That father was British and was the connection that brought her from the company of American oil barons to London society. Her mother remarried a series of Englishmen, but Carstairs had little affection for her half-siblings. She describes her youth: “I was never a little girl. I came out of the womb queer,” and told stories of a rough and tumble adventurousness. Her mother in turn seems to have had little interest in her, except for a possessive jealousy that led to interfering with any emotional attachments Carstairs tried to make with other adults in her childhood.
Carstairs developed an early fascination with boats. Even by her own account she was a violent and unmanageable child, leading to her being put into an American boarding school in order to separate her from her half-siblings at age 11. It was during this period that she gravitated toward masculine clothing and the company of other girls who did so. She had crushes on her school-fellows, though she claimed they never progressed to sexual encounters at the time.
During World War I, she developed an ambition to become a doctor and her grandmother arranged--over her mother’s objections--for Carstairs to go to France as an ambulance driver. During this period in Paris she discovered the joys of sex with a fellow ambulance driver, among other women. Dolly Wilde, the niece of Oscar Wilde, was one of her lovers and part of Natalie Barney’s circle in Paris, but Carstairs was only on the periphery of that glittering crowd. It was Dolly who taught Carstairs how to invent her own public persona.
In 1918, Carstairs had a break with her mother over her lesbianism, and though Carstairs tells it that she told her mother what do do with her threats of disinheritance, shortly afterward she married a childhood friend Count Jacques de Pret, most likely to avoid losing her inheritance. The two parted immediately after the marriage and both took pains to note that it was never consummated.
After WWI, Carstairs took her love of motor vehicles to supporting the British anti-Republican activities in Ireland, where she again fell in love with a number of like-minded unconventional women. Then in 1919 it was back to France to help with post-war cleanup. All this was hard physical work with a certain amount of danger. The nature of the work required maasculine-style dress and it often attracted women who transgressed traditional gender roles. (This chapter of the book includes extensive repetition of a slur used for the Chinese laborers they were working beside, as well as quoting some very racist commentary. I note this for the sake of full representation but decline to repeat any of it.)
Shortly after being demobilized in 1920, Carstairs’ grandmother--and champion--died in New York. Carstairs played at being poor while waiting several years for the will to be settled, though in fact trust funds gave her an extremely comfortable income. She and her army friends set up an all-female chauffeur business in London, perhaps to prolong the sense of transgressive freedom they had during the war. Their clientele was extremely varied and included tours and international travel as well as local service. [Reading the details, I kept imaging a tv historical sit-com revolving around the company and its activities!] Despite devoting herself to the driving service as a business, Carstairs had an estate in Hampshire. And in 1924 when both her mother’s and grandmother’s wills were finally settled, Carstairs became extremely wealthy. She commissioned “the best motorboat money could buy” and set out on the next stage of her life.
The state of the art in motorboats at the time were hydroplanes--very fast, but unstable and fragile. Boats were as likely to be destroyed in the race as to win. Carstairs took on a full time boat mechanic named Joe (they had fun with the name coincidence) who would be one of the many associates she “looked after” financially life-long. Then she began winning races, not consistently, but regularly, expressing an addiction to the thrill and hazard of the speed.
Carstairs attracted a regular flock of girlfriends, from high society women to showgirls. This was typical of the racing celebrities, though Carstairs’ relationships were less openly discussed by the press than her male compatriots’ were. In 1925, while on holiday with her “secretary” Ruth Baldwin (who seems from the evidence to have been the deepest love of her life), Carstairs received from her as a present the doll that would become her mascot and icon. She had an aversion to the idea of children in her life, but the doll, “Lord Todd Wadley” becomes something of a child substitute.
The 1920s (sometimes called “the lost generation” in Britain) was an era of theatricality and abandon. The fashion for androgyny that also produced the “flapper” style, manifested in Carstairs and others in gender-bending and cross-gender clothing styles. The war had produced a gender imbalance due to massive male casualties which lessened the pressure on women to stick to a traditionally feminine role in society. Carstairs acknowledged that she “looked like a boy” during that era, but disclaimed a butch or transgender identity, saying, “I was not a stomper.” Carstairs had many friends and lovers among the theatrical set, including Gwen Farrar for whom her first racing boat was named. Among the well-known actresses within her circle was Tallulah Bankhead.
Having taken all the major speedboat competitions in the light 1.5L engine class, Carstairs turned her sights on the unlimited-power Harmsworth trophy, a competition where the wealth to build large fast boats was key. After several failed boats and spectacular mid-race catastrophies, she eventually gave up on that ambition, saying that the sport was just too expensive.
By then--the late 1920s--public attitudes toward lesbians had turned from amused tolerance to condemnation. Lesbianism was attributed to athleticism (as opposed to the reverse!) among other causes, leading to disapproval of women in active pursuits like racing. The press coverage of Carstairs’ life and exploits became more biting, and in 1931 she set off on a round-the-world voyage to escape the gossip and would thereafter spend only visits in Britain. Initially bouncing between London and New York, her relationship with Ruth--always quite open in terms of fidelity--soured and they parted ways. Carstairs built and lived on a sequence of luxury yachts and then, in 1934, bought Whale Cay, a small island in the Bahamas, where she would reign like a queen.
The population of the Bahamas in 1930 was over 80% black, with most of the white population concentrated in the capital of Nassau. Carstairs’ Whale Cay was inhabited when she bought it by a black couple who tended the lighthouse--and that was all. Several previous owners had tried business ventures there that failed. Carstairs set to work building roads and a home. She complained that the local population (“the natives,” she wrote) didn’t like work and had to be taught the construction and road building skills she needed. But her building project attracted local labor and also brought in a company store where they could spend their wages. Carstairs’ Spanish style mansion was complete in 1936. In addition to the mansion and store, Carstairs rebuilt the lighthouse and built a power plant, radio staion, schoolhouse, and museum, as well as supporting agriculture on the island and experiments with a fish cannery. She bought several more small islands nearby for more agriculture, and dredged out a harbor on Whale Cay.
On Whale Cay she had the power and control over her life and socializing that had become difficult in England. She could entertain guests or eject the unwanted. She dispensed an idiosyncratic form of local justice to her employees and their families and was fond of crude and sometimes terrifying practical jokes inflicted on her guests or chance visitors.
In 1934, Carstairs’ longtime partner Ruth Baldwin died of a drug overdose in England. Carstairs built a church in her memory on Whale Cay, with memorial services held for her annually. A startling number of Carstairs’ close friends from the ‘20s and ‘30s died relatively young in the years around 1940, with drugs and alcohol playing a significant part.
The descriptions of Carstairs’ dictatorial rule over “her people”are a bit stomach-turning. She wanted to help the local people “better themselves” but her rhetoric was steeped in racism and paternalistic colonialism. Except for the rather circular cash economy of the island, she might as well have owned the inhabitants outright. Conversely, her racism toward Bahamians didn’t preclude having the occasional black girlfriend among her theatrical friends, including Blanche Dunne and Mabel Mercer. And in some of her Bahamian political activism as well as visits to the American South, she could take overtly anti-racist stands. A complex woman. Her combative and dictatorial approach undermined her own efforts for local social reform and by 1941 when World War II caused large shifts in the Bahamian economy, she had both made enemies of the white elite and lost the momentum, of her social improvement projects among the black population. Although Carstairs tried to support the war effort, both personally and by the offer of some of her ships, no good fit for her efforts could be found.
The author of the biography goes off on two chapters of extended metaphor, viewing Carstairs as a Peter Pan figure, and then as being in the tradion of Carribbean pirates.
Carstairs had a rather tempestuous affair with Marlene Dietrich in the late 1930s. After it broke up, Carstairs began emerging more into society again. She did some sea rescue work and brought her ships into use for local commercial transport in place of vessels that had been conscripted for the war. In the mid 1940s, Carstairs decided to take up flying and proposed building a small-plane airport near Miami that was never approved. [Note: In her wealth, eccentricities, and love for fast vehicles, Carstairs keeps reminding me a bit of Howard Hughes, although unlike Hughes the wealth was entirely inherited rather than a product of eccentric genius.]
Through the 1950s she had a series of long-term girlfriends, but in the late 1950s, age began catching up with her, with arthritis in her legs and other ailments. By the 1960s, her rule on Whale Cay was being challenged by the black residents who were increasingly disinclined to behave like subjects. When she sold Whale Cay in 1975, she claimed it was due to increased drug trafficking, but it seems likely that the way of life she as accustomed to had become untenable.
Carstairs lived in Florida until 1990, with summers in the northeast, always near the sea. She still maintained many personal connections, though often through the medium of financial support of people who had once been close to her or helpful to her. She had a distrust of people she couldn’t bind with money. In 1978, saying she “had it with these fucking women” she invited a man she’d met on Long Island to move in as her hired companion and friend, and he stayed with her until her death.
The emotional center of Carstairs’ life had increasingly become her mascot Todd Wadley and other dolls. Like many eccentric rich people, she made a habit of regularly changing her will toward the end of life, shifting her bequests according to her shifting relationships with friends and relatives. After a long decline, Carstairs fell into a coma in December 1993, a few weeks short of her 94th birthday, and died later that same night. The doll, Todd Wadley, was cremated with her and their ashes, combined with those of Ruth Baldwin, were entombed over the sea on Long Island.