Caribbean Queen

Yesterday a king called Marie, today a queen called Joe.

Well the title ‘Queen of Whale Cay’ may have been bestowed on Joe Carstairs in jest, but it was a true enough reflection of the feudal authority she exerted over the Bahamian island which, conveniently, she owned.

But I’m racing ahead.

Carstairs was born in London on this day in 1900; she was christened Marion but it was a name as ill-suited to her as it was to Marion Morrison, a.k.a. John Wayne. Carstairs became the heir to the Standard Oil fortune through her mother, an alcoholic and sometime junkie to whom she was never particularly close. Years later she would name a boat Estelle after her, a touching gesture except that her name was, in fact, Evelyn; Carstairs was simply unaware.

During the First World War Carstairs worked as an ambulance driver as did the slightly older Dolly Wilde, niece of Oscar. The two became lovers and it was around this time that Carstairs, never a girly girl by any means, assumed a larger-than-life, hyper-butch persona, an action figure living a Boy’s Own life.

In the 1920s Carstairs had the means to meet her need for speed and became a motorboat racer, competing and usually winning against men. The sport had no women’s class and “Joe” was, in any event, frequently assumed to be a man.

Joe (second from left) with her crew

Carstairs might have remained a footnote to speedboating history were it not for the brilliant 1997 book The Queen of Whale Cay written by Kate Summerscale, who was inspired after writing up Carstairs’ obituary for the Telegraph (see, I told you they did a good obituary). If you’re a fan of eccentric biography – and if you’re reading this I’m going to mark you down as a ‘yes’ – I recommend it without reservation.

Summerscale follows Carstairs behind contemporary newspaper accounts of “the fastest woman on water” – an object of mingled admiration and apprehension – and into the bedrooms of her numerous conquests; Terry Castle makes the convincing case that she should be considered as a hitherto unexplored type, the lesbian lothario.

But as the hedonistic ’20s made way for the uptight ’30s, the press turned on Carstairs with snide references to her manliness and allusions to her love-life. By 1933 she’d had enough and with a handsome inheritance at her disposal she bought the island of Whale Cay, which was effectively unpopulated. She worked tirelessly to attract migration to the island and it eventually became one of the most prosperous in the region. But Carstairs could be a tyrannical ruler who brooked no dissent and had an invasive moral concern for her “subjects” (adultery, for instance, was illegal).

Carstairs, however, didn’t rule alone; Lord Tod Wadley was the foot-high power behind the throne. A leather Steiff doll given to her by a lover in 1925, Wadley was Carstairs’ most enduring passion. She would dress the doll in custom-tailored costumes, have him photographed in various tableaux and carry him with her on official business.

Visitors to Whale Cay included Marlene Dietrich, for whom the besotted Carstairs built a cottage, as well as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor during the ex-king’s tenure as Governor-General of the Bahamas (the duchess commented on Lord Tod Wadley’s resemblance to her husband).

But after four decades Carstairs felt power starting to slip out of her hands. In 1975, with heavy heart, she sold Whale Cay, and retired to Florida, where she died in 1993. Lord Tod Wadley was cremated with her.

If you were wondering how to spend your $80 million bonus, Whale Cay is up for sale.


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