The other day I was babbling about the wonders to be found among the archives of newsreel studio British Pathé. Case in point: four clips featuring Marion Barbara Carstairs, referred to as ‘Miss Betty Carstairs’ (she herself preferred Joe).
Joe Carstairs, then, born on this day in 1900, was a pioneering speedboat racer, “the fastest woman on water”. We’ve spoken about her before, inspired by Kate Summerscale’s excellent 1997 biography, The Queen of Whale Cay.
The four Pathé clips, filmed over four successive years, are fascinating not just because they are (to the best of my knowledge) the only footage of Carstairs competing. They also show her at a crucial juncture in her career, moving from triumph to ignominy as the heedless buzz of the 1920s wears off.
In many ways, Carstairs was a larger-than-life embodiment of that decade. After all, as Summerscale says, “Joe loved everything the children of the 1920s loved: speed, machines, fancy-dress parties, treasure hunts, cabaret, nightclubs, cocktails, dancing, motor cars, sex, and — above all — boyishness.” Few of course took boyishness to such lengths. Not for Carstairs a simple page-boy bob and a slim-hipped silhouette; Carstairs could be, and frequently was, taken for a man.
The first clip shows Carstairs in 1928 tearing across Windermere at “over 60 miles an hour!” as the titles proclaim. It was the kind of reckless display that endeared her to the public and the press, whose attention she initially relished. The following year she’s presenting Estelle IV, the latest weapon in her compulsive drive to go faster on water than anyone ever had – man or woman. This quest would consume huge portions of her inherited fortune.
She returns in 1930 with a new Estelle, but even from this brief clip it is clear that the wind has changed. The 1920s are over, the press has turned on the cross-dressing Carstairs and she no longer seems comfortable in the spotlight, smoking nervously, warily returning the camera’s insistent gaze. Finally, in 1931, comes the humiliation of an accident while competing in Southampton in which she “takes a ducking” as the titles phrase it; the note of relish is unmistakable. She would retire from racing later the same year.
Carstairs was driven from the UK by hostile press (plus some tax issues), but if living well is the best revenge, living well and ruling over your own tropical “kingdom”, as she did on the Bahamian island of Whale Cay, must have been pretty satisfying as well.