In 1940 an American pilot landed his amphibious plane just off Great Whale Cay, an island in the west of the Bahamas, about 150 miles south-east of Florida. He didn’t stay long. A friend, a newspaper columnist, later reported: ‘He came back in a big hurry, reporting in some alarm that when he landed in the water, a short, stock-built dame came popping out of the house on the cay with a double-barrelled shotgun in her dukes and dull menace in her lovely orbs.’
The pilot had had a lucky escape from Marion ‘Joe’ Carstairs – a speedboat champion, cross-dressing lesbian, heiress to an oil fortune, and the ‘Queen of Whale Cay’. Later that year, a group of American tourists moored their schooner and rowed up to a beach on the island. They were met by a group of Bajan inhabitants, faces painted, machetes in hand, and Carstairs, waving her largest cutlass. They were taken prisoner. The tourists were marched, hands bound behind their backs, to the island’s lighthouse. Carstairs emerged, dressed as a ‘Great White Goddess’, and the locals danced and chanted around her. The tourists spent the rest of the night locked in the garage, and were released at dawn. No explanation or apology was supplied. ‘I don’t give a fuck about the law,’ Carstairs said.
Entrances and exits are all about relative motion, and Joe Carstairs was a specialist in motion. Her audience would be still, at ease, unaware, and she would hover dazzlingly, surprisingly, into view. In 1939 she sailed her schooner from the Bahamas to the Antibes, and past Marlene Dietrich’s private cove. Dietrich’s daughter recorded the scene. ‘At the helm, a beautiful boy,’ she wrote. ‘Bronzed and sleek – even from a distance, one sensed the power of his rippling muscles of his tight chest and haunches … The first thought on seeing him had been ‘pirate’ – followed by ‘pillage’ and ‘plunder’.’ As Carstairs came closer, though, ‘he turned from a sexy boy into a sexy, flat-chested woman’.
Carstairs was ‘blithe, bold, courageous, unself-conscious, imperialist, impervious to social change,’ Kate Summerscale writes in her excellent 1997 biography, The Queen of Whale Cay. Her life was one of entrances and exits, from one obsession to another, provoking admiration through her strangeness and self-confidence. Summerscale again: ‘Joe would walk into a room, head straight for the mirror and strike a pose, three fingers inside her jacket pocket, the thumb and little finger outside. ‘Marvellous,’ she exclaimed.’
Born in London in 1900, she was ‘never a little girl. I came out of the womb queer.’ Her legal father was Captain Albert Carstairs, a Scottish soldier; he may not have been her biological father. Her mother was Frances Evelyn Bostwick, an American beauty whose moods, according to Summerscale, ‘were fed by alcohol and heroin’. Evelyn, as she was known, had a string of lovers and husbands, some of whom Joe got on with. One, Count Roger de Périgny, adapted his racing car so that the teenage Joe could drive it. He also offered her cigars – as a favour, not punishment – and took her to a Parisian brothel. The last of Evelyn’s husbands, Serge Voronoff, was a Russian-French surgeon who transplanted monkey testicle tissue into humans in the early 1920s. He claimed his subjects were rejuvenated. Evelyn became his assistant, collaborator and even co-author on scientific papers. The experiments were a failure, and Carstairs despised Voronoff. Her idol was her grandmother, Nellie Bostwick: in Carstairs’s telling, Nellie was ‘rough, tough, she wanted her own way. She was a wonderful person … She had great power.’
However, perhaps Carstairs made the same link that Voronoff did between vitality, youth and masculinity. She persuaded her grandmother to let her join the American Red Cross, aged just 16, to drive ambulances in the Great War. At school she had been tomboyish; based in Paris, she began to forge a new identity. She hung around on the fringes of a bohemian set and became infatuated with Dolly Wilde – Oscar’s niece – who introduced her to sex. ‘My God, what a marvellous thing,’ Carstairs said. ‘I found it a great pity I’d waited so long.’ News of her homosexual affairs reached her mother, who warned her to stop them and marry instead, or be cut off. Joe did marry: spitefully enough, a French aristocrat whom she believed her mother was seeing, and they split the dowry between them, parting ways straight after the wedding reception. Carstairs had scores of girlfriends over her lifetime (an album of her girlfriends contained 120 pictures) and did not underestimate her powers as a brilliant lover. ‘I was made to think so,’ she said. ‘Everybody else thought so, so I thought so, too. I would have liked me.’But her only lifelong companion was a strange, small doll given to her by a lover. She dubbed him ‘Lord Tod Wadley’ and dressed him in Savile Row suits and Italian slippers. When Carstairs died, Wadley was also cremated, and their ashes buried together.