Marion ‘Joe’ Carstairs was the speedboat racer, doll-toting heiress, and ‘sexy, flat-chested’ eccentric who responded to rejection by occupying the margins of society, until she had built a Bahamian kingdom — a fantasy island — of her own. ‘I ran a country,’ she boasted.
A portrait of Marion ‘Joe’ Carstairs in 1941 (Photographer- David Scherman Time Inc Owned)

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, and they were taken prisoner. The tourists were marched, hands bound behind their back, 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”.


    February 2022


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