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The Queen of Whale Cay
Kate Summerscale

The Queen of Whale Cay
Kate Summerscale
Fourth Estate
London 1997

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Even in death, Joe Carstairs provokes strong reactions in people. Privileged, daring and extraordinary, she was the fastest women on water, piloting sleek speedboats at a time when they were dangerous and highly unreliable. She bought and subsequently ruled over Whale Cay, the peak of a giant submarine mountain in the Bahamas, idyllic and untamed. She was a powerful figure who charmed countless beautiful women into bed, including some of the greatest entertainers of her generation.

Born at the beginning of the century, Joe approached WW1 with great naiveté. It gave her the opportunity to wear trousers and drive a car and she loved every minute of it. As a young woman she distanced herself from her family as soon as she could. She never knew her father and her mother went through a series of husbands. One of whom took advantage of the post-war deficit in young men to carry out a bizarre series of operations that were designed to increase virility in the older men that women were now marrying. Strips of testicles removed from a young ape were sewn into a series of incisions made in the man’s balls- painful and disastrous.

Joe was an heiress to the Standard Oil fortune and when she came into her money in the swinging , doping 20’s, any pretence of living in the real world was discarded. She was now able to honour her passion for boats which would dominate the rest of her life, eclipsed by only one thing, her love for Lord Tod Wadley. He was a large, leather doll, a homunculus given to Joe by her longest standing girlfriend Ruth Baldwin. Joe was obsessed with Wadley, he wore tailored suits and Italian leather shoes, and was her mascot, her alter ego, her love and her stability.

Kate Summerscale tells her tale simply and well. The text is interspersed with Joe’s comments which are fresh, crisp and totally unselfconscious. She lived only for the moment which gives her life a sense of bounding forward with unlimited energy. I get the feeling that Summerscale prefers the wholesome, sporty side of her subject, to the hostess who threw lavish, decadent parties and had a string of stunning girlfriends. " They just fall in my lap" she said. Joe must have been a woman of huge charisma but Summerscale shows us her attraction by hearsay only. We tend to learn more about the power of her money than that of her personality. But it was the sheer force of her personality, I believe, that prevented her from getting into a lot of trouble. Everyone she met was introduced to an extraordinarily attractive world of infinite possibilities and they couldn’t help but embrace it.

Summerscale’s decision that this biography should not be about lesbianism is typical of her general avoidance of issues, including racism. Above all else Joe was an eccentric but being openly gay, and getting away with it, at a time when it was socially unacceptable takes some doing. The need to prove herself in a very masculine sport and the creation of Whale Cay where she could behave as she wanted without censure, was part of her exuberant refusal to be constrained by society’s view of her gender or sexuality.

You have to admire Joe for the sheer force of her belief in herself. When boyish women go out of fashion and taxes go up, she leaves England and buys her own island, builds herself a house and sets about revolutionising the way the desperately poor inhabitants live their lives. Racism does cloud all dealings between whites and islanders in the West Indies at this time. While Joe gives a great deal, and above all wants to bring independent prosperity to the inhabitants of Whale Cay, she also deals out her own colonial, patriarchal brand of rough justice.

Far from living in seclusion on the island, Joe had numerous visitors including The Windsor’s; outsiders in an outsiders paradise. Joe didn’t like him much but thought that Wallace was wonderful, especially after she diplomatically recognised Wadley as a man of importance. Joe loved to play games, host naked parties and elaborate tricks, testing everyone and going to extraordinary lengths to get her own way. When some unsuspecting Americans landed on her island by mistake, she got the islanders to paint their faces and weald cutlasses from her museum, while she dressed up as a great white goddess. They tied the terrified prisoners to a stake and made a play of dancing round them all night. Once again, giving the world something to talk about.

Forever the showman, in the 1930’s Joe sailed a magnificent pirate schooner all the way from Whale Cay to Cap d’Antibes to see Marlene Dietrich who she subsequently had a secret and passionate affair with. Joe’s infatuation with Dietrich was such that she offered her the island, her home, but Dietrich refused it and the affair eventually ended badly. Joe later referred to her as a bitch but the only one who might finally get me. It seems fitting that the only woman Joe would consider as a match was the most independent of her generation.

Ruth, the "fabulously strong" woman who reputedly replaced her kitchen with a bar, died young of a drugs overdose, as Joe’s own mother had before her. Joe’s sexual prowess continues undiminished however . Tallulah Bankhead, Blanche Dunn, Mabel Mercer, Charlottes and Jackies were wooed and brought back to the island. She is fantastically generous with them, their families and others who served her, often supporting them with yearly incomes until their death. But money and affection are uneasy bedfellows and Wadley, the only one who couldn’t be bought, was the only one whose power never diminished.

Joe was a flamboyant, extravagant and extraordinary woman. She avoided self contemplation at all costs and transferred her affections to inanimate objects; her island, her boats and her beloved little man Wadley. But as an outsider herself, Joe had an affinity with other outsiders. Dining with a black friend in the segregated US south, Joe was approached by a waitress who asked in dismay "Is this lady coloured ?" to which Joe replied" Certainly not!" Was this eccentric woman so strange when those around her were stranger still? "I ran a country" she said, and she was a one woman state, a hurricane like those she loved to listen to on Whale Cay, and truly unstoppable.

Reviewed by Jessica Woollard


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