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
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
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