In a way, the lives of certain great and eccentric people do not easily lend themselves to biographies and biopics, simply because someone reading these books or watching these movies would likely find the stories unbelievable. These people lived too large, as corny as that sounds, and all the more so if they’re not already well-known. I can hear the objection: “If it really happened this way, this fantastically, why don’t more people know about it? Why haven’t I heard about it before?” A writer adapting these people’s lives, I suppose, might have to choose between watering down the details and risking that the reader will decide that too much was embellished — saturated when a light tinting would have done the job. To illustrate this point, I offer you Joe Carstairs, an indisputably interesting woman who looks like an amalgamation of Alice the maid and Sam the Butcher and whose life reads like a pair of adventure fiction writers trying to one-up each other.
See for yourself:
According to Wikipedia, Marion Barbara Carstairs, nicknamed “Betty” and then later nicknamed “Joe,” apparently, was born in 1900 in London to Jabez Bostwick, one of the founders of Standard Oil, and Fannie Evelyn Bostwick. A tomboy from childhood, Carstairs grew up dressing like a man. She also drove ambulances for the Red Cross During World War I.
See, that’s enough to qualify her as interesting, but none of these facts are the most interesting ones.
After the war, she established the X Garage, an all-female chauffeur service.
That right there could be the set up for a movie — and really this script should be written at once — but this is still not the most interesting thing about Joe Carstairs.
She romanced many high-profile women, among them: Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Deitrich, and Dolly Wilde (niece to Oscar), whom she met in her ambulance-driving days. But she also married in 1918, though only to appease her mother and to get access to her trust fund. The marriage was annulled after her mother’s death.
Good stuff, right? Keep going.
At the time of her death, Carstairs’s mother was married to the Russian doctor Serge Vonoroff, famed for his theory that grafting monkey testicles onto those of humans would improve sex drive, memory and eyesight, among other benefits. According to Wikipedia, Vonoroff had initially proposed “transplanting the testicles of executed criminals into millionaires, but, when demand outstripped supply, he turned to using monkey testicle tissue instead.” A 1999 article in Nature speculated that Vonoroff’s transplants could have been what introduced the human race to AIDS, which had previously existed only in simians.
Fascinating, but more of an aside, really. A footnote, for sure. A companion piece, maybe?
As of 1934, Carstairs was known as the “fastest female speedboat racer in the world.” Though she never broke the world speedboat record, she risked her life to compete against the men in her chosen profession. She held her own. Additionally, “in her boatyard she built some of the most beautiful and powerful boats of the day,” writes Kate Summerscale in her article in the the Richmond Review — and, I’m sure, the book Summerscale later wrote about Carstairs as well.
And now you’re starting to see how this woman is like an onion of impressive, weird and impressively weird.
At the height of her career, however, she retired from the public eye — or whatever sort of eye followed the feats of competitive speedboating — and moved to the Bahamas. From the Richmond Review: “I am going to live surrounded only by coloured people. … I am not even taking a motor car, for when I bought the island there were no roads. Now I am building roads and a residence, but my only means of transport will be two ten-foot dinghies. The island is about 1,000 acres in extent and is nine miles long. I cannot say if I will ever return.” She purchased the island, Whale Cay, for £40,000 — “a trifle by comparison with the £500,000 or so she had spent on motorboat racing,” accord to the Review, and then she later bought several more islands: Bird Cay, Cat Cay and Devil’s Cay, as well as several other properties on larger islands. On Whale Cay, however, Carstairs lived and ruled like a queen — she governed, she advised subjects about proper diet, she named babies born there, she arranged marriages, she provided feasts and earned the love of her “subjects.”
Hold on, we’re getting to the interesting part.
While lovers came and went, Carstairs’s constant companion during this years was Lord Tod Wadley, a doll — “a boy that would never grow up,” as the Review describes him. Carstairs lavished presents upon the doll as if it were her living, breathing child. From the Review: “Suits from Savile Row, shoes from Italy, golf clubs, cowboy outfits, sailor's suits, a wristwatch that ticked, revolvers, a Bible, a dob, and his own dolls. Poems were written and sculptures made in his honour. … Carstairs had dozens of studio portraits made of her doll: One shows him alone with his reflection in a mirror and is labelled Narcissus.”
And, at last, here we are.
Carstairs died in 1993, and her absence from Whale Cay undid her determined attempt at what she deemed civilization on the island. It reverted back to wildlands. In her profile on Carstairs, Summerscale notes her own confusion at reading Carstairs’s will and finding no mention of Lord Tod Wadley even though riches and toys and mementos had been assigned to a great many loved ones. “It seemed astonishing that she had not provided for his future, as she had for all her other precious objects by entrusting him to the care of a friend.” Finally, the answer, and the final line of the article: “Evidently no friend was close enough. I discovered that, in accordance with Joe Carstairs’ wishes, she and Wadley had been cremated together.”
In my opinion, that epilogue — beautiful and sad, suggestive of her inability to connect with other people but also the most humanizing thing I learned about this real-life tall tale of a woman — is also the most interesting thing about Joe Cairstars.
I may to need read Summerscale’s book now.
“Now That’s Interesting,” previously: