Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Fast, Strange, Great, Sad Life of Joe Carstairs

NOTE: A comment on this post accused me of stealing the information from a book, which I presume to be Kate Summerscale’s The Queen of Whale Cay, the biography of Joe Carstairs. I have not read the book, and the information in this post came principally from an article Summerscale wrote for the Richmond Review in which she offered an abbreviated overview of Carstairs’ life. (The article was formerly available here, but that website does not seem to be available presently.) In the original post and in the current, modified version, I linked to Summerscale’s piece, quoted it several times and mentioned Summerscale by name. However, I should have lauded Summerscale from the get-go, and I apologize for not doing so in the original posting. I also got information from the Wikipedia entry for Joe Carstairs (which I neglected to explicitly cite in the initial post) as well as other sites already linked in the post, and what follows is an assemblage of that information. But considering Summerscale’s status as the go-to authority on the subject, it’s likely that much of that basic info was probably generated by Summerscale’s research, and I would like to emphasize that point. If you’d like to read more about Carstairs, buy Summerscale’s book.

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:


  1. Holy hell that was fascinating. And then that last photo... holy shit that creeped me out!

  2. Anonymous11:12 AM

    Carstairs = Arrested Development reference, right?

  3. Anonymous5:23 PM

    This is not fair:

    The blogger is bastardising a [b]published[/b] work on the woman in question, and is slanting it to appeal to the lowest common feedback.

    We give him 24 hrs to acknowledge where he got [b]all[/b] his 'facts' from, properly source them and admit that his knowledge of [b]all[/b] of this post is from one source only.

    What is [b]REALLY[/b] bad is that the blogger didn't even understand / grep / research enough about the woman in question to present a fair post.

    Despicable: and MetaFilter should be ashamed as well, forwarding this tripe.


  4. Anonymous5:28 PM

    Oh, and a small p.s:

    If you're willing to do a shitty hack job off some-one's book: be sure as shit we're going to rip into your petty little life, Mrs Blogger.

    Hint: Never post a picture without stripping the meta-data from it.

    As for the rest of this tripe: your blog is bad, you should feel bad, and the person linking to you should feel bad.

    You have 0% worth.

  5. Anonymous5:29 PM

    Oh, and your double shitty security captcha?



  6. I’m honestly sorry this post has angered you so much, but here’s the thing: I’ve never read any book on Joe Carstairs. I’m not sure how I heard about her, but I did at some point shortly before I wrote this post, and so I Googled her. I actually looked back in my search history right around the time I originally write this post, and these are the sites I looked at:

    Wikipedia, which I’ve backdated it to the version that would have been visible on the day I first looked at it. Now that I look at the piece, I realize that I neglected to link to the Wikipedia page on Carstairs, which was a mistake. I’ll fix that shortly.

    The blog Strange Flowers

    The blog Luxist, from where I got the first image of Carstairs

    And an article Kate Summerscale that wrote on Carstairs for the Richmond Review, which is unavailable as of today because the whole website is gone. But it was functional when I looked at it in March 2011, and I quote it extensively and cite Summerscale as the author of the piece. (I believe that Summerscale wrote the piece and then expanded it into her 1999 book The Queen of Whale Cay.) At the end of the piece, I linked to the Amazon page for Summerscale’s book, noting that I was so fascinated with the subject matter that I should read it. I never did, unfortunately. It’s the only biography on Joe Carstairs that I’m aware of, given my admittedly shallow research into the matter.

    I also found these sites, but upon a once-over, I’m not sure I gleaned any information from them:

    Regarding the mention of the photo, it’s true that I don’t own the rights to either Carstairs photo used in the piece. I’ll remove them. The second one — the one that appears on the cover of Summerscale’s book — was cropped because at the time I compiled this post, I was trying to find the largest possible photo of Lord Tod Whadley and ham-handedly tried to enlarge the photo on the cover and clean it up as best I possibly could. It wasn’t any effort to avoid crediting Summerscale or her book.

    And that last sentence, I feel, is an important one: I didn’t post about Joe Carstairs in any kind of effort to usurp Summerscale or anyone else as an authority on this fascinating woman, nor do I feel like a 1,000-something-word blog post could do that. Summerscale did first-hand research into this woman’s life, and clearly put in the work to fill a book with it, whereas I was merely presenting a summary. I didn’t think someone would read this post as me trying to pass of the research as my own. Overall, I just wanted to give a broad overview of some of her accomplishments. I meant no harm in doing so, and I’m genuinely sorry if any was felt. I’m going to insert a preface on this page expressing this.

  7. I've only just discovered this amazing Woman. Thank you for your information. I shall hunt down the books you have mentioned. Good job!

  8. Back in the early 1950s I became acquainted with Joe Carstairs through my job as a stewardess for National Airlines. Ms. Carstairs was a frequent passenger on my regular flights between Miami and New York. I met Lord Tod Wadley at each of these flights. With one exception she always traveled alone. She was friendly, charming and infinitely interesting. In my youth and naivety I was unaware of her "preferences". No matter.

    Those days had no monopoly on obnoxious passengers. All the more reason to welcome aboard Joe Carstairs, a lovely human being.