16th Jun 2010
Grrl Power: The Queen of Whale Cay by Kate Summerscale
It’s not every day a great story drops into your lap, particularly one that’s as exciting as Joe Carstairs’. But, rather sickeningly, that’s what happened to Kate Summerscale while working on the Daily Telegraph’s obituary desk. Thankfully, though, she decided to share it.
Without The Queen of Whale Cay, we may never have known about this eccentric multi-millionaire, famed for being the fastest woman on water. At just 18, she had a sham marriage, entitling her to a massive inheritance. She used it to buy a motorboat, which kick-started a hugely successful racing career – and a private life that was just as exhilarating! Openly gay, she had affairs with scores of women, including Tallulah Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich. But love eluded her – until she met Lord Tod Wadley.
Wadley was a small doll, given to Carstairs by a girlfriend. He became a friend to Carstairs, rather than a toy. And, happily, Summerscale indulges us with some wonderfully eccentric stories about their relationship, including Carstairs’ penchant for buying him handmade suits to match her own. However, she never seems to judge her subject.
Good job, really. Because Carstairs’ life gets even more colourful when she purchases the Bahamian island of Whale Cay in the early 1930s. Summerscale reveals how Carstairs entertained famous guests and a string of beautiful women here, while also fulfilling her role as island’s self-appointed ruler. At times, she could be strict with the Islanders, outlawing sex outside marriage (despite her own promiscuity) amongst other things. But she was also committed to racial equality, providing employment and personally protecting the Island from intruders. No wonder Dietrich called her ‘the Pirate!’
In the mid-seventies, Carstairs sold the Island and, with Wadley by her side, moved to Florida. She spent her last years in obscurity – and, without this brief biography, she would have remained there. That isn’t to say, however, that Summerscale’s book is flawless; at times, I pined for more detail. Carstairs’ gender should have been explored further, too. We know she loved passing as a man, but we never really find out how she identified. And I think this compromises an important part of her identity. Still, though, The Queen of Whale Cay is a hugely entertaining read that will shock and enthral!
The Queen of Whale Cay is available from Amazon for £5.96. Can you recommend any brilliant biographies of fierce female history might otherwise have forgotten? Let us know in the comments if so!
Post by Victoria Conway