Back in 2015 I found myself riveted to the television, watching a short piece about Joy Lofthouse, a female pilot from World War II. Now aged in her 90s, Joy looked just like anyone’s grandma, but she had a story few would suspect on seeing her — as a ferry pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary, she had flown British fighter and bomber aircraft to RAF squadrons throughout England during the 1940s. The highlight was seeing Joy once more taking to the skies in the iconic Spitfire, albeit this time a two-seater version.
Joy’s story reminded me that we often don’t know what lives lie behind the faces, lives that may have been touched with magic, excitement, bravado and derring-do. This is especially true of older people who have lived long lives, lives now shrouded in the mystery of ageing newspapers and entries in history books. Occasionally, the shrouds are opened and we can catch a glimpse of times and places now forgotten.
And so it was that such a shroud was lifted for me one day not so long ago while browsing in a bookshop when I came across a paperback in the remainders pile, The Queen of Whale Cay. For just $2, I could read about Marion ‘Joe’ Carstairs, the fastest woman on water. The cover featured a short byline that read, “She was crazy and brave and her story is jaw-droppingly amazing”.
I bought the book and was hooked from the first page. I think that was one of the best $2 I’ve ever spent as for the next several days I was spellbound by the story of a homosexual British heiress who came to own an island in the Bahamas and who had entertained the who’s who of international society in the ’30s and ’40s. I doubt that I would have liked Joe Carstairs, but her story is the most extraordinary one I have ever heard. And yet, until that Saturday morning in the bookshop I had no inkling she even existed.
Marion Carstairs was born in London in 1900, the daughter of an American heiress and a Captain in the Royal Irish Rifles. Marion led a turbulent childhood with her mother, an alcoholic drug addict who married several times. As she grew, she adopted mannish ways and took to wearing mens’ clothing. She was always attracted to tomboyish pursuits and loved machinery and speed. Known more commonly as Joe, Carstairs became a masculine figure with strong arms, tattoos and a penchant for smoking cigars.
In World War I at the age of 16, Joe joined the American Red Cross and drove ambulances around the battlefields. After the war, she drove cars for the Women’s Legion Mechanical Transport Section in Dublin, Ireland during the uneasy period between the Easter Rising in 1916 and Bloody Sunday in 1920. By all accounts Joe enjoyed the sometimes dangerous work, but in 1919 she and a dozen of the Dublin girls went to France to assist in the post-war reconstruction.
In 1920, Joe and several of her driving pals pooled their resources and set up the X Garage in London, a chauffeur company run entirely by women. Newspapers of the time ran stories about the women and their notable exploits, often illustrated with photos of the women in their grease stained boiler suits.
It was at this time that Joe became entranced by motor boats. After her grandmother died and left her a sizable inheritance, Joe commissioned a series of speedboats that she used to great effect as a speedboat racer. She went on to win the Duke of York’s Trophy in 1926 in her hydroplane, Newg. Now with her sights set on the Harmsworth British International Trophy, Joe’s fleet of powerful speedboats — all called Estelle after her mother — offered her the best chance of success. In Estelle II, Joe briefly led the race in 1928 before crashing. Although she contested the race several more times, victory eluded her, though her fame as a racer was assured.
Although a dangerous sport, Joe loved speedboat racing for its sheer vitality and raw-edged appeal. As she said, “You get a better idea of speed than in a car or anything else”. But she was well aware of the risk and observed somewhat drily that “the water when one hits it is as hard as a marble floor”. Joe was the most famous female speedboat racer in Britain and loved the attention and adulation. She was indeed the fastest woman on the water in those days.
Nonetheless for Joe failing to win that coveted trophy meant it was time to move on, and in 1930 she bought an entire island in the Bahamas. On Whale Cay, Joe became a sort of benevolent emperor, ruling over the island’s 200 inhabitants and developing the island into its own country. On Whale Cay, Joe was omnipotent and she simply lived her life as she willed it. Never one for following rules or respecting traditions, Joe embarked on an outrageous lifestyle that saw the glitterati of the day drawn to her outlandish parties. It is reported that she even entertained a brief affair with Marlene Dietrich while living on Whale Cay.
Carstairs had a number of girlfriends during her long life — over 120 women were featured in her photo album of past lovers — but the strange thing is that her life-long companion was a small doll. Given to Joe by her first love, Ruth Baldwin, the doll seemed to capture Joe’s spirit and she was enthralled by his company. He was about a foot high and had been made by German toymakers Steiff. Dubbed Lord Tod Wadley, Carstairs dressed him in Saville Row suits and Italian slippers.
Wadley accompanied Joe everywhere and she had him photographed in all manner of outfits and locations. In later years, Wadley aged but retained the same bright eyes and impish smile he had been made with. Joe aged too of course and, often unable to participate in life as wildly and uninhibitedly as she once had, began even more to live vicariously through the doll. Her stories and photographs had Lord Wadley engaging in adventures through the second half of the 20th century. He was friend and confidante to President Kennedy and flew to the moon in Apollo.
Although Wadley was her life-long companion, it was her first true love, Ruth Baldwin, who owned the greater part of Joe’s heart. A strong, wild woman whose penchant for living on her own terms and wringing every bit of experience from life matched Joe’s, Ruth was at once a kindred spirit and partner in a journey through a world very different from today. Sadly, perhaps due to her extravagent lifestyle and fondness for alcohol and drugs, Ruth died in 1937 at the age of 32.
While Joe Carstairs had managed her island kingdom as a virtual emperor, by the 1960s things were changing and the native Bahamians were increasingly gaining their own independence. On Whale Cay, this new found self-reliance expressed itself in almost open rebellion. Joe was no longer at home on the island and she visited less and less. She sold the island in 1975 for $1 million and retired to Miami, United States. She lived in Florida for the rest of her life.
Joe Carstairs died in Naples, Florida, on December 18, 1993. She was cremated together with the doll Lord Tod Wadley, and her ashes, along with those of Ruth Baldwin, were interred on Long Island, near the sea…
When I searched online for the name ‘Whale Cay’, I found it for sale for US$20 million as a development opportunity. Who knows, perhaps in time it will be a getaway paradise for families from the mainland, all living on the island once known to the world as Joe Carstairs’ kingdom. Eventually, I suppose, Joe Carstairs will be forgotten even there. But the thing of it is that she did exist and her story is at once outrageous yet marvellous and captivating. How many such stories pass us by each and every day, hidden from our gaze by the passing of time?