Queer Women Who Paved the Way: Motorboat Racer Joe Carstairs

JOE CARSTAIRS

March is Women's History Month, and with Donald Trump and his administration in power, there's never been a better time to honor all women. Throughout the month The Advocate will feature queer pioneers whose strength, resilience, and ingenuity paved the way for others. Today we take a look at Joe Carstairs, an oil heiress who bought a private island and took lovers including Marlene Dietrich and Oscar Wilde’s niece.

What she accomplished: Marion “Joe” Carstairs’s main accomplishment was living a life unlike any other. Born in London in 1900, she inherited millions due to her family’s holdings in Standard Oil. Marrying was a condition of receiving her inheritance, but she deserted her husband immediately after taking her vows. She was an out and proud lesbian from day one, and she disdained any accoutrements of traditional femininity. She cut her hair short, smoked cigars, wore masculine suits made by tailors on London’s Savile Row, and was pleased when anyone mistook her for a man. She was also a champion motorboat racer, winning almost every trophy in the sport and earning a reputation as “the fastest woman on water.” In the mid-1930s, due to tax problems in the U.K. and U.S., she bought a small Caribbean island, Whale Cay, and made it her home. The “queen of Whale Cay” contributed much to the island’s development, financing a power plant, roads, schools, churches, and other amenities, but she ruled fellow inhabitants with an iron fist: Among other things, she forbade sex outside marriage and expelled adulterers. She did not apply these rules to herself, however. Her lovers included actresses Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead, singer Mabel Mercer, and Dolly Wilde, a bon vivant who has been described as “a brilliantly female version” of her uncle Oscar. Her primary companion, though, was a doll named Lord Tod Wadley. Carstairs eventually left Whale Cay for nearby Florida, and she had great success in business, running a steamship line and building airports. She died in 1993.

Choice quote: “Oh, God, I have to go to bed with her again.” — Carstairs, not one for long-term relationships, on any lover who outstayed her welcome

Find out more about the complex, flawed, but nonetheless fascinating Carstairs in Kate Summerscale’s fine biography The Queen of Whale Cay.

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