The London Review of Books email newsletter linked this colorful 1998 review by Stanford’s Terry Castle of “The Queen of Whale Cay: The Eccentric Story of “Joe” Carstairs, Fastest Woman on Water,” reminding us a time long ago when lesbians were often colorful aristocrats bent on outdoing men in adventuresome activities, rather than whiny neurotics notable only for keeping far too many cats.
Changelings, centaurs, ogres and elves may no longer inhabit the earth, but occasionally we run into their descendants: people so monstrous, incandescent, or freakishly themselves that only a quasi-supernatural description seems to do them justice. In the 20th century they come in all shapes and sizes: from the obvious ghouls and werewolves (Rasputin, Hitler, Idi Amin, Jeffrey Dahmer) to various mid-rank demigods and unicorn-people (T.E. Lawrence, Wittgenstein, Che Guevara, Greta Garbo, Edith Sitwell, JFK, Maria Callas, Howard Hughes, Andy Warhol, Glenn Gould, the late Princess of Wales) down to minor bog-sprites such as Eartha Kitt, Cher or Quentin Crisp. (Such lists are infinitely expandable.) What links each of these disparate individuals is a singularity so tangible as to border on the uncanny. We register each as a unique assemblage of moral and psychic tics: and each, in turn, seems to connect us to some alternative world. We are deeply impressed when one of them weakens and dies.
The sort of singularity I am talking about is often accompanied by celebrity: oneâ€™s palpable strangeness makes one famous. Not always of course: mute inglorious oddballs no doubt spend all their days in obscurity â€“ Unabombers without typewriters â€“ while others shine for a time then disappear. Marion Barbara (â€˜Joeâ€™) Carstairs, the subject of Kate Summerscaleâ€™s vastly entertaining new biography, The Queen of Whale Cay, would seem to fall into the latter category. In the Twenties, Carstairs (1900-93) was briefly yet wildly celebrated as the â€˜fastest woman on waterâ€™ â€“ Britainâ€™s premier speedboat-racer, winner of the Duke of Yorkâ€™s Trophy, and world-record holder in the one and a half litre class. Voraciously homosexual in private life, Carstairs dressed like a beautiful man, smoked cigars, and was pursued from race to race by a gaggle of female fans. (Sir Malcolm Campbell of Bluebird fame called her â€“ apparently without irony â€“ â€˜the greatest sportsman I knowâ€™.) Special â€˜friendsâ€™ included the lesbian actresses Tallulah Bankhead and Gwen Farrar. Carstairs, the Evening News reported in 1925, could â€˜dance a Charleston which few people can partnerâ€™.
By 1934, however, Carstairs had almost completely fallen from view. With several helpful millions inherited from her American mother, scion of the Standard Oil Company, she bought a sparsely populated island in the outer Bahamas and ruled over it for the next forty years in magnificent yet near-total isolation. True, a few celebrities continued to visit: the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marlene Dietrich (Carstairsâ€™s lover in 1938-39), and the cabaret singer Mabel Mercer, along with the occasional reporter from Life or the Saturday Evening Post. But by the Sixties, Carstairs was all but forgotten â€“ outside the Bahamas, she was known only to a handful of British and American lesbians, in whose doting hearts, pumping away like so many little speedboat engines, her glamorous feats were kept alive. …
Our culture has no term of awe for women who make love heroically: Don Juan and Casanova remain strictly masculine archetypes. Needless to say, heterosexual women get scant public appreciation for their erotic talents: the most gifted Venus or grande horizontale receives ambiguous praise at best. Lesbians fare even worse: no woman in Western culture, including the great Sappho herself, has ever won popular acclaim for her skill at bringing other women to sexual ecstasy.
With Carstairs, however, we are in the presence of world-class charm: Bedroom Eyes for the Ages. Of extraordinary interest is the as yet unwritten history of 20th-century lesbian libertinism: witness the tantalising vignettes we have of the young Elizabeth Bishop on Key West, for example, in bed with Billie Holiday; or Natalie Barney, who took her last lover at the age of 80; or Vita Sackville-West, one of whose lovers cherished the marks on her inner thighs left by Vitaâ€™s earrings. Carstairs would undoubtedly figure nobly in such a history â€“ that is, if the history itself were considered noble. Her true artistry, one suspects, lay in her amorousness, which she approached as a vocation, with something akin to genius.
Yet perhaps Summerscale is right in the end not to turn her subject into allegory. The value of a life such as Carstairsâ€™s lies ultimately in its preposterousness â€“ the sheer exuberance of its strangeness and distance from the everyday. A figure as singular as Carstairs assails oneâ€™s sensibilities the way the god Pan might were he suddenly to materialise in oneâ€™s back garden. One would be tempted to pretend one hadnâ€™t seen him, to explain him away as an optical illusion â€“ a trick of light against the shrubbery. For sanityâ€™s sake, one might even decide to forget him. But such luminescent creatures have a way of returning to view â€“ of reminding us, in their pathos, of all the things we havenâ€™t done, and the things we never will.