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The Boston Phoenix Different Strokes 2

An interview with Kate Summerscale.

By Nicholas Patterson

JUNE 8, 1998: 

THE QUEEN OF WHALE CAY by Kate Summerscale

Five years ago, while working as an obituary writer at the London Daily Telegraph, Kate Summerscale came across the story of Marion "Joe" Carstairs, one of the most remarkable British eccentrics of the 20th century. Joe Carstairs was an heir to the Standard Oil fortune, the world's fastest female speedboat racer, and a heavily tattooed, cigar-smoking cross-dresser. Carstairs had also been the owner of Whale Cay, a Caribbean island where she reigned over a colony of Bahamians. Upon her death in 1993, however, she was almost entirely unknown.

Realizing that Carstairs's life could not be fully explored within the confines of an obituary, Summerscale set about writing The Queen of Whale Cay: The Eccentric Story of "Joe" Carstairs, Fastest Woman on Water (Viking, 241 pages, $21.95). Through diligent research and numerous interviews with Carstairs's surviving friends and acquaintances, Summerscale develops an intelligent and intriguing picture of an iconoclastic woman and the world she created.

Q: You discovered Marion "Joe" Carstairs while writing an obituary for her in 1993. Could you describe how obituaries are different in British papers than in US papers?

A: Well, I don't know the US papers' obituaries very well, but I believe that they are quite straight, factual, and respectful. In England in the last 10 years, obituaries have become a slightly different form. They are rather more mischievous and are not always eulogies. If there are stories about someone which illustrate their character but which are not entirely flattering, we put them in. Also, we'll run obituaries of people not necessarily to be honored, but just because they had really interesting lives. Even if they have been not been entirely admirable, if it is a good story -- if it is a good life -- we put it in.

Q: One of the most compelling aspects of the book is that rather than focusing on Joe Carstairs's sexuality or trying to portray her as a lesbian icon, you create a social history. How did you decide on this approach?

A: Well, it seemed to me that what was interesting about her was not that she was a woman, not that she was a lesbian -- although those facts obviously made her story that much more bold and surprising. I didn't want to write a book that constructed her as a heroine, an idol. I wanted to retain her individuality, to get across that she was a one-off. She was not a representative lesbian, she was not a representative woman. So through her you do get a kind of history of the 20th century.

Her sexual life was an important part of the book, but it wasn't at the center -- partly because I discovered that her most passionate attachment was to inanimate objects, and specifically to this little doll, Lord Tod Wadley. Her fantasy life was quite strange and absolutely particular to her. Her passion was for a one-foot-high man doll, even beyond [her affairs with] Marlene Dietrich and Tallulah Bankhead. So I think in her own terms she didn't see herself as representative of anything other than herself.

Q: Joe Carstairs was very open about being a lesbian; she wore men's clothes and was heavily tattooed. How was she regarded by her peers? Do you think that she would be treated much differently now than she was then?

A: I think it was utterly different in the 1920s, when she was living in London, racing her motorboats. She was a public figure, she was a national heroine. Because of her money she could move in circles where it was never commented on from the outside. Within those circles, promiscuity and sexual experimentation was fashionable, it was exciting, it was fun.

When that changed at the end of the 1920s, she simply got out. She had the money, she bought an island. She created her own world, her kingdom: Whale Cay.

Q: How would you place her in the tradition of British eccentrics such as Quentin Crisp and Edith Sitwell and people who went to the tropics to live as they wanted to live?

A: I think she does and does not come from that tradition. I mean, she did fit in, when I wrote the obituary, with a lot of other, apparently more conventional British eccentrics such as nobles, peers, and army officers. But she was also something else, something extra. She was American and really wild. She is a British eccentric, but she also has got this pioneering spirit, I think, which really did break the rules. It was beyond eccentricity. I would somehow think that that paralleled the different Old World and New World types of oddness and experimentation. Her persona was British but her money was American. Her sense of being able to do anything she wanted and invent herself -- that strikes me as a New World American impulse. But the eccentricity and colonialism is quite British and Old World.


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