1920’s Queer Speedboat Racer Joe Carstairs: Dubbed “The Fastest Woman on Water”
By Elizabeth Ferrara
In 1920, Joe Carstairs was racing against American Gar Wood for the Harmsworth British International Motor-boat Trophy. Joe was in the lead when, “without warning, her boat leaped into the air and plunged nose first into the water throwing both Miss Carstairs and her mechanic out …” (Summerscale, 106) Disaster and loss aside, “in her average of 64.089 miles, she made a new record for England, scoring the fastest time of any British contestant.” (Sabine 41)
Marion Barbara “Joe” Carstairs was born in London on February 1, 1900, to Frances Evelyn Bostwick and Captain Albert Carstairs. Evelyn Bostwick was from a family of Standard Oil heirs and Captain Carstairs, a Scotsman, was part of the Royal Irish Rifles. From her mother’s side, Joe inherited enough money to fund her love of boats, support her racing friends, and let her become the “Queen” of her own island when she purchased Whale Cay in the Bahamas. She usually dressed as a man, had tattooed arms, and loved machines. Throughout her ninety-three years, Joe lived a life full of thrills, adventure, and speed.
Joe’s father left the family after her parents’ divorce when she was a baby. Her mother had problems with drugs and alcohol which put a strain on their mother-daughter relationship and led to their estrangement. At age eleven, Joe was sent by her mother on an ocean liner from Southampton, England, to New York – over 3,000 miles – to attend an all-girls boarding school in Stamford, Connecticut. Joe showed her strength and resilience by not giving up or letting her mother’s temperament or judgment get in her way. In fact, her trip across the ocean is what inspired Joe to pursue a career in ambulance driving, speed boat racing, and many more adventures.
Joe sometimes stayed with her grandmother, Nellie Bostwick, in New York during holidays. In 1916, at age sixteen, with her grandmother’s permission, she left for Paris to drive an ambulance during World War I. It was with a woman in Paris that Joe had her first romantic experience. “‘I said, “My God, what a marvelous thing.” I found it a great pity I’d waited so long.” (Summerscale, 26) After WWI, Joe joined other women volunteering to relieve male drivers who drove British officers in northern France. Besides driving, the women also had to clear battlefields, supervise prisoners of war, and aid in the hospitals. In 1918, to ensure access to her inheritance, Joe married her childhood friend, Count Jacque de Pret. When her mother died in 1921, Joe got her marriage annulled due to non-consummation. Using her acquired funds, Joe and her female friends opened a women’s only garage, the “X-Garage” in London. They taxied families around London and served as limo drivers for their businessmen clientele.
Joe spent her time and money on other hobbies as well. In 1925, she used her money to commission a motorboat. Gwen, named after friend and lover Gwen Farrar, was a 17-foot, 1.5-litre hydroplane. During a test run Gwen capsized and when she resurfaced Joe renamed the boat Newg (Gwen backwards). This was just the first of many motorboats Joe Carstairs owned and raced. In 1927, Joe commissioned the same man who built Newg to build three more boats, all hydroplanes, and named them Estelle I, Estelle II, and Estelle III.
Joe had many lovers, including Hollywood actresses Greta Garbo, Tallulah Bankhead, Gwen Farrar, Marlene Dietrich, as well as Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dolly Wilde. The most impactful and influential of Joe’s girlfriends was Ruth Baldwin. While on a skiing holiday in the Swiss Alps, Ruth gave Joe a leather man-doll, just over a foot tall. Joe named the doll Lord Tod Wadley and cherished him for the rest of her life. Joe and Ruth lived together in a house, bought by Joe, in Mulberry Walk, off King’s Road in Chelsea, London. “Joe mounted a plaque which read: ‘Marion Barbara Carstairs and Lord Tod Wadley.’ The plaque played with the idea that it might be more acceptable that Miss Carstairs be partnered by a fictional aristocrat than a live girl.” (Summerscale, 82) Ruth Baldwin collapsed at a party and later died in her room at Mulberry Walk on August 31, 1937.
In 1934, Joe bought an island that she had seen for sale in an American Newspaper advertisement the year before. Whale Cay, in the West Indies, is about 1,000 acres and nine miles long. Joe worked alongside others to build roadways (26 miles in all), a lighthouse, power plant, schoolhouse, church, radio station, and a museum. “The island granary, chock-full of corn and guinea corn as well as coconuts, was among the biggest in the Bahamas. Joe experimented with canning fish, with kippering the goggle (herring), and with making fertiliser from fish by-products.” (Summerscale, 130)
Joe Carstairs also dabbled in poetry, privately printing books of her work in 1940 and 1941. She published them under the pen name, Hans Jacob Berstein. In her poems, she touches on topics such as emotions, hurricanes, homosexuality, feminism, and the death of a woman, most likely about Ruth Baldwin.
In 1975, Joe sold Whale Cay for just under $1 million, due to declining health. From 1976-1990 she lived in Florida. On December 18th, 1993, Joe fell into a coma and died peacefully with Lord Tod Wadley in her arms. Joe and Wadley were cremated together. “Their ashes, with those of Ruth Baldwin, were taken from Florida to Long Island, where a memorial service was held in a Presbyterian whalers’ church.” (Summerscale, 234) The remains of the three were placed in a tomb by the sea.
Why is it important to continue telling Joe Carstairs’ life story? As a young queer person living in the 21st century, I believe it is important that people know that queer people and the LGBTQ+ community are ever present, throughout time and space. In a sport that has been and still is predominantly male dominated, it is especially important to know that there are women, past and present, that enjoy the speed and competition of racing.
You will find more information and see objects relating to Joe Carstairs by visiting the Classic Boat Museum Gallery and the Cowes Maritime Museum, both in Cowes, England. The Classic Boat Museum Gallery holds a wealth of information about Joe’s time on the Isle of Wight, including trophies, albums, press cutting books and many photographs. Archival photographs such as the two shown below can be found with many others, in the Rosenfeld Collection at the Mystic Seaport Museum. If you would like to learn more about Joe’s life, Kate Summerscale’s biography The Queen of Whale Cay: The Extraordinary Life of “Joe” Carstairs, the Fastest Woman on Water is a great read. It is on her website here.
The human touch
Is often disappointing
Although I cannot say
I’ve suffered much
I still maintain
Should be true and loyal
I’ve chosen one
Whose brown-eyed stare
He is always
On my side
Although he doesn’t
And unobtrusive ways
Never enters in
My praise of him
That if I ever
Would not cease
To cut this story short
I’ll tell you all
He’s only 13 inches tall
Lord Tod Wadley
M.B Carstairs, circa 1955
Perversities of Mankind