“I ran a country”, boasted the tattooed, cigar-smoking, openly gay It-girl of the 1920s, whose life reads like an unwritten book by F. Scott Fitzgerald. She built her own private island kingdom, was hailed the “fastest woman on water” as a champion motorboat racer and had her suits made on Saville Row. But Marion Barbara ‘Joe‘ Carstairs said herself, she didn’t admire anything, or anyone. Even her most famous lover, Marlene Dietrich, outstayed her welcome with Carstairs on the paradise Bahamian island she ruled as her own fantasy state. And it just so happens that the entire island, once occupied by an oil heiress living on the fringes of society, is currently up for sale…
“Dull is a word that should be torn to pieces to see what it is made of”– one of many choice quotes from our eccentric heiress who rejected rejection and chose to live as an exile where she could be whatever society didn’t allow her to be.
While living in Europe, she started an all-female auto body, chauffeur, and mechanics service company called “X Garage” by Cromwell Gardens in London, and named her many boats after her lovers (i.e. Gwen). Boats were the only thing that ever truly mattered to ‘Joe’ Carstairs. Motor boats, steamships, schooners, you name it, Joe mastered it. “I have no bent for art or for such accomplishments as one usually associates with girls,” she once explained, “I liked the boats. I liked the way they behaved. I understood them.”
Here she is describing her new motor speed boat for British MovieTone:
But perhaps the grandest “project” of all? The purchase of an entire island for $40,000 in the Bahamas, known as “Whale Cay”.
This 37 acre island with 12 miles of shoreline and 13 white sandy beaches is where she began her a love affair with Marlene Dietrich, entertained the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and solved her tax problems.
For a short while, Carstairs was very taken with Dietrich and allegedly once offered to give her the entire island as a romantic gesture. She called Marlene “babe”, but Carstairs was not one for long-term relationships and soon enough, was quoted by the press calling the Hollywood star by far less flattering names.
Aside from her fleeting relationships, Carstairs had an island to manage. “I had a country going,” she later said about the veritable kingdom she built on the island. Seriously, she even assembled a Whale Cay Army:
Surrounding a large mansion for herself and her guests, Carstairs also financed a power plant on the island, a lighthouse, school, church, and cannery. Later, Joe also bought additional islands of Bird Cay, Cat Cay, Devil’s Cay, half of Hoffman’s Cay and a tract of land on Andros.
Joe was liked by the islanders who called her “Boss”. She was a hands-on leader of a community of nearly 200, and founded several projects to improve Bahamians’ economic and social standing.
During WWII, she rescued 47 dying US sailors who had been drifting for 30 days on their torpedoed ship. After being pulled from the water in the dead of night, the soldiers weren’t aware that the rescue mission’s brave leader was in fact a woman until they reached shore the following morning.
As often is the case with history’s greatest rebels, Joe’s upbringing came with some very Machiavellian family values. Born in London in 1900, her father was a Scottish soldier. Her American heiress mother, Evelyn, struggled with drug abuse, and hopped from husband to husband (the last was a Russian–French surgeon infamous for transplanting monkey testicles onto men in the 1920s to increase virility).
Even Younger Joe.It was in Paris where, as a teen, Joe had her first love affair with none other than Dolly Wilde, the famous English socialite who was said to be the spitting image (in both looks and character) of her uncle Oscar and whose charm and humour made her a popular guest at salons in Paris.
The two crossed paths when they both volunteered to be ambulance drivers in France during WWI. “My God, what a marvellous thing,” Carstairs later said about finally exploring her sexuality, “I found it a great pity I’d waited so long.”
But her mother threatened to cut Joe off if she didn’t stop ‘acting like a boy’ and find a husband. So she did, in the aristocrat Count Jacques de Pret, the man that historians actually think her mother was cheating on Joe’s father with at the time. But it was all Joe needed to unlock her trust fund (and quietly flip her mother the bird) for not accepting, as Joe put it, that she was simply “Queer out the womb”. The marriage was annulled immediately after her mother’s death, on the grounds of non-consummation.
For four decades, Carstairs was the Queen of Whale Cay, but in 1975, as power started to slip further and further out of her ageing hands, she sold the island with heavy heart for $1 million and moved to Florida. Last year, Whale Cay hit the market for $20 million, and many of the structures Joe built still stand, albeit looking rather ghostly, including “The ‘Great House,’ Marlene Dietrich’s guest cottage, music room, staff dormitory, storage buildings, a museum, laundry room, maintenance buildings, sea plane hangar, and a lighthouse.” It is yet to be sold.
Despite hosting royalty and stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Joe’s only true lifelong companion was a curious doll — gifted to her from an ex-girlfriend named Ruth — that she named “Lord Tod Wadley.” The “Lord” was even cremated with her when she died in 1993, and is often seen perched on her shoulder in old photographs in his army uniform or seal-skin coat.
Doyle Auction House in New York recently parted with a hefty chunk of Joe’s treasures, which included some of the little Lord’s personal affairs, including one of her companion dolls dressed in captain’s clothing with a small gun on a chain.”
That was Joe in a nutshell. “Joe would walk into a room”, writes Kate Summerscale in Carstairs’ biography, “head straight for the mirror and strike a pose…. ‘Marvellous,’ she exclaimed.’”