Kate Summerscale has unearthed the sort of biographical subject that, were she a character in fiction, would have an editor screaming for a rewrite. Joe Carstairs, inheritor of part of the Standard Oil fortune, had the means to enact her fantasies and lead a truly eccentric existence until her death in 1993.
Summerscale has the skill to fillet out Carstairs' psychological and historical nuances while telling a remarkable tale. She has written a subtle biography of a complex subject that refreshingly tackles an unexplored life.
Born in 1900, Carstairs achieved her goal of becoming the fastest woman on water, ran her own Bahamian island, and always dressed in male clothes. Her male identification emerged before school age when, thrown from a camel at London Zoo, she was knocked unconscious and earned the nickname "Tuffy". And toughness was a necessary quality since her absent father remained a mystery and her mother was a self-centred dope-fiend with very bad taste in men.
By the time Carstairs had escaped her mother's clutches, she had decided to live in England, had taken on a masculine identity and discovered the delights of lesbianism. After a stint driving ambulances for the American Red Cross, she opened a female chauffeur service in London before indulging her love for machines with speed boats. In 1926, dressed in baggy trousers and a beret, she won the Royal Motor Yacht Club International Race. After blowing a fortune on developing a boat that never won a competition, she turned to hunting pirate treasure and, in 1934, bought Whale Cay in the Bahamas for a mere $40,000.
Curiously, the egotism that drove her to become a little island emperor also helps to explain her bizarre obsession with a small leather doll baptised Lord Tod Wadley. On the island, he was widely known by the locals as her fetish. With his Saville Row suits, imported Italian shoes and working accessories, Tod Wadley was a substitute child - and the man that Carstairs could never become.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies