Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Queen of Whale Cay The Life of a Great American Eccentric by Kate Summerscale

The author of this colorful little biography discovered her subject in 1993 while researching an obituary when she was employed by the Daily Telegraph.

Marion Barbara Carstairs, who preferred to be called “Joe” was born in 1900, the heiress to a Standard Oil Fortune, she was the daughter of an absentee military man father and a beautiful, capricious mother addicted to drugs and male attention. Joe loved fast cars and boats. She would go on to become a speed boat champion. She preferred to wear men’s clothes, she had her arms tattooed with stars and dragons, and smoked cigars, though she claimed never to inhale and that it was for appearances only. Despite her many lesbian liaisons--she would eventually amass a collection of 120 photographs, each of a different girlfriend--she preferred to give her affections to inanimate objects, maybe because they could never disappoint in the same way another human being can. In 1934 she bought her own island, Whale Cay, in the Caribbean, where her word was law, and she played hostess to a number of celebrities including Marlene Dietrich, Mercedes de Acosta, Tallulah Bankhead, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

First and foremost in her affections was a little leather man-doll she named Lord Tod Wadley, he was her constant companion to the very end, he was her talisman and idol, those who knew her best claimed “Wadley was her religion,” she even had little Saville Row suits tailored for him and genuine Italian leather shoes made to custom fit his tiny feet, and his portrait taken in a variety of poses, when she died a few weeks before her ninety-fourth birthday in 1993 he would be cremated with her. 

This is a short book about a long, exciting, and unusual life. For those who like biographies of subjects that aren't well known enough to have dozens of books written about them or enjoy tales of the eccentric doings of the fabulously rich, like Barbara Hutton and Doris Duke, though it lacks the jewels, glamorous gowns, and mink coats, this might make a quick, fun read. It’s definitely something different.

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