The Queen of Whale Cay by Kate Summerscale
I’ve been so good about noting where I’ve picked up recommendations lately that it feels weird to not know where I heard about The Queen of Whale Cay. I assumed I picked up The Queen of Whale Cay from Autostraddle, as that’s where I get the bulk of my queer lady-focused reading, but a quick Google search disabused me of that notion. So where did this come from? Who told me about it? Surely my reading spreadsheet hasn’t gotten so big that it will start spontaneously generating book titles. (Yet, anyway.)
But no matter how it made its way to me, it’s pretty obvious that The Queen of Whale Cay is up my alley, combining my ferocious Anglophilia with my love of queer history. While she died in obscurity, Barbara Marion “Joe” Carstairs, the heiress to the Standard Oil fortune, was an infamous character on both sides of the pond during the twenties and thirties before she retired to the island of Whale Cay and set up, essentially, her own little kingdom. Openly gay and brazenly butch, Joe lived life as hard as she possibly could—with an ever-revolving door of girlfriends (including Tallulah Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich), with high speed motorboats, and with the island of Whale Cay at her command. And through it all, Joe remained devoted to just one person—a leather doll named Lord Tod Wadley, who represented her masculine ideal.
Whenever I read a biography or a particular good bit of nonfiction, I always just want to blurt out my favorite factoids to prove how cool the subject was. I’ll indulge myself here. She was the only person who ever got away with calling Marlene Dietrich “babe”! She dated Oscar Wilde’s niece! She started a car service called X Garage that only employed women with her fellow servicewomen from the Irish War of Independence! When a neighboring island started mistreating its workers (according to Joe’s standards), she literally staged a pirate raid! She constantly rewrote her own history to give herself more agency! And she died while I was alive! (This last fact always blows my mind, for some reason, whenever I encounter someone interesting from history who survived even a little bit into my own timeline. It’s obviously more of a personal thing, though.)
Although not entirely neat. The marvelously named Kate Summerscale points out that Carstairs’ control of Whale Cay was a remarkably pure form of colonialism. She looked after the natives of the island and even tried to politically take over the Bahamas in order to shift focus to local agriculture, but she also subscribed to the idea that the Bahamas had been discovered by whites and that the fact the indigenous population hadn’t risen to higher heights was their own fault. She was also, in her eternally boyish way, very cruel, often playing pranks and tricks on the people around her. One such prank was stalking her half-sister to the golf tournaments she played in and yelling “Boo!” before her half-sister took a crucial swing.
But an interesting life does not make a good biography. There are plenty of boring books written about John F. Kennedy, for instance. (And they’re all on display at your local bookstore this month.) Summerscale became interested in Joe’s life after writing her obituary, but she’s much more interested in Joe as a character. As was Joe herself, really, with her devilishly flamboyant behavior and theatrical pranks. But Summerscale takes Joe’s constant declarations of being almost entirely instinct and surface as a challenge. She analyzes Joe the same way I would analyze a fictional character. When she begins drawing a great deal of parallels between Joe’s desire for boyishness and Peter Pan, it begins to feel a step too far.
But is it actually a step too far, or simply something I haven’t encountered before? Anne Helen Petersen’s marvelous Hairpin column “Scandals of Classic Hollywood” often analyzes the disparity between the image and actual selves of classic Hollywood stars. (It’s going to be a book next year! Praise!) The image of someone is a fictional creation, although it has its roots in reality, so it’s ripe for that sort of analysis. But the actual self? (I’d ask how can we ever truly know another person, but I’m not wearing a black turtleneck at the moment.) It depends on how much access one has to that person, I suppose, how authoritatively you speak, and how you analyze. Summerscale’s much lamented economy of detail places her more literary-minded analysis of Carstairs front and center. Perhaps I would take it better if Summerscale was more of a presence in the biography, assuring me that this was her perspective on Carstairs, instead of hovering over it, or if she had been more transparent about her approach. Or perhaps I’m simply so cautious of ever speaking for someone else in my own life that encountering a common biographical device of such authorial authority is disorienting.
Bottom line: My own contemplations on the biography as genre aside, The Queen of Whale Cay is a fun bit of Anglophilic queer history, although Summerscale’s minimalist writing leaves you wanting more colorful anecdotes about Joe Carstairs. If you’re interested.
I rented this book from the public library.