The Queen Of Whale Cay

Charles Taylor reviews 'The Queen of Whale Cay' by Kate Summerscale.

Published June 9, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

I have a theory that you should never bypass a biography of an English eccentric for the same reason you should never refuse a glass of French champagne. The English have mastered eccentricity in the way that the French have mastered the grape. Maybe the vintage won't be right, but do you really want to take that chance? In the case of "The Queen of Whale Cay" (pronounced key), Kate Summerscale's slim, unique biography of the English-born lesbian speedboat racer Marion "Joe" Carstairs, some aging and ripening is left to be desired.

There's sure enough in Carstairs' life to entice you into reading her story: She was an ambulance driver during World War I, the fastest speedboat racer in the world in the '20s, an open cross-dresser and lesbian and an oddball to boot -- to say nothing of the fact that her closest companion was a stuffed leather doll. From 1925 until her death in 1993, Carstairs doted on a Steiff doll, a gift from one of her lovers, whom she named Lord Tod Wadley. Carstairs wasn't batty enough to think that Wadley was a real person, though she acted as if he were. Wadley had outfits made for him by Carstairs' tailor (often identical to hers), shared a name plaque at the door of her residence, had his name attached to the presents Carstairs sent to children and was even the subject of a series of portraits Carstairs commissioned (some of which illustrate the book).

It doesn't matter that, in the final roundup, Carstairs was no more than a forgotten footnote to the sporting and society pages of her day; an entertaining biography needn't have an important subject. But she lacks the charm that's crucial to a frivolous one. Much of the book details Carstairs' years on Whale Cay, the Caribbean island she bought. From what Summerscale details of her treatment of the inhabitants (outlawing premarital sex) and the like, she comes off as a typically hard-handed and hypocritical massa. Even the numerous stories of her matter-of-fact generosity to friends and employees can't quite dispel those tales. Summerscale seems constantly on the verge of affection for Carstairs without ever quite getting there, and that's hardly her fault. She hasn't chosen an especially lovable subject. A few months ago, an excerpt from "The Queen of Whale Cay" stood out as a Vanity Fair profile about one of the forgotten rich and famous. As a book, it never achieves the sparkle or the naughtiness of the era that gave rise to Joe Carstairs. The idea of her is more intriguing than the reality.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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