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The extraordinary life of ‘Joe’ Carstairs, the fastest woman on water

The Queen of Whale Cay by Kate Summerscale

Born in 1900 to a promiscuous American oil heiress and a British army captain, ‘Joe’ Carstairs became a leading light of the 1920s London lesbian demi-monde. She dressed in men’s clothes, smoked cigars and cheroots, tattooed her arms, and raced speedboats so hard that she was hailed in the international press as the ‘fastest woman on water’.


But in 1934 Joe vanished from the pages of the newspapers. She bought herself an island in the Bahamas, named Whale Cay, where she fashioned a self-sufficient kingdom, with 500 Bahamian subjects, and hosted riotous parties. Her many girlfriends included screen sirens such as Marlene Dietrich, but the love of Joe’s life was a small man-doll called Lord Tod Wadley, which she took with her wherever she went. ‘He’s me,’ she explained, ‘and I’m him.’

‘Vastly entertaining… The Queen of Whale Cay is as sly, delicate and probing as its subject was unsubtle, butch and incurious’                          Terry Castle, London Review of Books

Praise for ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’

‘In this superbly written biography, Summerscale brings to life the extraordinary and eccentric Joe Carstairs….this unforgettable tale of one woman’s hunger for immortality needed no more than this eloquent telling to lift clear off the page. Captivating fun’

Kirkus Reviews


‘A small jewel of a biography’

The New Yorker


‘Compellingly bonkers… A surprise bestseller, it showcased Summerscale’s genius for seeking out marginal, forgotten figures or stories and treating them as socio-cultural puzzles to be solved’

John O’Connell, Time Out

‘A sparkling biography’

Carolyn T Hughes, New York Times


‘A wonderful account of a truly extraordinary life’ 

Mail on Sunday


‘Kate Summerscale's shrewd account of an heiress who slept with scores of women but lost her heart to a sinister male doll was the year's most beguiling biography’

Peter Parker, The Independent


‘Sparkles with enthusiastic research and empathetic writing’

The Sunday Times


‘She was crazy and brave and her story is jaw-droppingly amazing ... Great stuff’ 

Val Hennessy, Daily Mail


‘A fascinating, hilarious and deliciously subversive book’

Charlotte Cory, Literary Review


‘Riveting . . . reads like a fast-paced, true-life adventure. . . . A personal, intimate portrait of an outrageous, oddly admirable woman’ 

San Francisco Chronicle

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