AN OBITUARY WRITER for the London Daily Telegraph, Kate Summerscale only "discovered" Joe Carstairs after her death in 1993, through a newspaper file thick with clippings about one of this century's most unique, and nearly forgotten, women. Born in the last part of the 19th century, Carstairs was an American girl who grew up to live out the ultimate bourgeois male fantasy of autonomy. An heiress of a Standard Oil fortune from her maternal grandfather, Carstairs had a heroin addict for a mother, and a faceless father. She came of age during the First World War, a time ripe for women to break from conservative Victorian traditions: Carstairs left school in her teens and flew over to France to become a wartime ambulance driver.
Her fascination with machines soon extended to motorboats; her attraction turned toward women. During the '20s she counted among her friends Oscar Wilde's niece, Dolly, many theater stars, and Marlene Dietrich. When Carstairs, one of the fastest motorboat racers (male or female) of the era became disillusioned with the sport, she decided to buy her own island in the Bahamas, and set up her own law and government.
Of all the famous and colorful figures in Carstairs's life, the one Summerscale might document most thoroughly is her 50-odd-year friendship with Lord Tod Wadley, a doll. Given to Carstairs by longtime companion Ruth Baldwin, Wadley was an ever-present figure in Carstairs's life; the woman even had Wadley cremated with her. Summerscale includes a series of Wadley photos in the book, and his face--with its beady yet soft eyes--is hauntingly charismatic. For Carstairs, Wadley seemingly stood in for the child she did not bear. And seeing his weathered face after years of love, emerging over the collar of an old man's bathrobe, the reader cannot dismiss him as a sad or sick fetish of an aging dyke. He appears as yet another intriguing face of a woman who now, thanks to her biographer, has escaped obscurity.