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Carstairs, Marion Barbara "Joe" (1900-1993)  
 
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M. B. Carstairs, a colorful gender-bending figure of the twentieth century, first gained fame as a speedboat racer in the 1920s. Her knack for self-invention propelled her through an exuberant life of sports and womanizing. Coming of age in an era when women's fashions turned androgynous and women of means could explore unconventional paths, she provided a fascinating subject for the popular press.

"Joe," as she was known to friends throughout her adult life, was born in London on February 1, 1900 to a family of heirs of Standard Oil wealth. Her family's money enabled Carstairs' pursuit of speedboat trophies, business ventures, travel, and hobnobbing with celebrities. Finally, it allowed her to become lord of the manor on her own private island.

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Her mother's mercurial temperament, aggravated by heroin and alcohol addiction, alienated her from Carstairs early on. Carstairs's father vanished from her life after her parents' divorce when she was still a baby.

A lively tomboy, she acquired the nickname "Tuffy" after falling off a camel at the London zoo. Her "wild" behavior was the family's reason for shipping her off to boarding school in Connecticut at age 11, though Carstairs later managed to recast this exile as a self-initiated beginning of an independent and adventurous life.

That longing for adventure lured her to Europe to become an ambulance driver during World War I. After landing a job with the Red Cross in Paris, the newly independent Carstairs had her first lesbian experience at age 16. She later reflected, "What a marvelous thing. I found it a great pity I'd waited so long."

It also drew her into a Bohemian circle of lesbians in Montparnasse and an affair with Oscar Wilde's histrionic niece. Dolly Wilde identified with her tragic uncle and perhaps was an examplar for Carstairs of the art of self-reinvention. (She was likely also the model for "Doll Furious" in Djuna Barnes' Ladies Almanack).

To comply with her mother's demand that she marry or be disinherited, in 1918 Carstairs wed childhood friend Count Jacques de Pret. It was purely a marriage of convenience. Soon after the wedding, the two split the dowry and went their separate ways.

The union was annulled for non-consummation after her mother's death in 1921, but it led to Carstairs' rechristening as "Tuffy de Pret" by her new chums in her next job with the Women's Legion Mechanical Transport Section in Dublin.

The Transport Section chauffeured British officers as they attempted to put down a rebellion by Sinn Fein. Several of her fellow drivers became lifelong friends, especially the boyish Barbara ("Bardie") Coleclough and her sister Molly.

In 1919 Carstairs and friends crossed the Channel to France to drive for the Royal Army Service Corps. This operation had the job of retrieving remains and reburying the dead. The workforce consisted of German POWs and Chinese laborers, whom the women transported to their grim assignments. They also ferried wounded and shell-shocked soldiers to hospital. They had to manage the heavy and cranky vehicles over muddy and bombed-out roads and carry out repairs themselves.

Carstairs loved the work, the camaraderie, the off-hours escapades and the freedom of men's clothes. She returned to England "hungry for men's work" and drove a taxi until her inheritance came through. She used it to finance her first business venture, the X Garage, and employed her buddies in chauffeuring well-heeled clients all over Europe.

During the 1920s she lived with lover Ruth Baldwin in London. The pair maintained a primary though famously non-monogamous partnership until Baldwin died in 1937.

Baldwin gave Joe Carstairs the jaunty leather Steiff doll that the latter christened "Lord Tod Wadley." Wadley became Joe's lifelong talisman, the subject of much speculation by biographer Kate Summerscale and others.

Carstairs spent lavishly on Wadley's wardrobe. He accompanied her everywhere except, for fear of losing him, on the speedboats she raced.

He was the one constant in an otherwise frenetic social whirl and love life. Carstairs partied, spent freely on girlfriends, courted actresses and other female celebrities and had numerous affairs, including one with Tallulah Bankhead and, later, one with Marlene Dietrich.

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