Phoebe Legere as Joe Carstairs with Lord Tod Wadley, the doll Carstairs’ lover Ruth Baldwin gave her. | PETER YESLEY
The first I ever heard of Joe Carstairs (1900-93) was in Charles Higham’s 1977 biography of Marlene Dietrich, in which he described this fabulous lesbian Standard Oil millionairess who was so besotted with the diva that she wanted to esconce her on a private island in the Bahamas.
Phoebe Legere takes on Marlene Dietrich’s butchest lover
Some years later, when I finally made it to Berlin, I spent a whole day in the film museum there, particularly the floor devoted to Dietrich and, with the appropriate strains of her singing Frederick Hollander’s “Black Market” on endless loop, discovered a cache of her personal color home movies. And that’s when I finally saw what Carstairs looked like, nearly yelping with astonishment, for here, c. 1938, was a shockingly timeless, butch — very butch — dyke, replete with crew-cut, swaggering attitude, and tattooed arms.
A biography, “The Queen of Whale Cay,” by Kate Summerscale, came out in 1997, and now Phoebe Legere has fashioned a show about her, “Speed Queen,” playing through March 24 at Dixon Place. This production is simply a must for anyone interested in lesbian herstory, particularly one of its most glamorous, richly layered eras of the last century. Transforming herself from her usual wild, sizzlingly sexy, blonde-maned vamp to an equally wild, short-cropped brunette, crossdressing tomboy, Legere delivers the most impressive display of her formidable, rafter-shaking, multi-octave singing, songwriting, piano-playing, and rambunctious histrionic talents to date.
Phoebe Legere takes on Marlene Dietrich’s butchest lover
Carstairs was a true lesbian Lothario, and, changing behind a screen, Legere also impersonates a bevy of her lovers, including, besides Dietrich, the legendary saloniste Natalie Barney, Oscar Wilde’ infamous niece, Dolly, who brought Joe out, Garbo, Billie Holiday, Mabel Mercer, and Tallulah Bankhead, who sings a particularly catchy ditty bout her famed rivalry with Bette Davis, “Bitch Stole My Look.”
Accompanying her at all times on this wildest of Sapphic journeys is her inanimate co-star, Lord Tod Wadley, a male doll given to Carstairs by the great love of her life, Ruth Baldwin, aka “Bobbie.” It was once the charming — and quite sensible — custom among lesbians of their era to give each other dolls, representative of the children they could not then dream of having, and the doll was even buried with her. But then there are so many fascinating aspects of Carstairs’ long and storied life: driving a Red Cross ambulance in World War I and then helping to rebury the war dead; inheriting millions of Standard Oil dollars as a young adult (her grandfather, Jabez Abel Bostwick, was a founding partner); starting her own business at 20, an all-female car and chauffeur service called X-Garage; buying the island of Whale Cay in the Bahamas for $40,000; and her deep interest in power boats, which led to her becoming a champion competitive racer.
Legere, who identifies as trans, described actually meeting the openly out and proud legend.
“I had bought out my contract with Epic Records after I was sodomized by a record executive there. If I was to get into the #MeToo stuff I’ve experienced, it would take 100 interviews. I could also name a couple of very famous rock stars, but I don’t want to bring anyone down. In those days, women were not treated as human beings, and it’s only this year that people are talking about it, and that’s only because you can now finally get into trouble for it.
“I had no money because my lawyers were soaking me dry, and my friend, Nile, the son of [writer] Terry Southern, took me out to the Hamptons, where I got a job at the restaurant Bobby Van’s. It was 1989 and there was no Internet, not even a CD player in the place, but I have a very good memory and know thousand of songs. People would say, ‘Play this, play that,’ and I became the toast of the town in Bridgehampton Everyone would come in — all the stars — Peter Beard, George Plimpton, Mick Jagger, and that’s where I met [her two champions] Hilary Knight and Tony Walton.
“I look like a grande dame now, but then I had achieved a ravishing sexiness through peroxide and some kind of insane bootstrap operation, converting this tomboy into somebody people wanted to fuck! Joe was living there and had heard of me because I was all over the Hamptons press and also, in 1991, I had three hit movies and two hit records, including ‘Marilyn.’ Joe’s girlfriend, Jackie Ray, brought her, and Joe came on two canes, smiling from ear to ear, as I played all her songs like ‘Sand in My Shoes’ which I didn’t even know were her favorites. They were Bobby Short’s repertoire, which was also mine!”
Legere then had no idea who Carstairs was, “although she certainly seemed like somebody. She put $500 in my tip jar and I spoke to her, and, as old as she was, she still had loads of charisma and was hot as a firecracker. I love those old-school dykes like her, with all her tattoos and beautiful men’s suits. In those days, I was living in a shack with no electricity or running water. I would ride my bike to and from work, past the richest people in the world who’d be leaving Bobby Van’s at 2 a.m., driving past me, and in the seven years I was there, Joe was the only person who ever offered me a ride home.
“She had a brown and beige Rolls Royce with a chauffeur, and they put my bike in the back and they drove me the long way home. She put her hand on my thigh, doing the whole thing, and I was just loving her. She died three months later. Such a gift, a blessing.
“There was no Internet and the book hadn’t been written, but, after she died, Jackie Ray filled me in. Jackie then took up with Bachoo Dinshaw, the Pakistani cement heiress, and they are all buried together — Joe, Bobbie, Jackie, Bachoo — in the same plot in Sag Harbor, with their pugs!”
Legere then confided, “You know, I feel that Joe is still with me. Things have been happening constantly, like when I went to Materials for the Arts in Long Island City, with my set designer, for the vintage mahogany 1928 motorboat I wanted made for this show. It was hard for her to visualize it, but we got our materials and took them to my storage space. And there, on the loading dock, was a 1928 motor boat! I took pictures of it from all angles with my iPhone, and we were able to make a splendid replica of it!”
Indeed, that motorboat provides one of the major fillips of the multi-media “Speed Queen,” which is filled with all kinds of startling visual delights, including some sizzlingly sexy filmed nude love scenes. And wearing Carstairs’ mannish drag has been a truly liberating experience for Legere.
“I’ve been trying to be a gorgeous woman for so long, but I think I look better as a boy. I feel so powerful, and this sense of power I want to develop for my custom clothing line for women. It is amazing how much personal power can be contained in your clothes.”
SPEED QUEEN | Written & peformed by Phoebe Legere | Dixon Place, 161 Chrystie St., btwn. Rivington & Delancey Sts. | Mar. 15-17, 23-24 at 7:30 p.m. | Tickets are $19 at dixonplace.org; $22 at the door; $15 for students, seniors