It’s time for another great lesson I received in the craft of writing. Once again under the guidance of author Marnie Woodrow, I was given an exercise in generating a story. My classmates and I were given a research subjects: Real people, hand picked for each of us to study and then create a fictional story using as many factual bits of information we could. I was given British heiress Marion “Joe” Carstairs.
The following is completely fictional in the way of dialogue and event. However – all facts listed, people in attendance, and physical details are exact. These are the people “Joe” hung with and invited to lavish parties. The rest is how I imagined a gathering would have plaid out.
If you are not familiar with Carstairs, I highly recommend you read up on her. She was a remarkable woman!
Marion “Joe” Carstairs.
The magnificent, three-masted schooner’s, hull sliced effortlessly through the Atlantic waves. Her course set for the island of Whale Cay. A private Bahamian island in the Berry Islands located between Florida and Cuba. Onboard the Duke and Duchess of Windsor lounged comfortably, resting-up for the evening’s festivities. If anyone knew how to throw a party it was Joe Carstairs. Her parties were legendary, complete with music, dinner, and dancing; often Noel Coward would bang out a few show tunes on the grand piano.
The Duke, wearing his smoking jacket, puffing on a Cuban cigar, thumbed through the Washington Post. “Rubbish! Such rubbish passes for journalism in America.”
“Why do you continue to expose yourself to it? You’re a happier old sod when you read the Daily Telegraph.”
“Educated men remain well informed with the goings-on around the globe.”
“As you wish.” She fanned herself to alleviate the sticky August air.
“Would you look at this! It’s a travesty what these yanks say about our Royal Family.”
“You’re torturing yourself. I suggest you dispose of that rag at once.”
He scanned to the end of the article locating the authors name; the Duke was quite satisfied. “I might have known – this slanderous piece of ballux was written by that Miller bloke.”
“Miller? Is he someone we’ve met?”
“I should say not. He’s the bloke that wrote that terrible article about Joe after she announced her self-imposed exile from public life. You recall the article? I believe it was mid 1934.”
“Dearest, that was seven years ago. Why not put it to rest? This miller chap is of no consequence in our circles.”
“What was it he said about Lord Tod?”
“I don’t recall.”
“Ah yes… I recall his caustic words now… He said the only thing we Brits have gotten right is
eccentricity. He also said that Lord Tod was an absurd little mannequin. Such nerve!”
“My love, we have our own judgments on this side of the pond as well. I do recall a time when you weren’t so fond of Lord Tod.”
“Yes, but since having spent time with Joe and Tod I have no further issue with the pair.”
The guests began to arrive at 7:00pm. Noel Coward, Dolly Wilde (Oscar’s niece), actress Tallulah Bankhead, and Rock Hudson were among the more famous arrivals. The Great House, a white Spanish style villa complete with red roof tiles and wrought iron railings, was well lit, as were the immaculately kept grounds surrounding it. Joe had a mixture of palm, tamarind, almond and sea grape trees planted. In the garden numerous penguins meandered about unnoticed by the guests. Also unnoticed was the iron carved nameplate on the door. “MARION JOE CARSTAIRS AND LORD TOD WADLEY” Nothing was out of the ordinary in Joe’s world. This was her private country, complete with five hundred Bahamian inhabitants; she was The Queen of Whale Cay.
“We’ll have to make an entrance soon Tod.” She straightened his tie – then her own, their matching, meticulously tailored, suits were custom made on Savile Row. “I wonder if the Duke will be wearing a similar suit? You know we use the same tailor, don’t you? Of course you do… what a silly question.” Joe looked in the mirror molding her slicked back crew cut one last time. “We must be devastatingly handsome for the ladies Tod.” The one foot tall man doll had been her closest companion since 1925. Celebrated German toymakers “Steiff” manufactured the leather doll. He was a gift from Joe’s secretary, Ruth Baldwin, the dearest of her many female lovers. Joe christened the doll “Lord Tod Wadley”, and the pair remained inseparable.
In the grand entry hall guests filtered past the many framed photographs depicting Joe’s extraordinary life. There was a photo taken in 1916 of sixteen-year old Joe in her Red Cross uniform, standing next to the ambulance she drove in France during World War One. Another photo taken in 1926 when she won the coveted Duke of York’s racing trophy, the caption below read “Loveable Tomboy – Crowned Fastest Woman on Water.” There were numerous photos of her fleet of racing boats “Estelle I – IV”. There were many studio portraits of she and Lord Tod. Perhaps the most unusual photo of all was the picture of Lord Tod, alone, looking at his reflection in the mirror; the title below – “Narcissus”. Noticeably absent, to anyone who paused to pay attention to the photos was the lack family portraits. Joe was not close to her family; her father leaving before her birth and her mother, American heiress to the Standard Oil fortune, was an alcoholic with a weakness for men. Joe left for boarding school at age 11.
Joe and Tod descended the stairs at the same time the Duke and Duchess were coming up the walkway. “If Hudson’s here this evening I hope he has the good sense to keep quiet about Marlene Dietrich.” The Duke remarked.
“It would be best dear. However Joe seems to be simmering down a bit over the entire mess. She even went so far as to say, “ Dietrich is the only person who might get me”, perhaps the bitterness between them is almost past.”
“It’s highly unlikely, theirs was a stormy affair. I would hazard a guess that jealousy was a factor.”
“Here on Whale Cay Joe is the star, in the real world Marlene’s star had a much bigger orbit.” The Duke offered.
“Perhaps but its time to join the party so there shall be no more talk of such things.”
The diner conversation was lively, as always. There were twenty-five guests, all in the mood for dining and dancing. “Tallulah dear what picture are you working on next?” Hudson inquired.
“What’s the plotline?”
“Come now Rock, you know Alfred is very secretive about his projects. I wouldn’t tell you if I knew the specifics. Enough about that… Joe, where might I be sleeping this evening? A guest suite or the queens mansion?” Laughter erupted around the table.
“I think the Queen’s master suite, unless Dolly objects.”
“I have no issue with it, I’m sure you’ll make room for me next time.” Dolly smirked.
“How do you do it Joe? All these beautiful women at your beck and call.” Film director Gabriel Pascal asked point blank.
“They just fall in my lap.” Joe replied. This followed by more laughter.
“Joe, do tell the story of how the islanders came to call you The Boss.” Dolly said eagerly.
“I’m sure nobody wants to hear that tale again.”
“Certainly I do, having yet to hear it.” Pascal said.
Joe loved the limelight, “Well as many of you know I worked side by side with the laborers putting in the roads on this island. One day we sat taking lunch by the road when I slipped the knife from my belt and hurled it at a snake making its way toward us, and by God I cut that God damn snakes head right off. The men were impressed and from then on I’ve been referred to as The Boss.”
“Outstanding,” Pascal beamed, “I’d love to put you in my next picture. I haven’t met a woman as bold and cleaver as you since Kate Hepburn.”
“I’m flattered Gabriel, but don’t think Hollywood is ready for a cigar smoking, heavily tattooed, former speedboat racing queer. The times are changing for the worse. Remember the 20’s; there was such acceptance for experimentation and individuality. The shift of morality in the 30’s inspired my need to buy Whale Cay.”
“What is it that Miller chap wrote about we British eccentrics?” The Duke chimed in.
“Let it be Dearest.”
“Ah yes, I recall it was something like money and title allowed all of our eccentric behavior to go unquestioned.”
“What eccentric behavior might he be referring to?” Joe questioned him.
“Well take Lord Tod for instance, no one questioned him during the decade you brought so many trophies home for Britain. When you retired the press got most ugly about him.”
The Duchess did not speak, but threw a glaring glance at the Duke.
Joe laughed hard, having broken every rule she had the opportunity to break. “We are like one. He is in me and I am in him. It’s a marvelous thing. If everybody had a Wadley there’d be less sadness in the world.”
“Here, here.” Pascal raised his wine glass. “Here, Here.” The guests echoed clinking glasses.
“Tod informs me it’s time for music and dancing.” Joe said.
The party gathered in the ball room where a string quartet accompanied Noel Coward as he broke into “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” “The Party’s Over Now” and the ensemble number “Mad About the Boy,” all of the guests chimed in on this one. Thus far the evening had been wonderful, Joe looked at the doll, seated to her left, and remarked, and “We are a fortunate pair Tod.” The rosy-cheeked man doll always appeared to be happily agreeing.
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