Marion Barbara Carstairs, usually called Betty, was a wealthy British power boat racer known for her speed and her eccentric lifestyle. She was born in 1900 in London.
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Her mother, Frances, an alcoholic American heiress, later divorced Betty’s father and married Captain Francis Francis, with whom she had two more children, Evelyn Francis and Francis Francis Jr. Her last husband was the French surgeon Serge Voronoff. Here at the Gimcrack we love Voronoff so much he merits not one but two posts of his own.
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During World War I, Carstairs served in France with the Red Cross, driving ambulances. After the war, she served with the Royal Army Service Corps in France and later, in 1920, she and a group of friends started the ‘X Garage’, a chauffeuring service that featured a women-only staff of drivers.
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Carstairs lived a colorful life. She usually dressed as a man, had tattooed arms, and loved machines, adventure and speed. Openly lesbian, she had numerous affairs with women, including Dolly Wilde, Oscar Wilde’s niece, and a string of actresses, most notably Tallulah Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich. Carstairs married once, to a French Count in 1918 so as to gain access to her trust fund, independent of her mother. After her mother’s death the marriage was immediately annulled on the grounds of non-consummation.
Dolly Wilde found here
In 1925, she purchased a motorboat after inheriting a fortune through her mother and grandmother from Standard Oil. She was also given a Steiff doll by a girlfriend and christened him Lord Tod Wadley. She was extremely attached to this, keeping it with her until her death, although—unlike Donald Campbell’s mascot ‘Mr Whoppit’—she didn’t take it into her speedboats for fear of losing it. Between 1925 and 1930, Carstairs spent considerable time in powerboats, becoming a very successful racer, although the Harmsworth Trophy she longed for always eluded her. She did take the Duke of York’s trophy and establish herself as the fastest woman on water.
Betty and Lord Tod found here
Carstairs was also known for her generosity to her friends. She was close to several male racing drivers and land speed record competitors, using her considerable wealth to assist them. She invested $40,000 purchasing the island of Whale Cay in the Bahamas, where she lavishly entertained such guests as Marlene Dietrich, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. She not only constructed a great house for herself and her friends, but also a lighthouse, school, church, and cannery.
Marlene found here