The Secret History of Wonder Woman

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To date, the most satisfying (jaw-dropping) “read” on the subject of a comic book origin story has been Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. Joining it now on my mental shelf will be Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman. What’s most astounding of all, is that Lepore’s book, released last year, isn’t even fictionalized. It’s a completely true yarn, so sensational every step of the way that it reads like the creation of a overheated imagination. Further, there is an ideological component to the tale. If Lepore ever stretched to make her case, I’d call her on it, but I don’t believe she has. This amazing story was just laying there to be found with someone with two good eyes, like crude oil in the backyard. I just gave the book five stars on Goodreads. She deserves all of it, not just for her excellent writing — but for recognizing what makes a really good story (which is rare enough in fiction, rarer still in non-fiction, where so many seem to feel they have license to be boring).

I am going to spill to you the juiciest details, as my significant other did to me. I swear it won’t spoil the joy of discovery; it’s fairly wondrous how these details all fit together as you experience the narrative. The character of Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston using the pseudonym Charles Moulton, with the input and influence of his three “wives” (he was in a polyamorous family relationship with three women over a period of many decades). One, Elizabeth Holloway Marston was his legal wife and principal breadwinner of the family. Another, Olive Byrne raised the children. And the third Marjorie Wilkes Huntley sort of came and went).

But their unusual family is the tip of the iceberg. In addition to being practitioners of Free Love, the bunch of them were radical feminists, academics, and to one degree or another, psychologists. Byrne’s aunt was birth control advocate Margaret Sanger; her mother Ethel Byrne went on a highly publicized hunger strike for protest being jailed for distributing birth control literature. Holloway was one of the first female lawyers in America, and later worked as an editor at Encyclopedia Britannica and McCall’s Magazine. She’d begun her career assisting Marston in his psychological experimentation. Marston is best known for having invented the lie detector test (which is especially remarkable  given Wonder Woman’s magic, truth-telling lasso).

Though brilliant, Marston was a bit of a quack, and his position in academia grew increasingly tenuous. In addition to being a undeniable publicity hound, there was his private life, which involved not only his support for radical feminism, and his polyamorous love life, but also it appears, other forms of sexual adventurousness, such as S/M (and bondage, too, would be a major theme in Wonder Woman). One of most-unlooked-for take-aways from this book was an explanation for an otherwise bizarre and inexplicable scene I came across a few months ago in the 1931 Joe E. Brown comedy Broadminded. That movie opens on a bunch of young adults having a “baby party”, where they’re all dressed like, and behaving like, infants. It turns out this was a “thing” back in the 20s, with people running around in diapers and bonnets, brandishing rattles, talking in “goo goo” language, and getting spankings for being naughty. Marston had attended one such party and written about it. That sort of thing raised eyebrows back in the day, and I imagine, still does.

Anyway, as Marston fell from grace, Byrne kept him in the public eye by writing articles about him in Family Circle magazine using a pseudonym. This led to his first artistic credential — being the staff psychologist for Universal Pictures, a position which involved evaluating stories for emotional impact, and having a good deal of influence over the studio’s product. And the second thing it led to, at a time when the comics industry was under fire (as it always was, still is) for being unwholesome and violent, was his being able to pitch Wonder Woman. Under the guiding hand of Marston and his domestic brain trust from 1940 through 1946, Wonder Woman was a true feminist hero, an Amazon Demi-God strong enough to do things like stop bullets and thwart thugs, but who actually solved things through a philosophy of peace and love. When Marston died, Holloway tried to take it over, but the publisher went another way, and the character veered sharply away from its feminist origins for a number of decades. It wasn’t until Second Wave feminism in the 1970s that the character returned to her origins.

What informs the unfolding of this remarkable story, and what Lepore does so well in conveying, is the historical background for all of this. It begin in an era when women could not vote, get a legal abortion, or even attend Harvard. And it takes us to the present day, and suggests (to those so inclined, anyway) much, MUCH unfinished business.

In addition to being a staff writer at The New Yorker, Lepore is a professor of American history at Harvard. Her first book was King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity. On the strength of her perceptive, riveting storytelling in this book (and my family connections to King Philip’s War) I shall now be racing toward that earlier book with all dispatch).

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