Review – The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill LePore

SHoWWI discovered Wonder Woman when I was about nine years old. The very first story I ever read was her first cover appearance in Sensation Comics #1. (Not the original issue, but a repro from the 1970s, when DC Comics cared about its history and took lots of opportunities to introduce new readers to old stories.) I quickly ordered a similar repro of Wonder Woman #1, and so I pretty much knew from the beginning that Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, who wrote under the name Charles Moulton, was a psychiatrist. I knew he was the inventor of the lie detector test (but, sadly, not the person who wound up with the patent for it), and that he had created his character intentionally to give comics readers an example of a strong female. (Not just, it turns out, as a role model for girls, either.)

As a kid, all I knew was that I loved Wonder Woman and the wacky, pseudo-mythological world she ran around in. I loved the fact that her boyfriend and I had the same first name, and that he was strong and heroic, even if he had to stand back and let her do most of the heavy lifting (contrary to some modern depictions of him.) I loved that she pretty much always laughed about every situation, no matter how dangerous. I loved her message of peace and non-violence. She didn’t kill. She didn’t believe in war, even though she was aiding the United States in World War II; and she came from an island where a lot of pretty girls ran around in skimpy little outfits.

Yeah, even at age nine, there was a piece of my sexuality that was firmly in place. But I still must have been a pretty odd fourth-grader, since most boys preferred Superman, Batman, Iron Man or Captain America, if they even read comics at all. Maybe it was a bit weird that I liked Princess Diana so much. Of course, my other favorite Superhero was Aquaman, so I guess I don’t score as much as a half a point, even on the fairly dubious coolness scale that applies to comic book geeks.

It wasn’t until I was quite a bit older that I realized that, hey, there’s an awful lot of instances of girls getting chained up in these stories. And there’s more than a handful of references to spanking. As an adult, I began to wonder if William Moulton Marston was not, perhaps, a bit of an odd dude himself.

And then, while away with my family for Christmas, I discovered Jill LePore’s book on the men and women who created the world’s most renowned super-heroine. I say men and women, because that’s the first big takeaway from Ms. LePores’s well-researched biography: William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter wrote and drew all the early Wonder Woman stories, but Marston’s wife, Betty (nee Sadie Holloway) and his lovers Olive Byrne and Marjorie Wilkes Huntley all contributed a great deal to the creation and development of the character. Indeed, Betty Marston made a bid to be allowed to carry Wonder Woman forward after her husband’s death, but DC Comics declined, giving the reins of the Amazon Princess instead to Robert Kanigher, an odd choice. Kanigher is primarily remembered as an author of war stories, creator of Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, The Losers and the Unknown Soldier and first scripter of the Silver Age Flash. He hated pretty much everything about Wonder Woman, and he drastically changed the character from what she had been under Martson and Peter, et al.

Wife and lovers? Yes, Marston lived with and had children by both his legal wife Holloway, and his mistress, Byrne. Huntley was a frequent, long-term houseguest. Apparently, he drove a hard bargain with his wife, telling her he would only continue as her husband if she allowed this; but it seems, long-term, that Holloway was not unhappy with the arrangement. She and Byrne lived together for more than three decades after the death of “their” husband, moving across several states together and, eventually, Byrne died in the same hospital where Holloway was recovering from a broken hip. In separate rooms, but together to the last. Huntley remained a frequent houseguest for the rest of her life.

An odd dude, it seems, and a bit of a pioneer was Marston. It seems he and his loved ones successfully lived a quite alternate lifestyle, even by modern standards, and certainly for America in the 1930s and 1940s. Strangely, though Marston was clearly the head of his household and depended on the women in his life to perform the duties that wives of that generation was accustomed to performing, he was also a self-proclaimed believer in female superiority. He believed that women should rule men, that they were naturally more disposed to be compassionate and fair, that they should enfold the world in chains of love. (Although, in his work, it was rarely the men who were in chains.)

As LePore demonstrates, Marston’s family history, and thus Wonder Woman’s “secret” history, is a history of American feminism as well. Olive Byrne’s aunt was Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood (a name she despised) and advocate of female suffrage. Olive’s mother was the first woman in America to go on a hunger strike for women’s right to vote. Wonder Woman was rooted in these women’s philosophies, but also in the feminist philosophy of the earlier British “Women’s Movement.” Sanger and feminists of her day did not overall believe in female superiority, or that women had a moral advantage over men. The feminists of 19th Century Great Britain did.

Marston’s life is one of contradictions, but it was a fascinating one. It’s also often laced with sadness. His work was stolen by a rival named Leonarde Keeler who patented the polygraph for use as a lie detector in 1931. Keeler was, in fact, merely the high school assistant to a police detective who had once read an article about Marston and has an interest in lie detection. Martson, who had developed the process for predicting truth or falsehood by measuring changes in blood pressure, always claimed that he was the lie detector. Detection, he argued, was not performed by the device. It was performed by the man (or woman, presumably) who knew how to interpret the data the device yielded.

Even before Keeler, Martson’s attempts to establish legitimacy for his claims largely came to naught. He defended James Alonso Frye, a young veteran accused of murder, in 1923, but his expert testimony was ruled inadmissible in a landmark case. He attempted to assist in finding the killer of the Lindbergh baby, but was not brought into the investigation. He offered his services as a an aid to finding spies during World War II in a letter to FDR, but his letter was passed to J. Edgar Hoover, who, instead of hiring him, opened a file on him. Finally, the man whose beloved character was the peak of health and physical perfection succumbed himself to polio, obesity and finally cancer at the age of 53.

LePore shows Martson as an oddball and a bit of a charlatan, but a likable one all the same, even if his greatest contribution to pop culture was an attempt to propagandize the youth of America into creating a female-led society.

If you’re looking for a book about the development of Wonder Woman the character, and lots of inside stories about the zaniness that happened, issue by issue, as she was first published… look farther. This is the Secret History of Wonder Woman only in that it’s the secret history of her creator. The Amazon Princess herself does not enter the narrative until more than 180 pages have already passed. Readers who are seeking a comics history that’s confined to the process of creating comics might be a bit bored. But there’s never been a better source for understanding the many real life factors that went into creating this fictional icon.

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