‘Experimental Life’

Wonder Woman’s Creation Story Is Wilder Than You Could Ever Imagine

Think you know everything about Wonder Woman? How about the man who created her—a lover of women who lived with a wife, his lover, their children, and a wayward librarian?

11.03.14 10:45 AM ET

“Stop the presses,” splashes Jill Lepore, Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer. “I’ve got the history of Wonder Woman.” The comic-book world’s most popular female superhero already has a story about her Amazonian origins and a story about her secret identity (Diana Prince, secretary), but Lepore’s found another. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is about sex, politics, love, loss, feminism, and a family. But what it’s mostly about is lying.

The protagonist is the creator of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marston, born in 1893. He grew up in a wealthy Massachusetts family, had five older sisters, and sympathized with suffragists. As a Harvard undergraduate, he used systolic blood pressure readings to invent the lie detector test. He eventually earned a Ph.D. in psychology and worked in various universities, though never for very long. One of his kinder letters of recommendation warned that his scholarship was “open to the charge of sensationalism.”

Self-promotion came easily. Marston wrote his own press releases and organized his own press conferences. He bent the truth throughout his life to ensure that he was known as the man who had invented the lie detector test. (The polygraph, which uses a range of measurements including blood pressure, was patented by Leonarde Keeler in 1931.) Marston declared himself “the world’s first consulting psychologist,” found work in the law and in Hollywood, and, eventually, created Wonder Woman in 1941. Lepore calls it an “experimental life.”

What shaped Marston’s experiments most were the women with whom he lived, loved, and lied. He married Sadie Holloway while they were students. She was a New Woman: She demanded the vote but also a life in which being married and having a career were not incompatible. Marston met Olive Byrne while a professor at Tufts and away from his wife. She was voted “the wittiest, cleverest, and most distinctive” student in her year. And she had a glamorous aunt in Margaret Sanger, the feminist campaigner and founder of the American Birth Control League (later Planned Parenthood). Byrne became Marston’s research assistant and lover.

When Marston wanted Byrne to move in with him and Holloway, they came to a polyamorous agreement. Holloway could have a career; Byrne would raise the children. Eventually there were four, two by each woman. In time they moved into a big house near New York, which they called Cherry Orchard. Holloway found work as an editor in the city.

There was happiness in the family. Everyone had a nickname: Keetsie, Dotsie, O.A., and Zaz. Margaret Sanger visited. The children, Lepore reports, “were fiercely loved.” But there were also difficulties. Marston declared that women should rule the world but remained a patriarch. He instituted weekly family debates on the meaning of life, which he then presided over and dictated to. He gave his children IQ tests and then ranked them. Holloway earned most of the money.

There was a third woman in the family, whom Marston had met in 1918. Marjorie Wilkes Huntley was a New Age feminist, a widow, and a librarian. She haunts the book. She would periodically show up at the house and stay in the attic, where she hung beads and burned incense. Because of her hysterectomy, she had no children. There is an extraordinary photograph of all three women in which Byrne and Holloway are holding babies while Huntley holds a doll and grins.

In nearly everything they left behind, the family concealed its domestic arrangements. Byrne invented a deceased husband named William K. Richard and hid herself from census takers. Sometimes the lies were elaborately concocted to serve Marston’s public image. Byrne (as “Olive Richard”) once wrote a magazine profile of Marston in which she posed as an eager reporter who traveled to Cherry Orchard to interview “this famous man.” Lepore’s deconstruction of the piece is desperately sad. It brings out the distance and doubt that festered within the proximate intimacy of the Marston family. “I ain’t no author,” Byrne wrote in her diary.

It’s unclear how much the children knew or what they thought. Lepore writes that they “tell very different stories about their family, the way the children in any family do.” Behind the doors of their parents’ bedrooms, there were still more secrets. The adults practiced bondage or, as Huntley put it, “love binding.” In the comics, a theme that recurs again and again is Wonder Woman being tied up, then breaking free. “My man-made bonds have snapped!” she cries. “My woman’s power returns again!”

Lepore has an astonishing story and tells it extremely well. She acts as a sort of lie detector, but proceeds through elegant narrative rather than binary test. Sentences are poised, adverbs rare. Each chapter is carefully shaped. At a time when few are disposed to see history as a branch of literature, Lepore occupies a prominent place in American letters. Her microhistories weave compelling lives into larger stories, and William Moulton Marston is irresistible. He consumes most of the book.

Wonder Woman herself properly arrives in the final third. It’s 1941, the world is at war, but she fears nothing. She stands for justice, equality, and America. She is against the patriarchy, especially when personified in villainous ogres like the Duke of Deception. If she traps you in her lasso, you have to tell the truth.

But there is much ambivalence between her bright colors and sharp lines. When she joins Batman and Superman in the Justice Society of America, she does so as secretary. She’s a crusader for matriarchy but still sexy (“the suffragist as pin-up,” says Lepore). Marston wrote that Wonder Woman needed “all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”

So her place in the history of feminism is tricky. She has roots in the suffragist movements of the early 20th century, and she was claimed by women’s liberation movements, appearing on the cover of Ms. magazine in 1972. She fits somewhere between the “first wave” and the “second wave.” But rather than seeing Wonder Woman as wave one-point-five, Lepore argues that she undermines the whole scheme of seeing feminism through waves. Lepore has a different, though still linear, metaphor for the history of feminism: “a river, wending.”

What Wonder Woman mostly represents here are the ideas of one man and the influence of his family. She comes out of the peculiar mixture of progressive politics, domestic submission, charlatan confidence, and utopian feminism of Cherry Orchard. When Marston died in 1947, her political edge waned still further. Attempts to keep her in the family failed. By 1950 Wonder Woman was an agony aunt with a hunky suitor.

The family kept its secrets. Sadie Holloway and Olive Byrne lived out their days together. Byrne did not tell her two children that Marston was their father; they found out later, from Holloway. Marjorie Wilkes Huntley died in a nursing home. None of them ever told any scholar or journalist about Cherry Orchard or Wonder Woman’s link with Margaret Sanger.

Historians tend to write about lying much less than novelists or philosophers. Lepore’s history, however, shows that lies reveal more than their obverse truths. They are part of how we fashion ourselves to other people in our families and our societies. They form a daily currency by which we settle relationships, but they also create doubt. They mount. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is, in the end, unsettling. It suggests that love and loneliness are not separate things.