The secret life of Wonder Woman's creator
Diana of Themyscira’s creator was a psychology professor with an unconventional private life, writes Stephanie Bunbury.
‘Great girdle of Aphrodite! Am I tired of being tied up!’’ Wonder Woman had good reason for complaint; the comic-strip goddess was constantly being trussed in chains and ropes, often by a blonde female slaver called Eviless.
Luckily, our heroine could count some rope tricks of her own among her super-powers: with her magic lasso, she would force villains to submit and tell the truth. Wonder Woman, born in 1941, was a product of wartime, the temporary ascendancy of women in the workforce and the imagination of William Moulton Marston, a Harvard-educated professor of psychology who wrote under the pseudonym of Charles Moulton.
Marston was well-known as the writer of popular psychology articles with titles such as You Can Be Popular. He had also developed an early version of a lie detector. According to his biographer, Jill Lepore, ‘‘he was obsessed with uncovering other people’s secrets’’.
What few people knew about Marston – and what his publisher certainly didn’t know – was that that he was a sexual adventurer who lived with two women.
One was his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston; the other was a graduate student Olive Byrne, who initially worked as his assistant. Wonder Woman was Elizabeth’s idea. Olive was supposedly her physical prototype. Between the three of them, they had five children. When Marston died of cancer in his 50s, the two women continued to live together until Byrne died, aged 86. Elizabeth Holloway Marston lived on to be 100.
American director Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women tells such a remarkable behind-the-scenes story that it is hard to believe it has not been told before.
‘‘I read the script and was completely in shock. I thought ‘she’s made this up’,’’ says Luke Evans, who plays Marston.
‘‘Every page was another revelation. This is a man who started off teaching psychology in Harvard when psychology was in its very early stages. He struggled to get funding; he had a wife who was massively intelligent who couldn’t even go to Harvard with him, you know.’’ Holloway was studying for her doctorate at Radcliffe, the women’s university.
Byrne was a notably bright student who, in all other respects, seemed to be exactly what young American debutantes were supposed to be: blonde, pretty and engaged to a nice young man. According to Robinson’s film, it was only when she applied for a position as Marston’s research assistant that he learned she came from an unconventional family of staunch suffragettes, including Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood and a tireless fighter for women’s right to birth control. (She also held repugnant eugenicist views, but that is not part of this story.)
In line with speculation by historians such as Lepore, the film shows Byrne’s awakening to involve falling in love equally with both Marstons. The three of them try dressing up and tying up; the magic lasso comes into play.
Holloway is played by Rebecca Hall. Byrne is played by Australian actor Bella Heathcote, whose angel face creates an impression of the young Olive as a complete innocent. In fact, despite her family history, she had been educated by nuns.
It is sheer luck that this film has come out so hard on the heels of Patty Jenkins’ hugely successful Wonder Woman blockbuster; Angela Robinson has been working on it for 10 years. She came to the subject as a fan. ‘‘I started reading the comics as an adult,’’ she says. ‘‘I wasn’t like a comic-book nerd growing up; I just liked Wonder Woman.’’
A friend gave her a history of Wonder Woman as a congratulatory gift when she wrapped her first feature D.E.B.S. ‘‘I was reading through it and I stumbled on this chapter about the Marston family. It just blew my mind.’’
At that point, she started to read everything she could. ‘‘I took a deep dive into Marston’s theories of psychology and flew to the Smithsonian to read his letters and did my own research. And then four years ago, a plethora of books started coming out.’’
The phrase ‘‘ahead of their time’’ comes up a good deal in discussion with the actors and director.
‘‘They were all very intelligent forward thinking people,’’ says Evans. They hid the way they lived, but scandal caught up with them; the Marstons lost their jobs and the clan had to move to another town.
‘‘Obviously they were conforming to the standards of the 1920s and 30s – very prim and proper,’’ he adds.
But it is fair to say that the menage-a-trois is still tricky territory.
Marston has been reviled both as a crackpot for his views on female dominance – he often said women should rule the world – and by both left and right as a sex pest who preyed on his young students. Christie Marston, one of his grandchildren, has challenged this; she also says the film gets the women wrong.
In an interview with Forbes magazine, Christie Marston said she spent a lot of time with her grandmother Elizabeth, who had never hinted at having had a sexual relationship with Olive Byrne. ‘‘The relationship between Gram [Elizabeth Marston] and Dots [Olive Byrne] is wrong; they were as sisters, not lovers.’’
They brought up their children together, she said, because it made sense economically. ‘‘Aside from the fact they lived together all their lives, there is not that much known about them,’’ says Heathcote. ‘‘There are a few facts and the rest Angela came up with. It was her interpretation of events.’’
But perhaps the truth doesn’t especially matter. The dream of living differently, even dangerously, echoes the marvels of Wonder Woman’s Paradise Island, where strong women were in charge and there were no wars and no lies.
‘‘All the other super-heroes were about vengeance or about right versus wrong,’’ says Robinson. ‘‘But Wonder Woman was really a plea to stop war and stop the madness. And I think with the political situation we’re in right now, that resonates even louder.’’ – The Age
❚ Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (R13) opens in New Zealand cinemas on November 16.
Gal Gadot’s popular bigscreen iteration of Wonder Woman returns to cinemas this week in Justice League.