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.

The Dominion Post - - Front Page -

‘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.

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