The odd life and psyche of the man who invented her
Wonder Woman did not grace the very first cover of Ms. magazine (spring 1972), although many remember it that way. That honor went to the many-armed Hindu goddess Kali, holding a frying pan, a typewriter, a mirror, and other tools of the hyper-multitasking modern woman. The most popular superheroine ever had to wait for the next issue to stride through the sky in all her 1940s Amazonian glory under the headline “Wonder Woman for President.” Below her is a divided scene—one half a war-torn landscape, the other a pleasant street featuring a billboard that reads Peace and Justice in ’72. William Moulton Marston, the inventor of Wonder Woman, would have loved that cover. He believed women were superior to men and should run the world—and would do so in, oh, about a thousand years.
In her hugely entertaining new book, Jill Lepore sets out to uncover the true story behind both Wonder Woman and her creator. Make that creators: not the least of Lepore’s revelations is that Marston had a lot of help from his wife, Elizabeth Holloway (we have her to thank for “Suffering Sappho,” “Great Hera,” and other Amazonian expostulations), as well as from his former student Olive Byrne, with whom he and Holloway lived in a permanent ménage à trois that produced four children—two from each woman. And Lepore adds another catalyst to the mix. Olive Byrne was the niece of Margaret Sanger, whose youthful brand of romantic, socialist-pacifist feminism was formative for Marston. Sanger’s influence is perhaps the most important of the connections that Lepore teases out between Wonder Woman, the early-20th-century women’s movement, and Marston’s fascinating life and odd psyche, in which the liberation of women somehow got all mixed up with bondage and spanking.
The only scion of a once-grand Boston family, Marston was equal parts genius, charlatan, and kinkster. As an undergraduate at Harvard just before World War I, he was thrilled by militant suffragists like the ones who chained themselves to the fence outside 10 Downing Street. Maybe that’s where his fusion of feminism and bondage started—imagery of slavery and shackles abounded in the movement’s demonstrations and propaganda. His experiences in the psychology department left their mark, too. Marston was a lab assistant to the prominent Harvard psychologist Hugo Münsterberg, a rigid German who opposed votes for women and thought educating them was a waste of time. Münsterberg would surface in the comics as Wonder Woman’s archenemy, Dr. Psycho. (“Women shall suffer while I laugh—Ha! Ho! Ha!”) Busy strapping Radcliffe students to blood-pressure machines in Münsterberg’s lab, Marston invented the lie detector—a forerunner of Wonder Woman’s golden lasso, which compels those it binds to speak the truth.
Devising the lie detector was the high point of Marston’s rather erratic pre-comics career. He seems to have lost every job he held. His venture into business ended in an indictment for fraud; his brief stint as a lawyer saw the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals reject lie-detector tests as evidence. In 1929 Universal Studios hired him to give its films psychological realism and let him go a year later. His academic career, pursued alongside these and other ventures, went swiftly downhill; he plummeted from chairman of the psychology department at American University to roving adjunct. His brash egotism—and his affair with Olive Byrne, his student at Tufts and Columbia—may have been part of the reason for his academic failure, but so was the fact that the only psychological theories that interested him were his own. And the only people who took his mishmash of matriarchy and masochism seriously were Holloway and Byrne. His 1928 tome, Emotions of Normal People, defended “abnormal” sexuality—homosexuality, fetishism, sadomasochism, and so on—as not only normal but fixed in the nervous system. (He may have been a bit of a charlatan, but he was also way ahead of his time.) The book received little notice, except for a rave by Byrne, writing under a pseudonym. As with his other academic work, Byrne and Holloway were mostly uncredited collaborators.
Marston had a sweet thing going: two remarkably smart, adoring women to cater to his every need, each apparently believing she’d landed in feminist heaven. Indeed, it was Byrne’s hero worship that rescued his career. As a staff writer at Family Circle, she frequently interviewed him as a great expert on child psychology (without, of course, revealing their connection). One article, “Don’t Laugh at the Comics,” caught the eye of Maxwell Charles Gaines, the head of what became DC Comics. Hired in 1940 as a consultant to head off attacks on comic books as harmful to children, Marston saw his chance to advance a cause: the problem with comics was simply their “bloodcurdling masculinity.” As he put it a few years later in an essay in The American Scholar, “Why 100,000,000 Americans Read Comics”:
Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, power. Not wanting to be girls they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peaceloving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.
Strong women are submissive. Got it.
Continue reading at the Atlantic.
Something that’s never failed to creep me out as much as they fascinate me are unexplained disappearances. In a world so big, sometimes people can slip through the cracks, but what if the circumstances are just plain weird, or multiple people vanish at once, or entire villages disappear? Sometimes not knowing anything is just as bad as knowing all the terrifying details, and here are a few of my favourites that prove that.
- The Mary Celeste, said to be cursed long before she was found adrift without her crew but with all of their belongings.
- The Flannan Isles mystery, where several lighthouse keepers abandoned their post on a remote island and were never heard from again.
- The Springfield Three, a unexplained case involving the abrupt disappearance of three women who arrived at their intended destination and then were never heard from again.
- Martha Wright, a woman who vanished from a moving vehicle and was never located.
- Louis Le Prince, a man who disappeared from a moving train as fellow passengers heard and saw nothing.
- The MV Joyita, a ships whose crew vanished and left behind a whole load of questions, especially in regards to the strange way the ship was left.