In “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” Jill Lepore has unearthed a fascinating story. Wonder Woman, who made her comic book debut in 1941, neither sprang full-grown from the head of Zeus nor did she fly in (on her invisible jet) from the island of the Amazons. She was the creation of William Moulton Marston, a bondage enthusiast who not only invented the polygraph (lie detector) but also lived polyamorously with a niece of birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. A failed academic whose unconventional domestic arrangements were kept secret throughout his lifetime, Lepore reveals, Marston drew from the brilliant women in his life to create a comic strip that was as kinky as many of its fans have long suspected.
Lepore, a Harvard history professor as well as a staff writer for the New Yorker, takes the tack that were it not for Wonder Woman, Marston might have ended up as a footnote to 20th century radicalism, if not simply feminism. After all, his wife, Sadie Holloway Marston, had been an early New Woman, expecting equal rights. A graduate of Mount Holyoke class of 1915, she’d bobbed her hair and enrolled in law school at the same time her new husband did (he was at Harvard, which did not accept women; she went to Boston University).
Their third housemate—Sanger’s niece, Olive Byrne—began as Marston’s student and gave up her own graduate studies to care for the Marston children, to fulfill the deal struck between the married couple that allowed William to bring Olive into the house. All three were familiar with the works of suffragists like Emmeline Pankhurst as well as Sanger and other radicals, from John Reed to Emma Goldman.
Lepore eats this history up, and the stories of the times — several almost tangential to the book — make up some of the best reading, detailing hunger strikes, protests and marches that shaped Western society. In these stories, Marston was somewhat of a bit player—and a failure. He was fired from various jobs, and Lepore quotes him in his Harvard 15th reunion report (1930) noting, “ the only thing to do is have a wife, like mine, who will go to work to support you.” Even his various publications may have been written with—if not by—the women in his household (Lepore quotes their claims, but with some skepticism).
But by the time he—or they—conceive of Wonder Woman, his/their checkered histories finally come together. Marston, then working as a consulting psychologist for a comic book publisher, “braided together more than a century of women’s rights rhetoric, his own very odd brand of psychology, and inevitably, his peerless hucksterism,” writes Lepore. The result was a sexy Amazon with super powers, who somehow found herself bound (and often gagged) as she fought for justice.
Lepore does an agile job of tracing the various roots of Wonder Woman. Panels from the comic strip spread liberally throughout the book further illustrate the connections—from BDSM to progressive politics—between Marston’s past and the superheroine.
And yet, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” seems bloodless: All evidence and no understanding. While Lepore has done admirable detective work, detailing the steps that led to Wonder Woman, she apparently cares little for the result itself. Nor for the motivation or desire of those who people this fascinating puzzle.
This is particularly apparent in her secondary characters. Ethel Byrne, Olive’s mother, for example, is presented as more of a radical than her sister, Margaret Sanger. Unlike Margaret, Ethel went on a hunger strike when arrested and nearly died. But how did a young married mother of two from a traditional Catholic household end up becoming a free-love advocate, living among Greenwich Village radicals? Lepore merely notes the transition; she doesn’t venture, nor does she seem to care.
Perhaps because of this deficiency, Lepore also tends toward overstatement. While the straight history is clearly written and easy to read, whenever the author discusses the result, she loads “Wonder Woman” up with clumsy phrasings that are uncharacteristic of the author. “Like every other superhero, Wonder Woman has a secret identity. Unlike every other superhero, she also has a secret history.” Well, no, even a cursory knowledge of the other Golden Age comics (or, for that matter, Michael Chabon’s “Kavalier and Clay”) reveals a tangle of ethnic, social and political back story. Just, maybe, not quite so kinky. It is possible that subjects of Lepore’s previous works, such as her 2013 National Book Award finalist biography of Jane Franklin, “Book of Ages,” were more to the author’s taste than Marston. Whatever the reason, we are left with superb research — and the distinct sense that Lepore was more engaged in the search than in her subject.
Jill Lepore speaks at the Brattle Theatre in a sold-out event sponsored by Harvard Book Store on Wed., Dec. 3, at 6 p.m.