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Jill Lepore Talks Wonder Woman

Jill Lepore
Secret History
Jill Lepore Talks Wonder Woman

Historian Jill Lepore will speak at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery on Friday evening at 8pm as part of the annual Buffalo Humanities Festival. Her topic is the most popular female super hero the world has ever known, Wonder Woman.

Lepore is the author of the best selling book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, which chronicles the history of William Moulton Marston, who created the iconic super hero for DC Comics in 1941 using imagery derived from the Women’s Suffrage movement and erotic pin-up illustrations of the 1930s and ‘40s.

This topic might seem unlikely for a woman who is billed as “America’s most engaging historical writer,” a professor of American history at Harvard University, an affiliated member of the faculty at Harvard Law School, and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. Indeed, her previous book was Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, a history of the sister of Benjamin Franklin.

Speaking by telephone from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Lepore explains, “I didn’t begin with the intention of writing a book about Wonder Woman. Quite the contrary! I backed into the project. At the time, I was working on a New Yorker article about the history of Planned Parenthood, and had gone to the archives at Smith College where Margaret Sanger’s papers are, and the papers of Planned Parenthood are. I was also writing a paper for the Yale Law School, a talk on the history of evidence, and I decided that I wanted to do a talk about the lie detector.”

Oddly, these seemingly unrelated topics kept leading Lepore back to one name: “William Moulton Marston.” And more peculiarly, when she tried to find out more about this man who had invented a lie detector when he was a Harvard undergraduate, and had gone on to invent Wonder Woman in 1941, there did not seem to be much information available.

“You couldn’t find out very much about Marston at all,” she says, “beyond the kind of Wikipedia level, which said three things: 1) he invented a lie detector; 2) he created Wonder Woman; and 3) he had a poly-amorous marriage, and the woman that he lived with who was not his wife was named Olive Byrne. Weirdly, when I was in the Sanger archive at Smith, working on the research for this article on the history of Planned Parenthood, I kept coming across [references to] Olive Byrne, who was Margaret Sanger’s niece!”

And so, the histories of Wonder Woman, the lie detector, and Planned Parenthood were all linked through Olive Byrne, the niece of the organization’s founder, Margaret Sanger. Marston, his wife, Elizabeth Holloway, and Byrne, lived together in an extended relationship.

Byrne had been one of Marston’s students. When he told his wife that he wanted to have a relationship with both of them, and that she could either accept the arrangement or he would divorce her, she went out for a six-hour walk. When she returned, she had come to a decision that solved the modern woman’s dilemma in a very unconventional way. Bryne could join their household, but in exchange, the younger woman would raise all of the children produced through this arrangement, freeing Holloway to pursue her career. Eventually, each woman would have two children. Bryne’s children were adopted by the Marstons and told that their biological father had died—a complete lie. Fascinatingly, Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Bryne continued to live together even after Marston’s death in 1947; they remained together for the rest of their lives.

It is intriguing that a work of history, which concerns itself with the idea of truth, should turn out to be as permeated with the idea of lying as the Marston family story is.

“It turns out that it’s very much about truth and lies,” agrees Lepore. “Marston was obsessed with secrets and lies as a matter of intellectual investigation, but also as a form of play, as a kind of sexual play, I think probably as well. So the project sounds that thematic note again and again and again, but the theme emerges from the material itself.”

At times, while reading The Secret History of Wonder Woman, I found myself wondering, “Just what was the nature of the relationship between Marston and the three major women in his life? Have I missed something?” Lepore assures me that I have not.

“Historians tell stories from evidence,” she says. “So historians who care about evidence can go no further than the evidence allows. If I were writing a novel about the Marston family, I would have written something very different. But the evidence I have only takes me so far, and the kind of historian I am, I would like to leave a good deal to the reader. I would like to ask the reader to exercise good judgment and to weigh the evidence. I think that is part of the work of writing history, helping people to think about the past and its relationship to the present and so, you may say, ‘Yeah, I didn’t really know in the end what you thought or what I was supposed to think,’ and I think that’s fair. Not all readers like that! But I think that’s the obligation I have.”

Talking with Lepore makes for a conversation punctuated with laughter. She is a lively thinker and an engaging talker. Her books are widely praised for their readability, their accuracy, and their entertainment value. Her intellect and her curiosity often gravitate to odd quirks of human history.

“In the paperback edition of the book,” she recalls, “I wrote an afterward that’s about a bunch of stuff I found soon after the book came out. I found quite a stash of documents and one thing I came across was the story of how in 1941, right around when Marston was writing the first issue of Wonder Woman, he staged a kind of publicity stunt in New York. He used the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde movie starring Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman, and Marston hooked his audience of beautiful women, chorus girls, up to his lie detector, which he called ‘The Hyde Detector,’ and he was trying to find out from their reactions to Jekyll and Hyde, whether women find men who are evil more arousing than men who are good. He said that he had concluded from his studies what percentage of every man was a Hyde and what percentage was a Jekyll.”

Lepore lets out a delightful peal of laughter.

“I wrote in the Afterward about how if you are an historian, you kind of wish that this schmaltzy schlocky stunt was real. What if there really was such a thing as a Hyde Detector and you could hook Marston up to it and determine what part of him was good and what part was really evil? But clearly the point here being, that there is no such a thing, and Marston was obsessed with it because he was a very divided man. A person who is obsessed with Jekyll and Hyde is a person who is telling you a lot about himself.”

For much of the book, Marston is frustrated that he cannot get anyone to take his lie detector seriously. This becomes all the more frustrating when someone else develops a rival lie detector, the “polygraph.” I ask Lepore why a man who was so desperate for respect would risk his reputation on outrageous publicity stunts like the “Hyde Detector” and an advertising scheme in which he claimed that most men attached to a lie detector truthfully preferred Gillette razor blades—a result that no other researcher could duplicate.

“I think at that point he did not expect to be taken seriously,” says Lepore. “By this time he is more P.T. Barnum than William James. He’d been drummed out of academia in 1928. He was completely blacklisted. He was never going to have another legitimate academic appointment and he knew it. The jig is up. He is running an advertising agency. When we look at [an ad in] LIFE magazine and it tells us that two out of three men prefer Gillette razors, I think we know that this is not necessarily legitimate.

Among the most delightful revelations of Lepore’s book are the ways in which Marston imbued Wonder Woman with details from his own life, as well as the history of Women’s Suffrage, the birth control movement, and feminism. The chains from which Wonder Woman must frequently escape are a direct reference to Emmeline Pankhurst who had been invited to speak in Cambridge when Marston was an undergraduate. Her gold bracelets are modeled on the bracelets that Olive Byrne always wore. Marston was livid when other writers took over Wonder Woman, and her movement into the Justice League relegated her to becoming the group’s secretary, staying behind to mind the office while the male super heroes went off to save the world.

The Humanities festival is hosted by the Humanities Institute at the University at Buffalo with the participation of Buffalo State College, Canisius College, Fredonia State, and Niagara University. With the theme of this year’s Humanities Festival being “Gender Bender,” it is no wonder that the organizers sought Jill Lepore to be the keynote speaker. The festival will explore the question, “Are we bound by gender?” while attempting to go beyond the traditional oppositions of male/female and gay/straight. The Saturday events will be held in Ketchum Hall and in the Burchfield-Penney Art Center on the Buffalo State campus from 11am until 5pm. Saturday passes are $15 for adults and $10 for students.

Jill Lepore’s talk about her best selling book will take place on Friday, Sept 25, at 8pm at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. A book signing will follow, and Talking Leaves Books will be on hand to sell copies of The Secret History of Wonder Woman and other books by Lepore, including Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin and The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle for American History. Tickets are $20 general admission and $15 for students with ID. The Albright-Knox parking lot will be free for this event on a first-come, first-served basis. On-street parking is also available behind the Albright-Knox on Lincoln Parkway.

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