The Secret History of Wonder Woman


The Secret History of Wonder Woman

By: Jill Lepore

Grade: A-

Not so much about Wonder Woman as an incredibly researched and detailed biography of her creator William Moulton Marston. With long and equally detailed looks into early feminism, the birth control movement, early psychology and even the psychology and censuring of both cinema and the comic book industry itself. As well as Marston’s relationship with his wife and live in lover.

Overall interesting although at times a bit of a chore to stick with. I have mixed feelings about the book probably because I have very mixed feelings about Marston. So I’m going to break it down into two parts. The Personal Life & Wonder Woman.


Marston lived for most of his adult life with two women. His legal wife Elizabeth Holloway and his mistress/other wife Olive Byrne (who was Margaret Sanger’s niece hence the very long look into that part of the woman’s movement). Not only did he create Wonder Woman he invented the lie detector (hello lasso of truth). He loved his children and Holloway and Byrne and was by all accounts an extremely likable guy.

Except I kind of didn’t like him. I mean maybe if I had meet him in real life I would have been charmed. But seriously, he was also an egotist who couldn’t manage to hold down a job until Wonder Woman (and that was the tail end of his life). I think I was really bothered by hijinks surrounding a murder trial in which the lawyers of the defendant where two of his former students who were definitely more interested in getting the lie detector admitted and Marston’s name in the press than defending their client. Marston would lie about that case until the end. I found it very disturbing.

As far as his relationship I’m not going to judge how anybody lives but while I was reading this I saw a post on Tumblr about hey let’s celebrate how Marston and his women loved each other! Happy! Love!

I am so ready for the movie!

I guess the problem was I didn’t really see that. Here was a guy who couldn’t keep a job. The wife was the breadwinner in the family and the young mistress, a former student of his who had been on track for medical school, wound up raising the children. There was a bit about Olive taking up a writing job in which she wrote solely about the great psychologist William Marston and they pretended not to know each other! Not only that while he and Elizabeth seemed happy with this or like they had made their peace Olive’s voice was rarely heard except that she had lied to her children about their parentage and for years, even after Marston’s death, would threaten suicide if anyone asked her the truth about the relationship including close family members.

I got the impression their was a lot of Olive in Wonder Woman and she obviously loved the man but it was very hard to be celebrating a relationship that she seemed embarrassed by.

Wonder Woman

So then you get to Wonder Woman which is the most interesting part. There are comics strewn throughout the book and that’s a lot of fun. You can see how Marston’s writing was shaped by the history of a lot of the subjects Lapore covers. The psychology of the comics and the fights about their content and whether they were harmful to children especially is fascinating. Looking back from my perspective they all look rather tame but then Lepore pulls the thread of bondage in the early comics (and there was a lot of that!) and you see it from a whole different light.

In the end this book is definitely more the Secret History of William Marston and how that lead to the creation of Wonder Woman. It’s well-researched and a little too detailed. (Seriously on my Ebook version it felt like half of this book was the bibliography of sources and credits.) I had a hard time keeping track of names and in a lot of cases if you know anything about this stuff already you might wonder why the detail. I had a hard time with Marston himself but, love him or hate him, he was definitely an interesting guy with a complicated history.

While Lepore says that Byrne never spoke or wanted to speak about these things and Holloway seems to have been very careful about what was parsed out and destroyed concerning family information and such I couldn’t help but wish we heard more of their voices in this story. But they certainly didn’t seem to want it that way.

Recommend: Yes. Just note that this is more the how the history and life of William Marston shaped Wonder Woman.

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