Wonder Woman under Deep Cover

Here is a story from Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman:

The November 1935 issue of Family Circle featured an article called “Lie Detector,” by Olive Richard. For this piece Mrs. Richard, a widowed mother of two, sought out a noted psychologist, Dr. William Marston, for advice on a friend’s son who was an inveterate liar. Having written to Dr. Marston, the inventor of a lie-detecting apparatus, she boarded a train and went to see him at “”his large, rambling house,” finding him on the lawn playing with four children and two cats. This “enormous” jovial man hardly fits her image of an dignified scholar. Charmed, she finds him “the kind of person to whom you confide things about yourself you scarcely realize.”

He shows Mrs. Richard his Lie Detector machine, which measures heart rate and blood pressure. She is skeptical: “I couldn’t feel the slightest change in my heartbeat if I were to tell you that my mother’s name is Grace instead of Ethel.” When he hooks her up to the machine, she decides to throw him a curveball by mixing truths and falsehoods.

It turns out that Olive Richard has done a bit of that in her article too. For starters, her name is not Olive Richard but Olive Byrne; the late Mr. Richard was a fiction concocted for the sake of her two (non-fictional) children. Her mother’s name really was Ethel—she was Ethel Byrne, a radical feminist who had made national headlines with a prison hunger strike. Ethel’s sister, Margaret Sanger, was a famous advocate for birth control. One suspects that these connections had not been shared with the folks at Family Circle.

It’s true that she was charmed by Dr. Marston, so much so that she was the mother of two of those children playing in the yard. However, her surprise at his appearance was a fib, since she had been living with him for nine years. They shared the house with Marston’s wife, who was of course the mother of the other two kids and who supported the family with her job as an editor at Encyclopedia Britannica.  Sometimes another of Marston’s women also lived there, in the attic; Lepore introduces her as “Marjorie Wilkes, who believed in both suffrage and bondage…” Yep, we got your Family Circle right here.

Olive also didn’t really need a demonstration of the Lie Detector, since she was usually the one who operated it when they performed their experiments. Sometimes he called it the Love Detector, as at a publicity stunt where he hooked up six chorus girls and showed  them the climax of a movie called (IIRC) The Devil and the Flesh, proving that brunettes are more easily aroused than blondes.

In case you’re wondering why this story is in a book called _The Secret History of Wonder Woman_, it’s because Marston was the creator of WW and Olive and Marston’s wife Elizabeth Holloway the primary models for her character.

Lepore’s book is full of crazy stuff like this. I haven’t even gotten into the creation of Wonder Woman and its kinky intertwinings wit the life of the Marston/Hollowy/Byrne household (I will just note that Byrne wore on her wrists something very like WW’s Bracelets of Submission, and that Marson’s nickname for her was Docile). Every chapter seems to have some unexpected bizarre connection or cameo, suitable for dinner-table entertainment. I should admit, though, that I’ve been reading the book for weeks, and am still only halfway through it; somehow, all these fascinating tidbits don’t add up to a story that I’m lured to pursue.

One other item of note: the audio book is read by the author, who does an excellent job, as long as you are not bothered by the fact that, when Lepore is quoting, she sometimes goes into an awesome imitation of the voice of Rocky the Squirrel.

[Update: I did end up whipping through the second half of the book at a much faster pace.  Though there is a staccato, digressive quality to Lepore’s story-telling, I will miss these characters, especially the enigmatic Olive, whose life was so shadowed by concealment.  I will miss Lepore’s narrating voice too–it grows on one, and the Rocky outbursts become less frequent.]


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