'The Secret History of Wonder Woman', by Jill Lepore - Review

By Burchill, Julie | The Spectator, December 13, 2014 | Go to article overview

'The Secret History of Wonder Woman', by Jill Lepore - Review


Burchill, Julie, The Spectator


The Secret History of Wonder Woman Jill Lepore

Scribe, pp.448, £20, ISBN: 9781922247889

It's always interesting when people succeed in two different arenas -- like Mike Nesmith's mum, who gave the world both a Monkee and Tippex, or Hedy Lamarr, the beautiful film star who also helped develop wireless communication, or Paul Winchell, the voice of Tigger who also invented the artificial heart. (If only he'd played the Tin Man in The Wizard Of Oz !) William Moulton Marston created both the cartoon heroine Wonder Woman and the lie detector machine, though by the time I had finished this book I was wondering how he found the time or the energy to do either.

To my generation, Wonder Woman is most famous for being played by the former Miss World USA Lynda Carter in the 1970s television series, wearing the bare minimum of pre-watershed clothing; a patriotic pin-up girl, as the theme song explained; 'In your satin tights, fighting for your rights -- and the red, white and blue!' But she was conceived by Marston as a feminist symbol, an Amazon from a man-free land who 'came to the United States to fight for peace, justice and women's rights'. It's a bit like finding out that Barbie was a post-dated Pankhurst plant to get women into the workplace.

Coincidentally I was reading a book called Born Liars: Why We Can't Live Without Deceit when this hefty tome rocked up, and was just embarking on the section about Marston himself. Describing him as 'irrepressibly optimistic', it goes on to claim that the lie detector, or 'polygraph machine' as it was more pompously known, was so useless that in 1986 when Aldrich Ames, a CIA operative spying for the USSR, informed his paymasters that the government intended to give him a routine polygraph test, they simply advised him to get a good night's sleep and relax. He did so and passed -- and passed again, in 1991, when the CIA were carrying out a search for an internal mole (i.e. Ames himself).

We generally think of snake-oil salesmen as coming from humble origins and turning into fantabulists through financial greed, but Marston's was a full-on blue-blooded Bostonian background with the flashes of pure American gothic such a heritage often holds. His mother was one of five sisters whose father, after the only son of the family had died, built a whole turreted medieval-mode mansion and closeted himself in the tallest of its towers to write a treatise entitled The Moulton Annals , in which he traced his family back to the Battle of Hastings. His grandson would carry on these traditions of eccentricity and self-importance; the book starts weird and gets weirder.

For instance, WMM married his teenage sweetheart, bluestocking Sadie, who he puzzlingly calls 'Betty' -- but then set up a ménage à trois with a young suffragette student of his, Olive Byrne, giving his allegedly feminist wife an ultimatum to join in or bail out. (There they are, in Olive's graduation

photographs, looking creepily like her parents. …

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