20th Century America, Angela Robinson, Bella Heathcote, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Homosexuality, Interesting Women, Luke Evans, Olive Byrne, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Rebecca Hall, Superheroes, William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman
When I first heard about Professor Marston and the Wonder Women ( 2017, dir. Angela Robinson), I was really excited. The film is a biopic of William Moulton Marston, the Harvard-trained psychologist who was the creator of Wonder Woman. Marston lived a rather unconventional life and I was interested to see how Robinson, who also wrote the film, would treat Marston.
Spoiler Alert: If you’re planning to see this movie, you might want to put off reading this until you’ve done so, because I discuss the plot of the film in detail.
The film tells the story of Marston (Luke Evans) and his ferociously intelligent but academically-thwarted wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall). They are trying to develop a prototype lie-detector at Radcliffe when they meet Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), the niece of birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, who takes one of Marston’s classes. The Marstons are feminists and believers in free love (the early 20th century term for sex outside of marriage), and they are both attracted to Olive. Elizabeth figures out a way to make the lie-detector work, and after several rounds of lie-detector Truth or Dare, the three admit they are all attracted to each other and start a polyamorous relationship long before that was a thing,
Unfortunately, word of their unconventional (not to mention unethical) relationship leaks out and the Marstons are dismissed from Radcliffe right around the time that Olive announces she’s pregnant. Elizabeth takes work as a secretary and William starts trying to make a living as an author. Along the way he encounters a bondage fetishist and the threesome discovers that they’re all kinky; Elizabeth is dominant while Olive is submissive. (Magic lassos, anyone?)
All of this sparks an idea in William. He will write a new comic book involving a female superhero who defeats her opponents through love. As a psychologist, William developed what he called DISC Theory, which focuses on two dimensions of people’s emotional behavior: whether they perceive their environment as friendly or hostile and whether they perceive themselves as having control or lack of control over the environment. Control in an antagonistic environment produces Dominance, control in a friendly environment produces Inducement, lack of control in an antagonistic environment produces Submission, and lack of control in a friendly environment produces Compliance. His character, Suprema the Wonder Woman, was conceived as a demonstration of these principles, as well as an expression of his sense that women are inherently superior to men because they are not automatically aggressive.
Despite Elizabeth’s skepticism, William sells the character (sans her original name) to a comic book publisher and makes a good deal of money writing the character. Olive and Elizabeth both have children. But one day during a kinky romp in their house, a friendly neighbor walks in, discovers the threesome in flagrante delicto, and their world collapses around them. Elizabeth demands that Olive and her children leave to start a new life. William is investigated by a morality crusader; her ‘interrogation’ of him forms the film’s frame tale. William develops cancer, and is eventually able to persuade Olive to return by getting Elizabeth to drop her Dominance and enact Compliance with Olive. The film ends shortly before William’s death, with an epilogue text that explains that Olive and Elizabeth continued to live and raise children together for the next several decades until Olive’s death.
The film is very well-done, if not at all subtle about its themes. Olive and Elizabeth are together William’s perfect woman and both contribute components to Wonder Woman’s character. The film liberally peppers panels from early Wonder Woman comics into scenes of the trio’s life, illustrating how their sexual interests were freely expressed in the comic. When the three of them first make love, they do so in a theater prop room, which allows Olive to be dressed as the goddess Diana, Elizabeth wears a cheetah-print coat, and William is dressed in a WWII pilot’s outfit; anyone who knows Wonder Woman will immediately spot the references to Wonder Woman’s secret identity, her arch-nemesis the Cheetah, and her love interest Steve Trevor. William’s lectures on DISC Theory act as chapter headings for the film.
It’s interesting that in a biopic about William Marston, he’s not really the main character, which is not a bad thing, since as an actor, Evans is very pretty to look at but not really a very dynamic presence. The main focus is on Elizabeth and Olive’s complicated relationship, and Hall shines as Elizabeth. Every time she’s on-screen, she absolutely commands attention, which both fits the historical Elizabeth’s ferocious self-confidence and helps explain why William adores her so deeply. Heathcote’s Olive is a gentle woman but one willing to pursue her desires and stand up for herself against Elizabeth’s harshness. And the film handles their polyamorous relationship in a very sensitive way, never treating it as freakish while still acknowledging the difficulties it creates for them.
A lot of the film is made up.
Yes, the film is “based on a true story.” But that doesn’t mean it’s based very closely on it.
The film opens with William and Elizabeth already at Radcliffe, and in doing so glosses over a good deal of interesting stuff in William’s earlier life, including the fact that he wrote at least four screenplays that got turned into silent movies (including one directed by DW Griffiths). He claimed to have supported himself as an undergraduate at Harvard that way. He also spent a year in Hollywood working for a film studio. William’s natural gift for attracting media attention was quite useful there, but ultimately he returned to New England. The man lived a very interesting, if not entirely successful life, but much of it gets cut out in the interests of focusing on the relationships at the heart of the film.
William didn’t invent the Lie Detector. He invented a precursor to it that focused on systolic blood pressure. He repeatedly used it for experiments, some of which were basically publicity stunts, and both Elizabeth and Olive helped him conduct these experiments, but there’s no evidence that the trio ever used the device on each other to uncover their secret feelings. The actual Lie Detector, more properly called a Polygraph (because it measures several body functions, including systolic blood pressure) was invented by John Augustus Larson, whose protégé Leonarde Keeler improved on it and then patented it. William’s work was certainly important to the development of the device, and William frequently claimed to have invented it, but that’s a considerable exaggeration. It was Keeler who made all the money on it.
The film greatly simplifies William’s employment history. He never actually taught at Radcliffe, but did teach at several other universities, including founding the Psychology Department at American University. He was not fired because of his unconventional relationships; rather departments just stopped renewing his teaching contracts. It’s possible that word of his relationships played a role in this, because at least one letter in his file at Harvard hints at improprieties, but that’s as much as we can say about why his academic career faltered. He also had a law practice (since he and Elizabeth both went to law school) and tried to insert himself into various famous criminal investigations (such as the Lindbergh case) as an expert on lie detection. One of the cases he was involved in, the Frye case, resulted in an important appeals court decision about when scientific experts can be introduced as witnesses, a decision that still gets cited today. He worked for the FBI briefly. He also ran at least four separate businesses, all of which failed, and one of which got him charged with mail fraud, although he was found innocent (that trial is probably why American University dismissed him). All in all, William was something of a publicity hound and a bit of a grifter, which doesn’t come through in the film at all.
Also, he can’t be Professor William if he’s not working at a university. Professor is a job title, and he didn’t have it, except perhaps for a year at American University.
The biggest problem in the film stems from its misrepresentation of the relationship between himself, Elizabeth and Olive. The film suggests that the Marstons had an essentially conventional relationship until meeting Olive in the mid 1920s. In fact, by that point, the Marstons already had at least an open relationship, because while William was working for the Army during WWI, he met Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, a divorcée several years his senior. By 1919, she had moved in with the Marstons. For the rest of William’s life, Huntley moved in and out of wherever the Marstons were living; she had a permanent room in the house they raised their children in. The exact nature of the relationship is unclear. Although Margaret Sanger, who knew the Marstons’ circle quite well from the 1920s on, said that the relationship was non-sexual, Huntley herself described it as a “threesome”. She and William were certainly lovers, but there’s no clear evidence that she and Elizabeth were intimate, depending on how you understand “threesome”. The film complete omits Huntley, but it’s clear that the Marston trio was really more of a periodic quartet.
Nor were Huntley’s sexual interests purely vanilla. When she met William, she was already a devotee of “love-binding”, what modern kinksters call bondage. The film claims that William stumbled across a group of bondage fetishists in New York some time after Olive had moved into his household, when in reality he was probably already familiar with bondage before he met her, thanks to Huntley.
Nor was Huntley the only sexual adventurer in William’s circle. His paternal aunt, Carolyn Marston Keatley, was a believer in an early form of New Age spirituality, maintaining that the world was entering an age of free love. She maintained a regular weekly gathering at her Boston apartment where about 10 people, including the Marstons, Huntley, and eventually Olive, would gather regularly. These meetings seem to have been devoted to exploring female sexual power; the women routinely went naked, and a set of meeting minutes from this group strongly suggests that group sex and bondage were a regular part of the activites. These meetings seem to have laid the foundation for the philosophy that Marston and his women used to govern their complex relationship. Instead of being a later development of their relationship, as the film depicts, bondage seems to have been one of its early components.
However, understanding what William, Elizabeth, and Olive (and Huntley, when she was around) did sexually is complicated, because there is conflicting evidence. The aforementioned evidence about Huntley and about Keatley’s meetings strongly suggests that kinky sex was a basic element of their dynamic, but the Marstons’ children have insisted in interviews conducted by historian Jill Lepore and others that they never saw any hint of bondage in their household and that neither Elizabeth nor Olive would have tolerated such things.
Even more problematic is the film’s central conceit that Elizabeth and Olive were lovers, because William and Elizabeth’s grand-daughter, Christie Marston, insists that this was not the case. Christie says that she knew her grandmother quite well and had many frank conversations with her. Christie insists that the two women lived together as “sisters” rather than lovers. She points out that Angela Robinson made no effort to contact any of the Marston family and therefore Robinson’s treatment of the relationship is entirely fictitious. We know that the two women maintained separate bedrooms, and on one occasion when they visited Sanger, she arranged from them to use a room with two beds (she was very emphatic that they not use her bedroom, which might point to a willful blindness on her part). There is no explicit evidence that the two women were ever lovers (and as we’ll see, their children had no clear idea that Olive was intimate with their father, even though one of the children caught the two of them having sex).
Despite that, there’s certainly reason to speculate that Elizabeth and Olive might have been lovers. William had a remarkably contemporary view of sexuality, maintaining that homosexuality was entirely natural and that sexual desire was not inherently connected to a person’s gender (which he considered more social than biological). He found lesbian sex arousing and claimed to have watched women having sex; it’s not a far leap to guess who those women might have been. The notes of the Keatley meeting group talk about a ‘Love Leader’, a “Mistress” and their “Love Girl” coming together to form a “Love Unit.” That certainly sounds like Elizabeth had some sort of sexual relationship with Olive. “The ladies” (as the family still calls them) continued to live together for decades after William’s death, and long after their children had moved out.
And while their children and grandchildren certainly knew the trio well, there’s reason to think that their testimony is not entirely reliable. As Lepore has documented, the Marston trio were remarkably dedicated to hiding the nature of their relationship, even from their children. Olive invented a husband who fathered two sons on her and then died. She never told her sons Donn and Byrne that William was their father; as adults, the sons finally pried the truth out of Elizabeth, who only told them on the condition that they never ask their mother about the matter again. Olive was, in fact, so dead-set against anyone learning the truth that she threatened to commit suicide if her sons pressed her on the subject of their father. William adopted both of Olive’s sons to help protect the family secret, and Olive was variously passed off as either a domestic servant or a widowed sister, to prevent neighbors from gossiping. But the fact that Donn and Byrne felt there was something their mother wasn’t telling them suggests that they had suspicions that they had been lied to.
Later in life, as Elizabeth was sorting through William’s papers, she aggressively culled the documents, and then very carefully decided which of the four children would get which papers. Lepore, who was able to see three of the four sets of papers, was startled to realize that Holloway had given each of the children a sharply different family narrative, as if she was trying to keep each of them from finding out the truth even from each other. Although William drew much of his inspiration for Wonder Woman from “the ladies” and although Olive functioned as William’s typist and secretary, Holloway insisted that Huntley was much better informed about Wonder Woman’s origins than Olive was. So it seems that neither Elizabeth nor Olive wanted anyone to know the details of their unconventional relationship, and it seems entirely in keeping with that to think that Elizabeth might have lied to Christie in an effort to protect Olive’s privacy. So she may well have been sexually involved with Olive and simply chose not to reveal the fact. Given that the children had no clear awareness that William was Olive’s lover and Donn and Byrne’s father, it seems to me plausible that the trio might have successfully hidden a relationship between Elizabeth and Olive as well.
However, against that interpretation, we must set the fact that some of William’s co-workers at All American Comics (which was later sold to DC Comics) seem to have been fully aware that he effectively had two wives. In fact, William seems to have been quite the ladies’ man his entire adult life, and numerous people were aware of it. William’s mother was fully aware of what was going as, as were Margaret Sanger and Olive’s mother Ethel (and quite possibly two of Olive’s uncles, who performed as drag queens on the vaudeville circuit). So the family secret wasn’t so important that William didn’t tell anyone at all.
If I had to guess, I’d say that Elizabeth and Olive did have sex at least occasionally, since the meetings of Keatley’s group seem to have involved that sort of thing. But it’s a far cry from that to the film’s version of the relationship, in which Elizabeth kisses Olive before William does and the three regularly share a bed at night. William seems to have maintained separate sex lives with each of them, and given that there’s no concrete evidence that the two women saw themselves as lovers, it’s best to not read too much into things. However, as I’ve already laid out, the evidence is somewhat contradictory. Robinson’s speculation that Elizabeth and Olive were lovers is certainly possible, but it’s speculation, not provable fact.
In the film, Elizabeth only finally acquiesces to William’s relationship with Olive when Olive has a baby. She goes to work as a secretary because someone in the family has to be earning some money. In reality, Elizabeth was very career-oriented and had struggled to figure out how to make that work with being a mother, something else she wanted. Olive was the solution to her dilemma; Elizabeth would be a career woman, and Olive would be the stay-at-home caretaker for the children. Far from being a secretary, she was an editor at the Encyclopedia Brittanica and McCall’s, and eventually began the assistant to the chief executive at Metropolitan Life Insurance.
The movie claims that after about 5-6 years, the trio’s secret was revealed when a neighbor wandered into their house and caught them in a bondage scene together. The trio came under so much social pressure that Elizabeth forced Olive and her two sons to move out, and William was only able to reunite them at the end of his life by using the fact of his cancer to goad them into a reconciliation. That never happened at all. The trio’s secret was never found out by their neighbors (or if it was, it was tolerated). Olive never moved out of the Marstons’ household, and given that William and Elizabeth had legally adopted both her sons, she probably couldn’t have taken her sons with her if she had.
Another problem with the end of the film is that it distorts what happened medically. About a year before he died, William contracted polio, and gradually lost his ability to walk, spending his last months bedridden. During that period, he developed cancer, but the family chose not to tell him about the diagnosis (secrecy ran deep in the Marston household, it seems), so that he died never knowing what he was suffering from.
The film also gets a chunk of the comic book side of the story wrong as well. In the film, William comes up with the idea for Suprema the Wonder Woman, despite Elizabeth poo-pooing the concept of a female superhero, and pitches it to MC Gaines (Oliver Platt), the head of All American Comics. In reality, William had already been working with All American for some time before he pitched his concept. Gaines realized that having a well-known psychologist who could say that comics were healthy reading for children was a good thing, so he paid Marston a monthly fee to act as a consultant. William was always good at making headlines, so they were a natural fit for each other.
When William invented Wonder Woman, Elizabeth was not against it. In actuality, she was the one who told him that the character had to be a woman. William was trying to express his ideas about submission to loving authority, and Elizabeth pointed out that because he was trying to create a totally different kind of superhero, it ought to be a woman. William was already essentially a female supremacist, so it made sense.
The film suggests that Wonder Woman was a combination of Elizabeth and Olive, and that may well be true. Elizabeth was an extremely strong and assertive woman, and Olive was much more docile in many ways, which would fit Wonder Woman’s aggressive nature and her docility when she is bound by a man. But William seems to have modeled Wonder Woman physically much more on Olive than on Elizabeth. In the film, Elizabeth is tall and athletic and dark-haired, while Olive is shorter and more soft-looking and blonde. In reality both women were dark-haired, and Olive was taller than Elizabeth.
The scene in which Olive puts on a burlesque costume and accidentally inspires Wonder Woman’s costume is false. William created the costume in co-operation with the artist Henry George Peter, who partly modeled her on pin-ups he drew. But Olive did contribute one element of the costume; William had given her a pair of bracelets that she wore every day and those were the direct inspiration for the Amazonian bracelets that deflect bullets.
The film’s frame tale involves William being forced to meet with a committee run by Josette Frank (Connie Britton), who is disturbed by the sexual themes in the comic. Gaines says that he cannot protect William from Frank, so that if William can’t convince Frank that the comic is wholesome, Wonder Woman will be taken away from him. The truth is quite different. Frank actually worked on a committee that reviewed children’s literature. Gaines hoped for their stamp of approval, but Frank was troubled by the copious amounts of bondage, and never accepted William’s theories about willing submission to loving authority, which he fully admitted were part of what the comic was about. Eventually Frank resigned from the editorial advisory panel reviewing All American comics.
But Frank never had any real leverage that could have forced Gaines to take away the character from William. Gaines was making too much money off of William’s character to ever threaten his star author that way; by the end of his life, Wonder Woman was regularly appearing in three different comic books and an internationally-syndicated newspaper strip. William worked on these up until just shortly before his death, although his assistant Joye Hummel was increasingly scripting the comics from his notes. So the entire frame tale of the movie is made-up. Gaines did come under some pressure over Wonder Woman while William was writing her, but the real attack on comic books and Wonder Woman was just beginning to take shape as William was dying.
William would certainly have been very disappointed to see that the next writer to control the character was Robert Kanigher. Where William was a full-blown feminist convinced of women’s moral superiority to men, Kanigher was an outright misogynist who despised the character he was being asked to write, and reduced her to a love-starved simpering editor of a woman’s romance magazine, desperate for Steve Trevor to marry her. It was not until the publication of the first issue of Ms Magazine in 1972, which put Wonder Woman on its cover, that Wonder Woman really began to return to her feminist roots.
Despite being largely invented, I still like Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. It’s a well-done story that brings a fascinating and rather neglected trio of historical figures to the awareness of the viewers. It’s a moving portrait of a polyamorous family at a time well before that was a thing. And it doesn’t hold back from the original feminism that made Wonder Woman such an inspiration to many of the women of Second Wave feminism.
My next post will finish up looking at The Last Kingdom.
Want to Know More?
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is still playing in theaters, so it’s not available elsewhere yet.
If you want to know more about William Moulton Marston, his women, and his famous creation, I cannot recommend Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman highly enough. She painstakingly pieces together the secret life the Marstons worked so hard to keep hidden, and she does an excellent job setting Wonder Woman in the context of 1920s feminism, showing how the issues of birth control, suffrage, women’s right to work, and so on are played out in the pages of Sensation Comics. It’s honestly one of the best pieces of historical scholarship I’ve read in a long time. If you have any interest in Wonder Woman, this is a must-read.