By Paul Hicks
The new film featuring Wonder Woman (aka Diana, Princess of the Amazons) has sparked widespread interest in the legendary comic book character, while breaking box office records. A.O. Scott of The New York Times wrote that it “briskly shakes off blockbuster branding imperatives and allows itself to be something relatively rare in the modern superhero cosmos. It feels like ... what’s the word I’m looking for? A movie. A pretty good one, too.”
If you are wondering how Wonder Woman is connected to the history of Rye, it is through a book entitled “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” by Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore. The publisher called it “a riveting work of historical detection revealing that the origin of Wonder Woman, one of the world’s most iconic superheroes, hides within it a fascinating family story.” Much of that family story took place in Rye between 1935 and 1947.
One reviewer wrote, “‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman’ relates a tale so improbable, so juicy, it’ll have you saying, ‘Merciful Minerva!’ It turns out that decades of rumors were true: The red-white-and-blue heroine, conceived during World War II, had a decidedly bohemian progenitor,” whose name was William Moulton Marston.
Marston was educated at Harvard, receiving his B.A. in 1915, an LL.B. in 1918, and a Ph.D. in Psychology in 1921. While pursuing his advanced degrees, he married Elizabeth Holloway, a graduate of Mount Holyoke, who also earned a law degree at Boston University Law School in 1918.
While teaching psychology courses at Tufts in 1925, the married Marston fell in love with one of his students, Olive Byrne, a niece of Margaret Sanger, who opened the first birth control clinic in the country. Within a few years after her graduation from Tufts, Olive became Marston’s live-in mistress in a <ménage à trois.>
According to Lepore, Elizabeth Holloway Marston consented to the arrangement so she could pursue a career and still have children. Olive agreed to raise Elizabeth’s two children as well as the two she had with Marston. Elizabeth named her daughter Olive, and Olive’s two sons were adopted by Marston and Elizabeth.
In 1935, the whole family moved to a large wooden house in Rye, on a lot covered with old cherry trees and surrounded by 48 acres of farmland, which was a substantial purchase in the middle of the Great Depression. To the outside world, Olive was known as “Mrs. William Richard,” and she listed herself in a Tufts reunion book as living at 81 Oakland Beach Avenue and as member of the Woman’s Club of Rye and the Coveleigh Club.
The comic heroine Wonder Woman, as conceived by Marston, first appeared in 1942, and therefore deserves to be considered as “born” in Rye. As reported by Jill Lepore, Olive has been credited by some as being Marston's inspiration for his iconic character, but others say that the model was his careerist wife Elizabeth.
William Marston died in 1947 from cancer, but Olive and Elizabeth continued to live in Rye until the early 1950s. Whether or not you see the movie or read the book, the back story of Wonder Woman confirms that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.