Share this post

After inventing the lie detector test, William Moulton Marston came up with the character of Wonder Woman. His inspiration was his wife Elizabeth, and his significant other, Olive. Learn more about their story as we compare history with the movie Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.

About the movie Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Superheroes have made their way onto the big screen in a big way. We’ve seen the stories lifted from the comic books — or graphic novels, if you prefer — bringing to life characters like Captain America, Iron Man, and The Hulk. In fact, just last week, Based on a True Story Producers got access to a minisode where we looked at some of the history we saw in Captain America: The First Avenger.

And this year we saw the culmination of 10 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Avengers: Infinity War. But, as you know, Marvel isn’t the only company bringing superheroes to the movies.

The other big hitter in the industry is DC Comics. Which, as a little bit of trivia for you, DC stands for Detective Comics, after one of their first, popular series which introduced Batman to the world.

On the DC side of the superheroes, there’s Superman, the aforementioned Batman and, of course, the most popular female superhero of all time: Wonder Woman.

And it’s Wonder Woman that we’re going to learn all about today as we explore her origin story in real life by comparing history with a movie all about her creator, William Moulton Marston.

Learn the true story behind Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Our movie today begins as we see two children, one boy and one girl, pulling a red wagon along a sidewalk. Their parents are there, and as they reach a house the kids go up to the house. They come back holding some comic books.

Now it’s night time, and there’s a bonfire. There are hordes of people who look like they’re cheering as they throw the comic books onto the burning pile.

Then we see that text we’re so familiar with — based on a true story.

After this little introductory sequence, we see Luke Evans’ version of William Marston being questioned by Connie Britton’s character along with two other men who really serve more as background characters than anything else.

More text on screen tells us this is in New York in the year 1945 before letting us know that Connie Britton’s character is Josette Frank, the Director of the Child Study Association of America.

Josette questions William about Wonder Woman’s imagery — the bondage, spanking, homosexuality, and other things she says are sex perversions in the pages of the comics.

While I couldn’t find anything in my research to show this particular session the movie shows ever took place, it’s something that could have happened.

You see, as the rise of comics grew more popular before, during and right after World War II, parents across the United States started to notice their kids were reading more and more comics. It was an obsession for many, and they were worried that their children were being negatively influenced by the stories inside.

So, as they looked for answers, it was, as the movie shows, the Child Study Association of America (CSAA) that tried to provide those answers.

For a very brief overview of the Child Study Association of America, they were formed as the Society for the Study of Child Nature in 1888. Then, in 1908, it was renamed the Federation for Child Study before grants from the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial fund help spawn even more programs, and the organization was renamed the Child Study Association of America in 1924.

By the time the 1940s rolled around, the CSAA was focused on child development when it came to children’s books. They worked with parents to help with their children’s learning and worked with publishers to make sure books were helping to provide a positive impact on kids around the country.

So, when comics started to get more popular, it’d stand to reason that the CSAA was on the list of places who would become involved in helping parents and publishers alike make sure they were safe for kids.

And that’s exactly what they tried to do. With Josette Frank as their director during the 1940s, she was heavily involved on both sides. Through newspaper articles, radio interviews and countless letters, Josette worked to make sure that comics had a positive impact on kids while at the same time helping pass along the reassurance to parents that those same comics were safe.

For example, in one newspaper article from 1945, Josette Frank was interviewed about how the character of Superman might influence kids. She assured readers that he’d have a good influence by saying, “They can enjoy the thrill of danger knowing with full certainty that right will always prevail, that good will surely triumph over evil.”

Not to get too far ahead of our story, but Superman’s publisher at the time, Max Gaines, relied on Josette Frank’s expertise to help make sure Superman’s comics were something positive for kids. We don’t see Max in the movie for a little while yet, but when we do, he’s played by Oliver Platt.

Even today, there’s an award given to, “a book or books of outstanding literary merit in which children or young people deal in a positive and realistic way with difficulties in their world and grow emotionally and morally.”

That award started in 1943 by the Child Study Association of America while Josette was the director there. Today it’s carried on by the Bank Street College of Education and the award has been renamed in her honor to The Josette Frank Award.

Going back to the movie, after being introduced to William Marston and Josette Frank in a scene that the movie uses to set up flashbacks, we get the first flashback as text on screen informs us it’s now the year 1928 and we’re at Harvard Radcliffe College.

William is teaching a class on psychology, and on the blackboard, he writes four letters:

D. I. S. C.

According to William, he says he’s invented a theory that he claims will guide us through the levels of human emotion.

“D” stands for dominance, “I” stands for inducement, “S” stands for submission, and “C” stands for compliance.

And while that scene in the classroom is a fictional one just to let us know about Dr. Marston’s DISC model, it is true that he came up with the DISC theory.

If you’re familiar with many of the human behavioral tests like Myers-Briggs or Kolbe, DISC probably sounds familiar to you. It’s another behavioral assessment tool used by thousands of companies today.

Although, technically, what you’re thinking of wasn’t quite invented by Dr. Marston.

He created the initial DISC model, which he published in his 1928 book called Emotions of Normal People, but it wasn’t until 1956 when another psychologist named Walter Vernon Clarke took Dr. Marston’s DISC model and turned it into the behavioral assessment tool we’re more familiar with today.

Going back to the movie, one of the students hearing Luke Evans’ version of Dr. William Marston explain the DISC model is Olive Byrne. She’s played by Bella Heathcote, and we can tell William notices Olive by a slight smile the two share.

William’s wife, Elizabeth, notices it, too.

After the class, the husband-wife team are sitting on the steps outside the building. They notice Olive, who’s sitting on the lawn a little ways off with what we must assume are some of her friends.

Elizabeth asks William to stop drooling over Olive. He contends that Olive signed up to be their assistant.

From their position on the steps, William and Elizabeth aren’t close enough to hear the conversation among Olive’s friends, but they see a man near her and Elizabeth explains what’s happening. She says Olive is at war. She can’t look at the man trying to flirt with her for too long without him misunderstanding and thinking she’s interested. When Olive invariably rejects his advances, he’ll think she’s a slut.

Then Elizabeth points out the girl just to Olive’s right — camera left. She says that girl likes the guy flirting with Olive and as a result hates Olive with a passion. There’s so much hatred in her eyes, Elizabeth says, that she can barely sit there. But she must. They both must. Because that’s the life they’ve chosen.

Breaking from their reading of the situation playing out in front of them, Elizabeth tells William that Olive will break his heart. Then, after some chatting back and forth, she tells William to go for her. She says she doesn’t experience sexual jealousy, and who am I to fight nature?

And with that, we’re presented with how the movie introduces an interesting relationship between William Marston, his wife Elizabeth and Olive Byrne.

And that’s not true. At least, that’s not how it happened.

Oh, and it’s probably worth pointing out that Elizabeth wasn’t her first name. Her first name was Sadie. Elizabeth was her middle name.

She preferred her first name, Sadie, although William didn’t like that. And … he didn’t like her middle name, either. So, William called her Betty. She didn’t like that name, but she loved him and it’s what he used so she got used to it.

But, for our story today, I’m going to use the name Elizabeth since that’s what the movie uses. I think that’ll be less confusing.

The movie seems to imply that William and Elizabeth met Olive in the year 1928, but in truth it happened earlier than that. We know this because of the next scene we see in the movie. Remember the one where Olive takes William and Elizabeth to her sorority house and the husband-wife team watch from the second floor as Olive and the other sisters have what they refer to as a baby party?

As the movie shows, the party seems more like an initiation ceremony where everyone is dressed up like babies. From above, William and Elizabeth get aroused by what they’re watching.

Well, that baby party experiment did happen, but it’s also something we can use to prove that William and Olive didn’t meet in 1928 at Radcliffe College like the movie shows. They actually met in 1925 at Tufts University.

And it’s also not true that Elizabeth would’ve been there with William because while he was teaching in Massachusetts that year, she was working a job in New York City.

Oh, and sort of like what we learned about Elizabeth not being her first name, Olive also wasn’t her first name. Her full name was Mary Olive Abbott Byrne. She didn’t like her name, either, though.

But, for the sake of this episode, we’ll call her Olive because that’s what the movie does.

Speaking of which, heading back to the movie’s timeline, after Olive signs up to be a professor’s assistant, Elizabeth confronts her about sleeping with William. She hasn’t done it yet, but out of the blue Elizabeth warns her not to. This catches Olive off guard and upsets her enough that she doesn’t want anything to do with William or Elizabeth anymore.

This falling out leads to William and Elizabeth taking her out to a bar and it’s here that Olive mentions something her aunt used to say, “A woman must not be told how to use her freedom, she must find out for herself.”

William laughs. Your aunt was quoting Margaret Sanger.

Now it’s Olive’s turn to laugh. My aunt is Margaret Sanger.

This catches both William and Elizabeth’s attention. Are you joking? Your mother is Ethel Byrne? Your aunt is the Margaret Sanger?

Then we learn a little bit of Olive’s background and why Olive’s relation to Margaret Sanger and Ethel Byrne is important. After Olive explains her backstory to the Marstons, they sit back in their chairs. Then, Rebecca Hall’s version of Elizabeth sums it all up quite nicely.

“So, what you’re saying is … you’re descended from two of the most radical feminists in the world, and yet you were raised by nuns?”

They all laugh, Olive agrees to join them again as their assistant and, for the moment, things are happy again.

All of that is heavily fictionalized for the movie, but it leads us to a very important fact that is true: Olive Byrne was Margaret Sanger’s niece. What’s not true is that her relation to Ethel Byrne or, by extension, Ethel’s sister, Margaret Sanger, was a surprise to the Marstons.

This is something we know from, among other things, a photograph that you can find in Jill Lepore’s book called The Secret History of Wonder Woman that shows both William and Elizabeth alongside Olive and her mother, Ethel Byrne, on June 14th, 1926. That’s the day Olive graduated from Tufts College, where the baby party experiment took place.

What is true from the story we hear Bella Heathcote’s version of Olive explain in the movie is how she was an unwanted child.

It started almost as soon as she was born when her dad, Jack Byrne, came home drunk and, apparently upset at the baby’s crying, tossed the newborn baby outside in a snowbank. That’s when Margaret Sanger, who delivered the baby, rescued the newborn. Jack went back to the bar just down the street.

Later, Olive would be raised by her grandparents while her mom, Ethel, went to nursing school. She was told by her grandparents that her mom had died, and Olive went off to a Catholic orphanage when her grandparents died. That was just a year after her dad died. Of course, they were lying. Ethel Byrne wasn’t dead.

She was, though, heavily involved in the woman’s suffrage movement along with her sister, Margaret Sanger. They fought for women’s rights during a time when there simply weren’t many rights for women at all.

In the 1910s, women were expected to be at home. No careers. There was no protection against pregnancy — in fact, many people at the time believed the only reason women should have sex would be for the purpose of procreation.

It was Margaret Sanger who coined the term “birth control,” something that certainly wasn’t popular at the time. It was Ethel Byrne who was arrested for distributing information on birth control. She went on a hunger strike while in jail. She didn’t eat or drink for 185 hours, clearly willing to die for her cause. She was force fed food and water to keep her alive.

Together, the sisters started a movement that would end up becoming the Birth Control Federation of America. They changed their name in 1942. Today, you know of them as Planned Parenthood.

Back in the movie, the next major plot point happens when we see the Marstons having the idea to use systolic blood pressure to detect deception. It’s what we know now as the lie detector test.

The general idea is true, but it didn’t happen like we saw in the movie. In the film, we see the idea for a lie detector test as something the Marstons are working on before Olive comes around. But then we see Elizabeth have the idea to test blood pressure and with a bit of Hollywood magic, it just works.

William Marston had the idea for coming up with a machine that might be able to detect the difference between truth and lies was something he had been trying to do off and on since the early 1910s — while he was still studying at Harvard. In 1914, he came up with the idea to test systolic blood pressure to detect lies. He asked Elizabeth to help with the idea, and the resulting experiment wasn’t something they did on Olive like we saw in the movie.

In truth, it was a lot more like what you’d expect a test at Harvard in the early 20th century to be. They found ten graduate students who would participate in the experiment. Elizabeth wrote ten different stories for them, and William didn’t know what was in them. He was supposed to use the machine to find out who was telling the truth and who was lying.

A second, bigger test soon after found William being able to spot the liar 96% of the time. It’d seem like the lie detector test was working.

Probably the biggest difference between truth and what we see in the movie, though, is the timeline. The movie doesn’t give us a date for when the first lie detector test took place with Olive and the Marstons. The only date to work with is early in the movie when we saw the year 1928, so we have to assume this is after that.

In truth, though, William and Elizabeth’s early lie detector test experiments at Harvard took place in 1914 — 14 years before the timeline of the movie.

And on that note, let’s hop back to the movie’s timeline now, because after William, Elizabeth and Olive hook up we see some text on screen that tells us the year is now 1934. Olive is getting out of a car, and a friendly neighbor lady walks up to introduce herself.

She mentions something to the effect of how it’s a shame they, meaning the Marstons, have lived in the neighborhood a whole week and they haven’t met yet. Then she asks Olive if she’s Mrs. Marston. That’s when Elizabeth enters the picture and says, no, I’m Mrs. Marston.

The neighbor lady looks at Olive, confused.

So, then … you are?

Elizabeth mentions that she has one child, Pete. Olive then explains that she has two kids, Don and Byrne. Her husband passed away, and William and Elizabeth Marston were kind enough to let me stay with them.

The specifics of this encounter in the movie are really to give us a few of the facts that we learn in there, and those facts are true.

Olive Byrne had two children. Byrne was the oldest, born on January 12th, 1931 while Donn with two Ns, short for Donald with one N, was born on September 20th, 1932.

For a while, the lie Olive told anyone who asked — including her two children — was that she had been married to someone named William Richard in 1928. Sadly, William passed away, she said, due to a wartime injury that he never recovered from even after returning home.

This is where Olive got the name Olive Richard, something she used as a pen name when she took up writing from home. It was a pen name because William Richard wasn’t real.

It was a story.

Byrne and Donn were William Marston’s kids. As Jill Lepore mentions in her book, the only part of Olive’s marriage that wasn’t a lie was the date.

It was in November of 1928 that Olive began wearing the bracelets that would become the inspiration for Wonder Woman’s. Bracelets that, it would seem, were a symbol of Olive’s secret marriage to William Marston.

I say it was “secret” mostly because they couldn’t have been legally married since William and Elizabeth were already married. Also, as evidenced by the story that Olive made up about William Richards, it’s clear they didn’t want the truth to get out. Although, I get the sense that was more about not wanting to be bothered with the questions, stares, and intolerance from other people.

That truth was that William Marston, Elizabeth Marston and Olive Byrne lived happily together. I don’t mean to make it sound like things were always sunshine and daisies, but like any marriage, they made it work. William worked. Elizabeth worked. Olive worked from home, being the primary caregiver for all of their children.

We already learned about William and Olive’s two children, but there were also two children that William had with Elizabeth.

There was Pete, whose real name was Moulton, who was born on August 26th, 1928. Then there was Olive Anne, who everyone called O.A., who was born February 22nd, 1933.

If you’ve been listening closely to the dates, you’re probably thinking that’s close to Olive’s son’s birthday, Donn. Five months difference, which means for a time both Olive and Elizabeth were pregnant with William’s children.

Oh, and while we’re learning about the Marston household, let’s not forget Marjorie Huntley.

We won’t really talk about her too much in this episode because she’s not in the movie at all, but she was in the historical picture. Like Olive, she wasn’t technically married to William Marston. She lived with them often, though.

Not always … she was more in and out than Olive or Elizabeth, but when she was there she was considered part of the family as well ever since she hooked up with William Marston in 1918.

They didn’t have any kids together, though, because Marjorie had a hysterectomy.

Going back to the movie, we get another indication that the film’s timeline is advancing when we see it’s 1940 now. William isn’t a professor anymore, having been fired from his job.

Unable to find another job, he turns to writing. It’s about this time that we’re introduced to Oliver Platt’s version of Max Gaines, who Luke Evans’ version of William Marston introduces to a character he’s created called Suprema the Wonder Woman.

He explains that Suprema the Wonder Woman is unlike any other comic book character because she’s part of the powerful feminist movement — it’s psychological propaganda to push equal rights for women.

Max thinks about it for a while, then he says that Suprema the Wonder Woman is too long. Let’s just call her Wonder Woman.

And let’s just say that’s an over simplification of the truth.

Maxwell Charles Gaines was an early icon in the history of comics. He was heavily involved in a 1934’s Famous Funnies, which most people consider to be the first, true comic book.

It didn’t take long for comic books to become a smash hit all across America. They were cheap, widely available, and almost every little boy was reading them. Max continued making comics, working for National Allied Publications, the company that would end up becoming DC Comics.

As is often the case with new things, people started to notice the popularity of comic books. Parents started to get concerned that comic books were a bad influence on their kids.

It probably didn’t help that the world was on the verge of being plunged into World War II. And it certainly didn’t help that, in the spring of 1940, the Chicago Daily News published an article all about how horrible comic books were. They thought Superman was a fascist.

While all of that was going on, Olive Byrne got a job she could do from home in 1935. She wrote articles from time to time for a freebie newspaper called Family Circle. It was one of those papers you see at the grocery store that’s free for all, but they make their money by filling them to the brim with ads.

Well, when all this doubt over the ethical quality of comic books was going on, Olive decided to see if her editors would go for an article where she interviewed a renowned psychologist about the effect of comic books on kids.

That psychologist? You guessed it, Dr. William Marston.

Olive’s editor didn’t know she was living with Dr. Marston. No one who read the article knew that Olive Richards, as her byline said, had two kids with Dr. Marston.

In the article, William said that comic books were good for kids. It was this article that Max Gaines would end up reading and led to him reaching out to William. He wanted to use Dr. Marston’s credentials to back comic books and add some validity to them.

So, that’s how William Marston, the man who invented the lie detector test, ended up being associated with Max Gaines, the man who spread comic books across America.

One of the ways Dr. Marston pitched to Max as a way of fighting back against the comic book critics was by having a female superhero.

Max wasn’t won over by the idea right away. They’d tried women in comics, and they weren’t as popular as characters like Superman or The Flash.

William didn’t give up, though. The women that had been in the comics before weren’t superwomen that could be someone that girls could look up to.

Finally, William won Max over to the idea.

In February of 1941, William Marston gave Max his first draft of Suprema, the Wonder Woman. After reading it, Max decided William, who wasn’t a writer at all, needed to be paired up with someone who was.

So, it was one of Max Gaines’ staff editors named Sheldon Mayer who worked with William on refining Suprema, the Wonder Woman.

Oh, and in the movie, we see it as Max Gaines who shortened Suprema’s name … but that’s not true. It wasn’t Max at all who shortened it. As you can probably guess, it was the editor working with William on Wonder Woman’s stories, Sheldon Mayer, who made the decision to cut the name Suprema.

They worked with artist Harry Peter to come up with her look and, on October 8th, 1941, the world was introduced to Wonder Woman in All Star Comics #8. The author of the story was Charles Moulton, a pen name used by William that came from mixing together Max Gaines and his own middle names.

It wasn’t until the spring of the next year that they announced Charles Moulton was a pseudonym. Psychologist Dr. William Moulton Marston was the one who created Wonder Woman.

Back in the movie, things come to a rather sad ending. We see the same neighbor lady from earlier in the story stumble upon Olive, Elizabeth and William together in their home — which, side note, but who walks into someone else’s house like that?

Anyway, this causes a fight between William and the neighbors that eventually ends up having Elizabeth tell Olive that she’s got to go.

Meanwhile, the flashbacks in the movie have caught up with the inquiry from Josette Frank, and when William walks out of the room he starts coughing uncontrollably. In the next scene, he’s rushed to the hospital, where we see some text explaining he’s there for two months.

Finally, in an emotional scene where we see William explain that he’s dying, he convinces Elizabeth to swallow her pride and ask Olive to come back … which she does.

That’s not really what happened at all.

If you remember from the beginning of the movie, we saw some text that introduced Josette Frank, saying that the year was 1945. Since the flashbacks have caught up with the inquiry with Josette, it’d be safe to assume the movie is in the year 1945 now.

Well, it was in 1944 when Josette Frank resigned her position on the board trying to reign in the morality of Wonder Woman, in particular. She’d been going back and forth with Max Gaines and William Marston, complaining about the sexuality in the pages of the Wonder Woman comics that were coming out.

For his part, William dismissed the complaints. Max, on the other hand, sought out the expertise of an independent third-party in a woman named Dr. Lauretta Bender. She was a psychiatrist, and the director of the children’s ward at Bellevue Hospital in New York City.

That’s in Manhattan, by the way.

Dr. Bender reassured Max that Wonder Woman’s stories wouldn’t have a negative effect on children.

And that’s how the cycle went for a while. Josette Frank would issue a complaint in writing to Max or do an interview in the media about the negative effects of Wonder Women on children. William Marston would dismiss the complaint and Max would get reassured by Dr. Bender that the complaints were unfounded.

Then, in 1944, apparently fed up with going around in circles, Josette Frank resigned her position on the editorial advisory board for Max’s comic books.

Dr. Bender replaced her.

This isn’t shown in the movie, but in August of 1944, just a few days after going on a date with both Olive and Elizabeth, William went to bed one evening after having some pain while carrying Marjorie’s bags into the house — she’d just gotten back into town and was staying with the Marstons.

When he woke up the next day, he was unable to move his left leg. He went to the hospital, where he spent the next month.

He had polio, something that forced him to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

According to the movie, that’s not too far in his future. We learn this at the very end of the film when we see some text on screen that says William passed away in 1947 from cancer.

That’s true.

Despite being unable to travel due to his polio, William Marston continued writing Wonder Woman stories from his home in Rye, New York. That’s about 30 miles, or roughly 50 kilometers, to the northeast of New York City.

His health deteriorated until, on May 2nd, 1947, William Marston passed away from cancer that he was never told he had.

Three months after William Marston died, Max Gaines was in a boating accident. He didn’t survive.

Suddenly, Wonder Woman’s future was in doubt.

Back in the movie, the text at the end explains that Elizabeth and Olive lived together for another 38 years, until Olive’s death in 1985.

That mostly true, but the movie got the year of Olive’s death wrong. It wasn’t 1985, it was 1990.

But the movie is also correct in saying they lived together for the rest of their lives. It wasn’t always at the same home, though. With their children growing up and moving out of the home, Elizabeth and Olive moved to an apartment in New York City in 1952.

A bit of text at the end of the movie talks about Wonder Woman after William’s death by saying that her superpowers were taken away, but then restored in 1972 when, according to the movie, Ms. magazine put Wonder Woman on the cover of their first magazine.

That’s true.

After both William and Max died in the span of a few months, Wonder Woman’s fate was left to a man named Robert Kanigher. He didn’t have the same views for equality between men and women that William Marston did, and it showed in the two decades he was in charge of writing and editing Wonder Woman’s comics.

In the pages of the comic books, the Amazons went to another dimension and Wonder Woman decided to relinquish her powers, so she could stay in the Man’s World. She wasn’t the same woman she once was.

That changed in 1972 as Elizabeth Marston helped Ms. magazine on their cover story about Wonder Woman. Once again, Wonder Woman was in the forefront of a revived feminist movement.

She got her powers back. She got her own comic book. Then, on November 7th, 1975, Wonder Woman made another huge step when Lynda Carter portrayed her in her own TV show.

As for Elizabeth and Olive, they lived out the rest of their lives together in an apartment in Tampa, Florida until Olive fell ill. She was hospitalized, and, on May 19th, 1990, Olive Byrne passed away. She was 86 years old.

Elizabeth passed away on March 27th, 1993 — one month and one week after her 100th birthday.

KEEP LEARNING WITH MORE RESOURCES