When Roy Jones was a boy growing up near the family homestead — the old Burdick farm — on Charlestown Beach Road, a middle-aged woman, of a certain Southern gentility and whom he knew as Priscilla, rented half of his grandmother’s farmhouse during the late 1950s and into the ’60s.
As a boy, he knew her mostly for her insistence on proper table manners and her love of art, music and books, and summer visits from two women known as Bett and Dotsie. However, during “A Night of Local Lore” hosted by the Charlestown Historical Society and the Charlestown Land Trust in 2015, he had rather more to say. His appreciation of Priscilla was enlightened by Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard and frequent contributor to The New Yorker, in her 2014 book, “The Secret History of Wonder Woman.”
This is the way Lepore introduces the woman Jones knew as Priscilla.
“Marjorie Wilkes, who believed in both suffrage and bondage, was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1889. She was an only child … She smoked from the age of thirteen. She was tough as nails and thin as a twig. She had eyes like a doe’s and hair as brown as a mouse’s. In 1912, when she was 22, she worked on a suffrage campaign in Chicago. She married a man named Huntley because she wanted a new name; she didn’t want to share a name with the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln.”
As Lepore wrote, Huntley believed “in what she called ‘love binding’: the importance of being tied and chained. She also believed in extra-body consciousness, vibrations, reincarnation and the psychic nature of orgasm.”
Two films from this year, “Wonder Woman,” and, more recently, “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” along with Lepore’s book, have kindled interest in the creation, in 1941, of the comic book superhero. Here is the breathless headline on a story published by the Daily Mail in June: “The sex cult that gave birth to Wonder Woman: Man behind the girl power comic book superhero was a bondage-obsessed free-love fanatic who kept two mistresses.”
That man was William Moulton Marston, the Harvard-educated lawyer and psychologist credited with developing the prototype for lie-detector machines and the Wonder Woman comic as well as being a professor of psychology at Tufts University. Priscilla, or Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, was one of his early lovers. The women who came to visit her in Charlestown were Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, known as Betty, a lawyer and psychologist who was Marston’s wife, and Olive Byrne, his student at Tufts, whom he moved into his house in the late 1920s as his mistress, as Huntley had been before her. Olive Byrne was the niece of feminist crusader and birth control advocate Margaret Sanger.
According to Lepore, Marston gave his wife a choice of either accepting Byrne as his live-in lover or he would leave her. Betty, after a six-hour walk, acceded to his desire.
Holloway and Byrne each had two children with Marston and they lived as a family, with Holloway going to work and Byrne raising the children at home. They lived at various times in Cambridge, Darien, and in the New York suburbs. Huntley, Marston and Holloway became a threesome in 1919 or so, according to Lepore’s book, but Huntley tended to come and go. When she was around, they were a foursome.
Marston’s preoccupation with gender dominance, “the great increase in the strength of women — physical, economic, mental,” as he put it, resulted in criticism of the comic for its depiction of the scantily clad hero’s throwing off of shackles, gags, and other instruments of bondage. Byrne wrote about his views on marital happines in a Family Circle article titled “Fit to be Tied.”
Marston died from cancer in 1947 at age 53. Olive Byrne died in 1990, at age 86. She and Holloway had been living together in an apartment in Tampa, near Olive’s son, Byrne. Elizabeth Holloway Marston died in 1993. She was 100. Marjorie Huntley died in 1986, one day after her 97th birthday, in a nursing home in Massachusetts.
As Lepore wrote, the women never broke their silence about their living arrangement.
Roy Jones, now 71, who served in the Coast Guard, works as a veterans representative at the University of Rhode Island. Earlier in his career he was a waiter at the Harbor View in Stonington, owned and managed the Seaside Market in Charlestown, and was an insurance agent. On vacation, he is fond of visiting monasteries in Europe. In the early 1970s, driving through New London, he saw Marjorie Huntley, years after she left the farm. She invited Jones to her apartment and gave him two watercolors, which he treasures to this day.
Earlier this year, he composed a letter to Jill Lepore. He mentioned that Huntley insisted on being called Priscilla, and that there was something of Blanche DuBois in her — “Little bird one moment, then strong and Southern opinioned the next.” He added, “I know she worked for Marston who was the creator (of Wonder Woman) but she never discussed the relationship of Bett or Dotsie to her or him.”
He wrote of her eccentricity, and his family’s fascination with her. She was a good artist and showed him nude drawings, much to his grandmother’s dismay because he was just 15.
“And lastly,” he wrote, “Priscilla liked to believe in pixies and elves. She imagined them everywhere. On stone walls around town, in the yard and trees and especially in the rocks she collected on the beach from the nearby ocean …they all had faces of some sort she would see. I can still hear and imitate her voice: ‘Roy …there are pixies and elves on that wall out there!’
“I consider myself lucky to have had someone like her in my life.”
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day in New London. He may be reached at: email@example.com