My grandmother, Josette Frank, was no stereotypical cookie-baking granny. A Manhattan-dwelling children’s book editor, she was unconventional, opinionated and outspoken, a big presence in the lives of her nine grandchildren. She was the star of many humorous family stories. Imagine my surprise when I learned, through my brother’s Facebook post and a flurry of cross-continental emails sent by siblings, that 1) my grandmother is now part of a Hollywood story, a secondary character in a new movie called “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” 2) she is played by the wonderful Connie Britton, and 3) the movie is playing in Anchorage.
So I went to see how my grandmother is portrayed on the silver screen.
Short answer: she’s not portrayed in a positive way.
The movie is about William Marston, creator of Wonder Woman comic, and the two women in his life, wife Elizabeth and domestic partner Olive, who made up a romantic threesome. He is portrayed as “radically feminist” (Tribune News Service) with a refreshingly uninhibited polyamorous home life that makes him, in the words of multiple reviews, “ahead of his time.” For all that he is “mercilessly grilled” (LA TImes) by Movie Josette Frank, as portrayed by Britton.
Movie Josette is a “hectoring scold” (The Atlantic), an “uptight woman” (Deadline), a “cool fury in pink lipstick” (EW), leader of a “public-decency panel” (EW again), a “leader of a religious-based family-values group” (USA Today), a “puritanical zealot” (NPR), a “Catholic-sponsored bluenose” (Salt Lake Tribune) and a “Focus-on-the-Family type” (Paste Magazine).
That last one almost made me spit my latte onto on my smartphone screen.
Real Josette was pretty much the opposite of a Focus-on-the-Family-type arch-conservative Christian, for reasons beyond the fact that she was not a Christian.
She was a staunch feminist from her youth in the Women’s Land Army and suffrage movement to the end of her 96-year life. She kept her name when she married, such an unusual choice in the 1920s that she felt compelled, when mail was sent to her in her husband’s name, to return it unopened with scrawled notations saying something like: “No such person at this address.”
Real Josette was an unapologetic career woman and working mother in an era when they were few, or at least hidden. Her career started at 19, when she took a job as a secretary to her Teddy Roosevelt, her progressive hero. When she couldn’t decipher his handwriting, which was often, she improvised, so historians take note: Some passages in TR’s post-presidential writings might actually be Josette Frank’s wording. Later, she took jobs not in cushy academia but in the social-justice trenches, investigating the sweatshop conditions in which child laborers toiled, for example, and working with immigrants in New York’s impoverished Lower East Side. Ultimately, she settled on what became her life’s work: children’s literature. She was a pioneering editor, reviewer and promoter of children’s books.
Real Josette was a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. Early on, she singled out one politician for her particular ire: a red-baiting congressman from California named Richard Nixon. She adored her senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and corresponded frequently with him. Far from being part of a conservative Christian church, Real Josette was a secular Jew with a pretty dim view of organized religion.
Movie Josette calls lesbianism a “perversion” and a mental disorder. Real Josette had a dear sister-in-law who was gay and out decades before the word “out” carried any such meaning. Aunt Ethel was, by all accounts, a rock for the heartbroken family after Real Josette’s husband, my grandfather, died – a tragedy that struck just before the first Wonder Woman comic book rolled off the press.
Movie Josette, or “that Josette Frank bitch,” as Movie Publisher calls her, was an outside busybody who swoops in to hassle free-thinking comic artists. Real Josette was a defender of comic books. That put her at odds with many authority figures of the time who considered comics to be degenerate corruptors of the youth, much like rock, rap and TV were later vilified. Real Josette was hired by DC Comics as an official adviser, a role for which she was later criticized by right-wing politicians who also accused her of being something of a commie sympathizer.
Movie Marston visits New York’s outre Greenwich Village, where he discovers an erotica shop and is introduced to the BSDM world that later influences his Wonder Woman creation. Real Josette lived in Greenwich Village.
Real Josette disliked Marston’s version of a female superhero, but that’s because she considered his Wonder Woman portrayal to be more sexist male fantasy than feminist role model. It’s a position open to debate, but it it's not a right-wing position. Real Josette much preferred a series called “Johnny Everyman,” which promoted tolerance between races and nations. It was attacked as un-American and lasted only a few months.
Movie Josette subjected our bohemian hero to an excruciating interrogation and, near the end of the movie, lashed out to his face about his menage-a-trois lifestyle. Real Josette never questioned Marston at any hearing. Her objections were conveyed, in accordance with her advisory role, in letters to the publisher, who passed them on to Marston, who passed his responses back to the publisher, and so forth.
Movie Josette is skeptical when Movie Marston describes Wonder Woman’s outfit as “athletic.” This rings true. At that point in the story, I was rolling my eyes right along with Movie Josette. Real Josette was part of an outdoorsy and sporty family. Her outdoorsy and sporty granddaughter (me) can testify: Wonder Woman’s strapless getup would be quite impractical as athletic wear.
Watching the movie, I had a visceral response that might have channeled Real Josette: Every glimpse of high heels and every click of sharp heel striking hard floor made me wince. The female leads minced around on pumps; Movie Marston seemed to have a high-heel fetish; and the inspiration for Wonder Woman’s costume, according to the movie, was a sort of proto-Playboy-bunny outfit, complete with stiletto-heeled thigh-high boots, donned by Olive.
Real Josette would have some strong words to say about that footwear. She hated high heels for the hobbling pain they inflict and the damage they do to women’s feet and bodies. She lectured younger relatives so often about high heels’ evils that we could recite those lectures verbatim. I am a runner and protective of my Achilles tendons. I never wear high heels.
Real Josette influenced me in other ways. Decades ago, when I was thinking about moving to Alaska for what I assumed would be a one-year adventure, Real Josette encouraged me to do it. She and her sister – a landscape architect and artist who, like me, was named Yereth — took an extended trip to Alaska the year before statehood. They had a blast. They traveled from the southern coast all the way to Barrow, as Utqiagvik was known then. Real Josette loved Barrow so much that she rearranged her schedule to spend extra time there. Another highlight was seeing, in a parade, Ernest Gruening, Alaska’s progressive territorial governor-turned-senator, a politician whom Real Josette admired. Later, she prized the “Where Women Win the Iditarod” Alaska T-shirt I gave her.
I disagreed with her occasionally, and once about an Alaska question. I was stunned when she told me she preferred Fairbanks to Anchorage. We debated the point, but I could not convince her that Los Anchorage beats Squarebanks.
For what it’s worth, Marston’s granddaughter disputes much of the story told in “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.” Though her grandfather had children with both women, there is no evidence that the two women had a sexual relationship with each other, Christie Marston says. She is displeased that screenwriter/director Angela Robinson failed to consult with any of Marston’s descendants.
“This is not a true story. It is based on someone’s imagination, not in any way related to my family. We completely reject any claims made in the film and in no way support this work of fiction. [and, btw, the true story is much more interesting. . .]” Christie Marston said in a Twitter post.
There are certainly departures from the truth. The movie omits Real Marston’s theory that brunettes are easier to sexually arouse than are blondes and his efforts to hook up chorus girls to a “love meter” to prove it.
What does Robinson make of two granddaughters from separate families taking issue with the movie’s accuracy? I don’t know. I tried to reach her by phone and email, and even emailed some questions to her studio’s media representatives, but had no luck getting answers. Robinson was, in reporters’ parlance, not immediately available for comment.
I don’t hold it against her.
While I feel a sense of family duty to defend Real Josette’s legacy to a public that now knows bluenose Movie Josette, I understand that movies are not journalism and that artistic liberties make for better entertainment. I know, for example, that Abraham Lincoln never really hunted vampires, notwithstanding a 2012 movie called “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” I am aware that historians continue to debate whether Richard III was really as vile as Shakespeare made him out to be.
Such artistic liberties will continue. While waiting for “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” to start, I watched the preview of a soon-to-be-released movie about another real-life figure: Charles Dickens, as played by Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, interacting at home with what appears to be a flesh-and-blood Ebenezer Scrooge and with other Christmas Carol characters. It looks like a charming flick; I might catch it.
There was another preview I saw, for a movie called “Wonder.” It is based on a 2012 children’s book of the same name, about a boy with a medical condition that leaves his face deformed; he struggles to be accepted in middle school and in society. The book won a prestigious literary prize bestowed by the Bank Street College of Education for outstanding works of children’s fiction that address important social issues. The name of the prize? The Josette Frank Award.