The real Masters & Johnson-- and their TV counterparts

A chat with Thomas Maier, author of Masters of Sex

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It's one thing to study human sexuality in the Midwest in the 1950s. It is yet quite another to find willing participants. But William Masters and Virginia Johnson — the St. Louis-based researchers who would become famous as America's foremost sex experts of the 20th century — apparently had few problems in that regard.

"Virginia Johnson had this ability to convince people to come volunteer for the study," Thomas Maier said when I reached him by phone (what follows is an edited transcript of the conversation). A former reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, Maier wrote the 2009 non-fiction book "Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love," on which the new Showtime series is based.

"It was hilarious to interview some of the doctors who were there in the cafeteria where they're watching Virginia basically convince nurses and secretaries and faculty wives to be part of this whole study. The human heart is a very deep and unknowable thing and this was a way for some people, frankly, to express themselves sexually. Also, there were some people who saw it as going to Disneyland."

I spoke with Maier, who works as an investigative journalist at Newsday in New York, about the real-life story of Masters (who died in 2001, several years before Maier started work on the book) and Johnson (who died this past summer) and the portrayal of their lives on the Showtime drama starring Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan.

Though the show tends to follow real-life events as described in the book, there are a few key changes. Masters was married to someone else when he and Virginia first met. He and his first wife did indeed have infertility issues early on, though they had surmounted those by the time Virginia started work at the hospital. The show has altered this timeline pretty significantly for narrative purposes. (In fact, Masters and Johnson had children who were roughly the same age and attended school together.)

There is also this: "For the study, Bill's mother made silk masks for people to wear so they would be anonymous. So you would be having sex with a complete stranger." We don't see that on the show. Initial participants were instructed to wear bags over their heads. We don't see that either. "Eventually," Maier told me, "Bill's mother, who made the bow ties that he wore, began using that silk to make eye masks for the study. So strange!"

(Note: If the events of history qualify as a spoiler to your viewing experience, this would be the place to stop reading.)

Q: What brought you to Masters and Johnson?

A: It was a Newsday article. We had a momentary lull in the investigative group, and I was asked to do a feature about William Masters on the day of his retirement from his medical practice in 1994. So I interviewed him for a little less than an hour.

At the time I was writing a book about (child-rearing expert) Dr. Spock. And then I wrote a book about the Kennedys. But it always hung in the back of my mind that this would be a pretty interesting book: A man and a woman studying love and sex — not married; then they get married and stay together for 20 years, then they get divorced and nobody ever finds out why.

Masters was quite secretive. So was Virginia Johnson. So when I finally got around to knocking on her door 10 years later, and once I had her complete cooperation, I knew that I had a pretty good book.

Q: Was she easy to track down?

A: No! In the telephone book she was listed as Mary Masters believe it or not. And that was just a way of fobbing off reporters like us. At the time she lived in a condo not too far from the hospital in St. Louis where they did all their work, and she had the management of the building trained to tell anyone who asked that she didn't live there.

In fact, the day I came out to see her for an epic seven-hour interview, the doorman denied that she was there. And I had to call her on my cellphone and say: 'Virginia, I'm down in the lobby."

If Bill had been alive, I think he would have put the kibosh of any type of biography like mine. They had a lot of secrets. That's part of their story together.

Q: How ironic since their work was about uncovering the secrets of human sexuality.

A: To be honest, I'm proud of the fact that the book really pulls them out of the dustbin of history and kind of brushes them off so we can reappraise the importance of their work. Most people under 45 don't know who they are or what they did. It really was on its way to oblivion. But Virginia said yes, and that made all the difference.

Q: Virginia being so private, how did she feel about her story being turned into a book and then a TV series?

A: I think she was overall pretty pleased about the idea.

Her son didn't want to be involved in anything, though. He didn't want to be interviewed for the book at all. It was very painful thing for him growing up, his mother on the cover of Time magazine as the world's sex expert. It was a very difficult thing for both him and Virginia's daughter, which I discuss in the book.

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