The Book That Inspired 'Masters Of Sex' Is Just As Captivating As The Show — Read An Excerpt!
You've probably heard the buzz about Showtime's smash hit series Masters of Sex. The show — now in its fourth season — tells the story of two groundbreaking researchers in the field of human sexuality: Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson. The series loosely based on fact, but not entirely historically accurate. So if you're looking for all the juicy, true details of Masters and Johnson's work relationship and love affair, you need to read the biography upon which the series is based: Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of Williams Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught American How to Love.
In his biography of the researchers, Thomas Maier delves deep into the romantic relationship between the two researchers, who famously began having an affair while Dr. Masters was still married to his first wife, Elizabeth Ellis — better known as Libby or Betty. After years of adultery, Dr. Masters left Libby to pursue a more legitimate relationship with Virginia (Gini) Johnson.
In Maier's nonfiction book, he details Dr. Masters and Johnson's relationship in all its too-crazy-to-be-fiction glory. In the excerpt below, the author writes about the collapse of Dr. Masters' marriage and the unlikely friendship that blossomed between his two wives: Libby and Gini. Read it below, and tune in to Masters of Sex on Showtime at Sunday at 10pm ET/PT.
Coming home one day from school, sixteen-year-old Howie Masters [Dr. Masters' son] found his mother in inconsolable tears. He’d never seen her like this before. He pleaded with her to let him know what could be so wrong.
Libby Masters, her eyes reddened, gazed sadly upon her son.
“We’re getting divorced,” she cried. “Your father has moved out.”
Howie looked around and noticed a disturbance in the serene, orderly atmosphere of their house. All of his father’s belongings were missing. “He was gone, had moved his stuff out,” Howie recalled.
Until this day, the life of young William Howell Masters III had seemed ideal. Not far from their large suburban home, Howie attended the prestigious Country Day School in St. Louis, where his friends included Gini’s son, Scott. He chose to attend Hamilton College, his father’s alma mater, but didn’t harbor the pent-up anger that had driven his dad at the same age. He was thoughtful, soft-spoken, and considerate, more like Libby Masters in temperament. Yet Howie became enraged to see his mother so upset, to have their otherwise happy life turned upside down. He demanded that his mother tell him where his father could be found. She eventually mentioned the address of a small apartment.
He was thoughtful, soft-spoken, and considerate, more like Libby Masters in temperament. Yet Howie became enraged to see his mother so upset, to have their otherwise happy life turned upside down.
“I remember jumping into a car and driving downtown and finding him in whatever place he was, and storming in and sitting him down, sitting right in front of him, and giving him a real earful,” recalled Howie.
For quite a while, Bill Masters listened to his son’s irate words. He paid polite attention to Howie’s rant until enough time had passed, allowing him a chance to respond. Bill maintained an even keel and spoke dispassionately, as if he were conducting a psychotherapy session with some adolescent stranger rather than his own son. Bill began by stating the hard, irreconcilable truth. As Howie recalled, his father “communicated to me that the relationship was over with my mother. Regardless of whether he had fallen out of love or into some new love, whatever the reasons, it was over—and it was something that wasn’t going to be salvaged.”
Bill began by stating the hard, irreconcilable truth. As Howie recalled, his father “communicated to me that the relationship was over with my mother. Regardless of whether he had fallen out of love or into some new love, whatever the reasons, it was over..."
Bill never mentioned Gini Johnson’s name. Instead, he carefully explained to his teenage son how two adult people can slowly drift apart in a marriage. He spoke calmly and considerately. “What he told me was honest and completely made sense,” remembered Howie. “He didn’t pull the punch. He wasn’t somebody who was going to lie to me or tell something that wasn’t true, or tell me what he thought I needed to hear to make it easier.” Bill informed his son he had been considering this move for years. He didn’t attack Libby or blame her. He treated Howie like a young man, worthy of his respect, without adult condescension. Yet persuasively, perhaps even manipulatively, he made his son realize that the quietude in their house had been partly the missing bond of communication between a husband and wife.
Because of his demanding career, Bill wasn’t home very much. His absence made his presence and words even more valued by his son. Howie very much wanted to believe his father, particularly at this awful moment, the fracturing of their family life. Years later, Howie could talk in hindsight about how his father calmly handled this confrontation. “It was something I appreciated, actually, because he could defuse a young kid who was confused and angry and left with a teary mother who was sort of a basket case,” Howie remembered. “I had to go home now and pick up those pieces. My life had changed and my role had changed. What would any kid feel when you come home and life as you’ve known it has exploded? That doesn’t sit too well. I felt it warranted an explanation—and I got it.”
Elisabeth Masters knew deep in her bones about Bill’s infidelities. For years, Bill’s audaciousness with his sex research, his drive to become recognized in his field, and particularly the absent nights and personal indignities of his intimacy with Virginia Johnson were painfully apparent to Libby. She recognized enough telltale signs, so she didn’t want to know anything more, as if to keep her old image of Bill intact. “She just loved him very much and she had nothing but respect for him,” recalls her friend Dodie Brodhead, whose husband, John, served as a foundation board member. Perhaps Libby hoped her husband’s recklessness would all go away. Perhaps the sex studies would cease, his need for Gini’s assistance would dissipate, and his everyday life as an ob-gyn doctor based at the university would return. “She acted like this was a stage he was going through and it would pass,” explained Judith Seifer, a therapist friend who later helped Bill prepare his unpublished memoir. “And so, if you pretend like it’s not there, it will all go away.” Bill’s nonstop work schedule undermined their marriage, never allowing for much of a home life with Libby. “From January 1954, when I started the clinic to December 1971, I never missed a day of work, seven days a week,” he said. In asking for a divorce after twenty-nine years of marriage, Bill could be clinical in his postmortem: “Ultimately, my wife and I had to face the fact that our relationship was essentially nonexistent.”
Libby’s life, however, was devoted to her children and her community of friends and neighbors. “She was fiercely devoted to us always, but certainly after [the divorce],” said Howie. “She lived for us.” To not disturb this universe, she sacrificed and worked hard to keep her family intact. She tended to Bill’s mother, Estabrooks Masters, until she passed away in the 1960s. She encouraged Bill to remain in touch with his younger brother, Frank, a plastic surgeon who lived in Kansas City. At age fifty-four, Libby remained thin and active, though her hair had turned gray and her appearance increasingly more reserved. She was true to her Episcopal faith, enough to make sure their children were confirmed, even though her husband didn’t encourage church attendance. “My father preferred—in the best years of our little insular family’s lives—that on Sundays, we’d go bowling,” said Howie, who tagged along with his sister. “We thought it was a riot that—out there in the suburbs of St. Louis—people went to church on Sundays and we’d go bowling instead.” As attentive as she could be to her husband’s needs, Libby perhaps felt no match for Gini Johnson, a younger woman, more vibrant and more crucial to Bill’s ambitions. Yet Libby couldn’t bring herself to dislike Gini, no matter how uneasy she might feel in her presence. “Gini and Betty were friends,” recalled Peggy Shepley, the second wife of Ethan Shepley Jr., then the foundation’s chairman. “That’s the damnedest thing of all time. I can’t imagine being friends with the first wife. Normally there isn’t any love lost between the first and second wife. But Gini and Betty became friends.” Intuitively, Elisabeth Masters seemed to understand she and Gini shared Bill, that he had defined both their lives, and they would always be under his sway. “I knew her well and we liked one another in a way,” Gini said of Libby years later. “I think we would have been pleased to conspire against him, but she didn’t quite have the sophistication to do that.”
As attentive as she could be to her husband’s needs, Libby perhaps felt no match for Gini Johnson, a younger woman, more vibrant and more crucial to Bill’s ambitions. Yet Libby couldn’t bring herself to dislike Gini, no matter how uneasy she might feel in her presence
Those who knew of the long-running personal affair between Bill and Gini wondered about Libby’s reaction at home. “I never quite understood why Bill left Libby,” admitted Bob Kolodny. “It didn’t make sense to me. Was something missing from their marriage? Was Bill put upon in some way? I never heard Bill say something critical of her.” At work, Kolodny sensed that Gini envied the stable, upper-class lifestyle the Masters family enjoyed in the suburbs. “She undoubtedly was somewhat jealous of someone who was securely married, lived in a nice house, and everything seemed to be hunky-dory,” he said. “Gini lived in a different world than Libby.” In an emotional match with Gini, some believed Libby never stood a chance of retaining Bill’s fidelity, no matter how long they had been married. “I’m not so sure that Betty Masters and Bill had that sexual intimacy that he needed, that he may have found with Gini,” said Torrey Foster, who always distrusted Gini while he served on the foundation board. “Maybe it was one of the ways that drew him towards her, as opposed to staying with Betty. There was a very bright sexual attractiveness to Gini, and Betty Masters was a very plain Jane. . . .”
After Bill moved out of their English Tudor house in Ladue, several months elapsed before the divorce became final in December 1970. In the meantime, friends of Betty Masters rallied to her side. They expressed outrage at Bill’s actions and voiced their previously whispered contempt for Gini. By then, many had heard of Gini’s summer stays at the Masters house, while Betty was away in Michigan with the kids. “He just brought Virginia into the house, just blatantly was there with her—I think that’s a pretty ruthless thing to do!” said Dodie Brodhead. “Betty was a lovely person who never understood something could happen, because she loved Bill and assumed he loved her that much. But Virginia was the other woman—cherchez la femme—who wormed her way in and Betty was out, which devastated her. And it was very hard on the children too.”
“Betty was a lovely person who never understood something could happen, because she loved Bill and assumed he loved her that much. But Virginia was the other woman—cherchez la femme—who wormed her way in..."
Dodie’s husband also felt his friendship had been abused. At considerable risk as a local businessman, John Brodhead agreed to join Bill’s sexual research foundation as an original board trustee, mostly as a favor to Betty. John had known Betty as a teenager, when their families vacationed in Michigan, when she was “a marvelous girl, very gregarious, energetic type.” He admired how Betty had overcome the adversity of her mother’s death and her father’s abandonment, and had grown into “a remarkably well-balanced and resilient person.” Although grateful to Bill for their successful fertility treatments, the Brodheads were offended by his callousness toward Betty, prompting them to choose sides. After six years as a trustee, John resigned from the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation. Nearly everyone knew why, but no one on the board asked his reasons for leaving. “I got off the board when Bill and Betty split,” he said. “It was pretty hard to be neutral. If there had been any discussion of who was right and who was wrong, we decided it was Betty.”
The Masters family, and their seemingly serene life in Ladue, were never the same again. At the time her parents split, Sali Masters, a year older than her brother, Howie, attended boarding school. She had been sent away for school because her parents decided the nasty phone calls and snide remarks from the community about what transpired at her father’s clinic were too much for a young girl’s ears. “Our children were socially ostracized,” Bill later recalled. Too often, he said, Sali heard other parents tell her friends, “I don’t want you hanging around with that Masters girl—her father’s a sex maniac!” Years later, Sali declined to talk about her experiences but Howie remembered her situation well. “Sent away, my father would always say, because he wasn’t sure what would happen with his work, that she could ultimately as a young girl be put into too many difficult circumstances if she was around home, so it was safer to have her at boarding school,” he said. Sali came home to find that her father would never return. Bill compounded the hurt with coy, deceptive comments about his reasons for leaving. At least once, he denied Gini’s involvement in the breakup. “After my divorce, you won’t see us running off to Mexico or anything like that,” he told The Atlantic magazine, the same month his divorce decree was finalized by a judge. “But I may take it upon myself to chase as many women, eighteen years and older, as a slightly fat, bald, fifty-four-year-old can catch.”
Too often, he said, Sali heard other parents tell her friends, “I don’t want you hanging around with that Masters girl—her father’s a sex maniac!”
Libby adopted her own defensive posture. She never accused Gini of wrecking her marriage. “If she did expect that Gini was, say, an ‘interloper,’ she never said it. If she was jealous, she held it pretty close,” recalled Howie. “She would have stuck it out longer with my father if he hadn’t walked. She was a loyal sort, one of her great strengths and one of her great faults.”
During Howie’s last year at the Country Day School, the Masters house in suburban Ladue was even quieter. Libby tried to carry on, but the central focus of their family life had been shattered. Not wanting to lose contact altogether, Howie traveled occasionally into the city to see his father. They talked at length but never discussed Virginia Johnson or whatever Bill had in mind for his own future. “I’d go down and have dinners with him, wherever his new digs were, his new apartment, and scold him or talk to him about whatever was going on,” Howie said. “Pretty soon after that [divorce], I was gone. I went away to college and started my professional career. But it didn’t have anything to do with St. Louis.”
Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught American How to Love by Thomas Maier, $11.51, Amazon