Gelf: Q & A about "Masters of Sex" and Biography writing

MAY 16, 2009
When Masters Met Johnson
Biographer and investigative reporter Thomas Maier chronicles the couple and their research that revolutionized American attitudes toward sex.

Sara Michael

It's fitting that Thomas Maier's latest biography opens with the scene of a 15-year-old girl, later to be known to the world as Virginia Johnson, losing her virginity to her high-school sweetheart in the back of a Plymouth sedan. How else could you launch into the intimate story of one of America's pioneers of human sexuality?

Johnson is one half of the pair credited with shattering long-held myths about the physiology of human sexual response in the 1960s. In Masters of Sex, Maier's intimate portrait of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the author examines the lives of this secretive couple who brought sex to the lab and were among the first to study the physiology of the orgasm.

"Had Bill Masters still been alive he would have put the kibosh on this."
Thomas Maier. Photo by Joyce P. McGurrin.
Maier peppers the biography with at-times graphic yet clinical scenes of human sexuality, like the one of a masked woman masturbating with a Plexiglas dildo outfitted with a camera, or that of the methodical sex surrogate coaxing her client suffering from sexual dysfunction. But more than recount Masters's and Johnson's clinical approach and perhaps questionable therapies, Maier chronicles in great detail the lives of this extraordinary pair, based on many on-the-record interviews, most extensively with Johnson. Maier ultimately tells the story of a couple's complicated relationship and of a woman who he calls a "pioneer of female sexuality."

In the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Maier talks about how he got Johnson to open up and how—even with the word "sex" in the title—he's having a hard time getting his book into reviewers' hands. (You can hear Maier speak, along with Science of Sex creators Anne Machalinski and Christie Nicholson and OKCupid co-founder Christian Rudder, at Gelf Magazine's Geeking Out reading series on May 21st at the Jan Larsen Art Studios in Brooklyn, New York.)

Gelf Magazine: I understand this is really the first biography of Masters and Johnson. What made you decide to write about them?

Thomas Maier: They really are the last big American figures of the 20th century for which there was not a biography. I think that is true.

Gelf Magazine: But that's not what drove you to dig in?

Thomas Maier: No, what prompted me was that I interviewed Masters in 1994, on the day of his retirement. I have been a reporter for 25 years at Newsday and there was a point where I was doing a lot of health and science coverage, so I just happened to do that. I was writing a book on Dr. Benjamin Spock, the baby doctor, at that time, and I thought this would be an awfully interesting story. I had written this book about the Kennedys and I was going to do this book on [former New York Yankees owner] George Steinbrenner. I actually have a letter from Steinbrenner that said he was going to cooperate, and what happened was, in March of 2005 I got the letter saying, "Let's talk in September or October." Well September and October roll around, and it turns out he has kind of faded out on me, so Steinbrenner was not available.
So I revisited the idea of Masters and Johnson, and the idea of a man and a woman studying love and sex, who had not married, but then get married and then get divorced—all set against the background of the American sexual revolution. It seemed to me to be an intrinsically fascinating story, and it was much more than I ever imagined.

Gelf Magazine: Why did you think it was important to tell the story of the couple behind this research?
Thomas Maier: I think their lives represent a lot of the eternal dramas, contradictions, and dynamics of male-female relationships. They were a full-blooded heterosexual couple. If they made a movie of it I could definitely see people like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie playing them, or in an earlier generation, a Richard Burton and Liz Taylor. Virginia Johnson, she became available after a couple of false tries. I finally gained her cooperation in November 2005.

Gelf Magazine: Tell me more about that. I understand she was hesitant to be interviewed.

Thomas Maier: Oh, she was extremely hesitant. For instance, Mary Roach, who wrote a book called Bonk that was a bestseller last year about sexuality—the impetus for that book was the mechanical dildo Masters and Johnson used in their sex experiments. Mary Roach is a science writer who has a very humorous style, and she tried to get Virginia Johnson's cooperation and Johnson wouldn't do it. The thing I think that helped was I sent her a copy of my Dr. Spock book, and the relationship of Ben Spock and his wife Jane—it was a 50-year relationship, a long-term relationship that didn't end well. Spock wound up divorcing Jane. And Virginia had met Jane Spock, and she read my book and it rang true with her. There were also a fair number of similarities with her relationship with Bill Masters, because in the end Bill divorces her and goes looking for his lost love, and Virginia goes looking for her lost love, which is the "the boy with the fiery red hair," whose name she wouldn't tell me.

Gelf Magazine: But you found that out.

Thomas Maier: I found it out from Lowell Pugh, who was the funeral-home director in a little town called Golden City, Missouri, where Virginia grew up. Its population at the time was 800, and she lived five miles outside of the Golden City.

Gelf Magazine: And everybody knew everything.

Thomas Maier: Everybody knew everything, and Lowell immediately knew it was Gordon Garrett, and it was predicted in the yearbook that Virginia Johnson would get married to him. So at the beginning of the book, the first time I interviewed Virginia, one of the audacious questions I asked—politely of course—was, "When was the first time you had sex? What was that like? When did you lose your virginity?" And she told me the story of "the boy with the fiery red hair."

Gelf Magazine: I couldn't believe she told that story, and in such detail. Were you surprised she opened up to you like that?

Thomas Maier: No, she is in a way a chatterbox. Masters was intensely secretive. Had Bill Masters still been alive, he would have put the kibosh on this. And you know he did write a 100-page memoir that was never published. He wrote it in the last few years of his life. He was suffering from Parkinson's and the reliability of some of the stuff… There were some questions about it, but it was on paper, and it was something he did with a professional writer, but it was never published. That was given to me by the family. But it was really Virginia's story.

Gelf Magazine: You clearly interviewed a lot of people, and the book has some very rich details. And all of it was on the record. How did you start this and get to the right people?

Thomas Maier: Well, I have been an investigative reporter for 25 years. One of the things you learn is concentric circles. You kind of approach people who know the person you want to write about and get closer and closer to the person. I went to a couple of different doors trying to get Virginia's cooperation, and then one day I stumbled upon her telephone number and I called her. And I found a woman who was 79 or 80 when I called her at home. She had really become a recluse—she had all her marbles—and she just started chatting.
Our first interview was about three hours over the telephone. Then I came out to St. Louis, but a lot of it was very long marathon telephone calls in a confessional or in a chatty way, talking about her life. She did a lot of fan dances initially. She would tell some of the story but she wouldn't give a names.
She was reluctant. The thing she was most reluctant about was not Gordon Garrett, believe it or not. The most sensitive area had to do with a key pivotal point in the relationship of Masters and Johnson. It occurred at the height of their fame, when they were on the cover of Time magazine. Their second book [Human Sexual Inadequacy] had come out; it created the therapy that would create the modern-day sex-therapy industry. It turned Freud on his head. They were making money in ways certainly Virginia had never dreamed of.
And Virginia wanted to get married to a man named Hank Walters, who was then the head of International Flavors and Fragrance. His firm got involved as a patron of Masters's and Johnson's work. He wanted to marry Virginia, and Virginia wanted to marry him and she wanted out [of the experiments with Masters]. She felt her work was done, and she wanted to find happiness.
There is a scene in the book where she is out with Hank, and Masters puts two and two together. They had had an affair—Masters and Johnson—and in fact sex was part of the requirement of the job. By the time she met Hank Walters, it had kind of fizzled. There was never really that emotional tie between them.

Gelf Magazine: Which is interesting considering what they were studying. Did that surprise you, that there wasn't a close connection or love between Masters and Johnson?

Thomas Maier: Absolutely. It's an amazing story. Bear in mind, couples from around the world who had problems expressing the most physical form of love in a marriage were coming to them for help. They had found a process that for 80 percent of the people that came to them found some kind of success.
So Masters finds out she is having an affair with Hank Walters, and he says, "I will divorce my wife of 20 years" [and he divorces his wife] to basically keep the partnership together, and convinces Virginia to get married to him. She makes fundamentally a business decision. And so she gets married to Masters, but it's essentially a loveless marriage.

Gelf Magazine: Do you feel like you really got to know this couple, or are there pieces missing you wish you could have filled in more?

Thomas Maier: I think I have more people on the record talking about their lives than I think anybody would have imagined. I don't think people quite realize how difficult this really was. This whole staff—they were trained by Masters not to say anything.

Gelf Magazine: It sounds like it was a pretty long process, researching and writing this book. Was there anything that was different in writing this book than your previous books?

Thomas Maier: My books have been essentially biographies, but my first book about Si Newhouse, the media baron, was done without his cooperation. It's really a biography of his organization. The Kennedys biography was a biography about a family, a four-generation family.
The book I had written previously that was by far the closest to this is the Spock biography. It was the story of a marriage. Jane Spock had really introduced Ben Spock to Freudian psychology and he popularized Freudian psychology through that baby book, and in this case, with Masters and Johnson, it's the story of a man and woman who became more equal. It's the story of a man and a woman in a long-term relationship, and who made who. Bill Masters made Virginia Johnson on one level, but she made him.

Gelf Magazine: Any idea of what her impression is of the book?

Thomas Maier: She likes it. I am amazed. You know, she has been written about a lot. So there is a level of professionalism that somebody has about that. They are accustomed to being written about. But I was very concerned. She didn't read the book until it was published, so I was really very concerned about how she would respond.

Gelf Magazine: Masters and Johnson did some perhaps ethically questionable things for this research. Could sex research have been done any other way?

"I am not sure the ethics committee of the average hospital would approve their research."Thomas Maier: It's an interesting question. They were not only ahead of their time. Although Masters was pushing the envelope, he did so still in the parameters of the medical profession. One thing was, there's a section in the book called "Volunteers." The second part of that chapter has to do with Thomas Gilpatrick, who at one point has sex with a 19-year-old girl who was pregnant, and sure, as I am writing it, there is a line there where I kind of signal to the reader that I realize this is certainly questionable by today's more stringent ethical standards. I am not sure the ethics committee of the average hospital would approve their research. I certainly raise all the questions appropriately, but bear in mind I am writing a biography in a somewhat literary way. I kind of give a wink to the reader, saying, "I am raising the question; I am bringing this up, because I do question some of the way this is done." But in the context of his time, Masters was pretty careful in trying to be professional.
Gelf Magazine: How is the couple perceived today by sex researchers?

Thomas Maier: There is a group called the Society for Sex Therapy and Research, and the new president is a guy named Michael Perelman. He actually spoke at Masters's memorial service. My book is open-eyed, obviously, but I think they had a tremendous impact.

Gelf Magazine: Your book is very graphic in parts—enough to make a reader blush, really. But is there any other way to write a book about this topic?

Thomas Maier: If you look at the reviews, they are all over the place about that. Oprah's magazine said it was pretty graphic for a biography, but the other two or so reviews were done by men who thought it was almost a little restrained and dry—and I said, "what?" I do think most of the clinical stuff I talk about was certainly using clinical language. It's never vulgar. It's in context of medical terms and, frankly, I think the aspect of sex that involves human plumbing and stuff can be almost comedic. It has to be given certain due reverence and there is a level of comedy to it.
I don't think it's overly graphic at all. I think it speaks about sexuality in a mature way without any vulgarity. There isn't any other way to do it, and I certainly thought about it a great deal. I was very mindful for a guy who just wrote a book about presidential politics.

Gelf Magazine: What was the hardest part of researching and writing this book?

Thomas Maier: Well, the most difficult part is right now. I think I have written a marvelous book and it's very difficult to get reviewed. Newspapers are falling apart. The same apparatus that was in place 10 years ago with my Spock book just isn't reviewing anymore, including my own newspaper. Newsday is not reviewing the book. So I think that is without a doubt the most difficult thing for me right now.

Gelf Magazine: How are you getting around that? Are you just pounding the pavement?

Thomas Maier: Yes, to some extent. This week, I am at Harvard Medical School. I arranged for myself to go out to the National Academy of Sciences, and next week I am in Los Angeles. I arranged for the New York Academy of Medicine thing we had with Gay Talese here in New York. So I have done a lot more public relations than I had imagined. In fact, I probably should get going on my next book. I have kind of resolved to not let myself spend as much time between books as I did with this one. I have had five years between books and I really didn't intend for that to happen.
It's very odd. Here is a biography that is really the first biography of the last big cultural figures of the 20th century who had a huge impact on people's lives. I haven't said it, but I think Virginia is a hugely important figure in terms of female sexuality. She is really the pioneer of female sexuality. She turned Freud on his head; she was the one who made their experiments happen. Her charm, her wit, her intelligence, her uncanny ability with human nature—convincing 700 people to literally engage in sex and be observed with these instruments attached to them, under CIA-like secrecy. It's just one of the most extraordinary stories.