"Masters of Sex" Book Excerpt -- "Betrayals" -- What Happened to Bill, Libby and Virginia Johnson When The Masters Marriage Exploded

Coming home one day from school, sixteen-year-old Howie
Masters 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.
“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 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”