Thomas Maier is the author of Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love. Masters of Sex has been adapted into a Showtime television series now in its second season. Maier's other books include The Kennedys and Dr. Spock. An investigative reporter for Newsday, he lives on Long Island, N.Y.
Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Masters and Johnson?
A: I interviewed Masters in 1994 as an assignment at Newsday, where I worked as a reporter. I was working on a book about Dr. Spock, the baby doctor, and then I wrote about the Kennedys. The idea of writing a book about Masters and Johnson stuck with me for 10 years.
I [eventually] pursued this project; Masters had died, but I convinced Virginia Johnson to cooperate. Once she did agree, she provided a great deal of insight. The family of Masters provided me with his unpublished memoir, and their contemporaries made Bill come alive. The idea of a man and a woman who studied love and sex, and were emblematic of the sexual revolution—to me, that was something irresistible.
Q: What did Virginia Johnson think of the book?
A: Virginia Johnson liked the book. She didn’t get a chance to look at it until after publication. She was very generous with her time and with her insights. One of the bigger surprises [included in the book’s new afterword] was that she finally acknowledged: I guess I really did love Bill Masters. She had denied it in so many ways in my initial interviewing of her. Her actions contradicted her claim: I never really loved him. They were always mesmerized by each other; they both defined the other.
Q: You write, “The improbable Pygmalion-like rise from a lowly secretary to medical research partner—though made possible by Masters—was primarily motivated by Johnson herself…” What did you learn about the nature of their partnership, and what surprised you most as you researched the book?
A: I was fascinated by the fact that Masters gave her so much credit. In many ways, he was the top doctor in his field in St. Louis. [Dr. Spock’s] wife, Jane, had given help to Dr. Spock, yet he never really acknowledged it. Masters gave Johnson equal billing. Some people have said that Bill Masters’ greatest sign of love for Virginia Johnson was his willingness to share credit. Most men, particularly of his generation, would never have thought of that.
I was surprised also by [Johnson’s work in] developing their sex therapy…teaching couples to touch one another [after] so much of their communication had broken down. Someone who was untrained, without a degree, was able to come up with this therapy that revolutionized so many things!
Q: In the book, you describe Masters’ and Johnson’s relationship to feminism. Would you say they were feminists?
A: Virginia Johnson is like a lot of pioneering women who really made a mark in an almost exclusively men’s world, but don’t necessarily subscribe to a movement. They see themselves as classic rugged individualists, not necessarily flag-wavers but iconoclastic individualists….[but] they were [feminists] by their actions.
Q: What about Masters?
A: Bill Masters clearly was a feminist in his actions by his willingness, in his greatest work, to give equal credit to a woman. He was being open-eyed at a time in which Americans’ view of sexuality was dominated by the Freudian male-dominated view.
[Masters’ and Johnson’s work] showed women had a greater capacity to be multi-orgasmic. He was brave enough and feminist enough to come up with a scientific finding that many others would have denied. Their first book, Human Sexual Response, was two-thirds devoted to findings of female sexuality.
Being the doctor who opened the eyes of half the world to their own sexuality, and brought medicine kicking and screaming into the debate, qualifies him as a feminist, even though he was a registered Republican and lived in a tony section [of town].
Q: You write that Human Sexual Response “transformed the public discourse about sex in America, opening a new era of candidness never seen before in the media.” What was the impact of the book at the time, when sex was not really a topic of discussion?
A: The impact of Masters’ and Johnson’s work was huge. It made it acceptable to use clinical medical terms about the human body and sexual interaction…in newspapers, women’s magazines, popular discourse. There was a dramatic change between 1966, when the book came out, and five years later. By 1971, clinical discussions of sex in the mass media was widespread, due to the acceptability that Masters and Johnson brought to their work.
Q: Did you expect your book to be turned into a television show, and how would you compare the book and the show?
A: The book was at first a failure by any measure. It came out in April 2009, and it sold all of 4,000 copies. It was at the very depths of the recession, and no one was talking about sex, but [instead] about keeping their jobs. My editor was laid off; my original editor had died.
It really looked like the book was going to be a major disappointment. Then The New York Times reviewed Masters of Sex in their daily and Sunday editions, and it spurred a lot of movie and television interest. Sony bought the rights, and made an agreement with Showtime. They show it all around the world, in 30 countries. Television has really transformed the outcome for this book.
It’s been fun to see how the dramatized interpretation has really enhanced the overall enjoyment of their story. My book is a nonfiction, completely on the record version of the truth. The Showtime series is a fictionalized drama based upon my book. It takes details from the book and explores them in greater emotional depth. It’s very accurate as it shows the relationship between Masters and Johnson. Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan [the actors portraying them] do a [great] job.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have a new book coming out, When Lions Roar. It’s a 750-page history of the relationship between the Kennedys and the Churchills. I am really delighted about that book; there are a lot of surprises in that book.
With the new book, I went back to history with the idea of somewhat getting away from sex, but the world of the Kennedys and the Churchills had as much sex in it as Masters of Sex.
Of course, it’s [also] about politics, fathers and sons, and [the question of] what is greatness.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: It’s amusing that some people have said, Yes, but Masters and Johnson have had a problem with gay conversion. It’s amusing to me because I’m the one who reported it in my book!
I’m very proud of the fact that in the last five or six years since the book came out, that whole discussion about gay conversion therapy has been revisited. It’s been embraced by right-wing folks, who have provocatively said to gay people that they can change their orientation, and they point to the Masters and Johnson 1979 book as “proof.”
Of course, I put the lie to that by showing that the cases were apparently fabricated by Masters. There’s been a lot of revisiting of that subject, and the book is given credit…I’m glad it’s had an impact.
For all the discussion about sex, I think the book has helped provoke a discussion about what is love. In a society awash with sexual imagery, the eternal question of what draws us to one another is at the heart of the story of Masters and Johnson.
Their story of being mesmerized by one another in the workplace setting particularly speaks to today’s generation. The younger generation knows all the mechanics of sexuality, but is clueless about the mysteries of love. …
The desire to be understood by another person is at the heart of the book and the television show, and that’s what is grabbing the audience.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb