The real Masters and Johnson don’t quite look like Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen, who play them on T.V.
If you’ve read my blog before, you are aware of my obsession with non-fiction books from the library. If you are going to have a vice, free books, chocolate and diet coke aren’t the worst ones you can have. Unless you have one of those trainers from an extreme weight loss show. They’d have some issues with me I’m sure.
I recently borrowed the book, “The Life & Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson”, by Thomas Maier. It is the basis for Showtime’s original series, Masters of Sex. My initial interest in the series was based on my knowledge it took place in St. Louis. As a native, I love the references on the show, but wondered why they called the Chase Park Plaza the Chancery Park Plaza. As I got more into the series, I wondered what other facts were changed. My search led me to Thomas Maier’s book.
One of the things I loved most about reading is learning how societal views and customs changed over time. Maier’s book was a wonderful window into our repressed sexual views in the 50’s and 60’s. I almost fell on the floor however, when I began reading numerous quotes from someone I actually knew! Dr. Ira Gall was the OB/GYN that delivered me and served as my doctor until I moved to Michigan in the 90’s. He was my mom’s doctor for close to 40 years and was truly a wonderful man. I remember when my dad died suddenly of a heart attack, when I was 22, I called his office inquiring if he could prescribe sleeping pills. He could have easily just called something in but instead he personally expressed his condolences and called my mother several weeks later to see how she was doing. Dr. Gall’s demeanor was incredible and I will always be grateful to him. He passed away in 2013 at the age of 84. He was a major benefactor of Washington University and the Holocaust Museum and also founded Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy, which is located throughout the country.
Dr. Gall had a practice in Creve Coeur MO for over 50 years.
Unbeknownst to me. Dr. Gall worked with William Masters at Washington University and was close friends with Virginia Johnson, who he carpooled to work with! It was great to hear his voice again through the pages of Maier’s book.
As I kept reading, I was confused why the series creators changed so many of the details of Masters & Johnson’s story. Some of the changes made sense, who wants to see Master’s first wife Libby staying home alone when you can have her cheating with new characters? But other changes made less sense. For example, Masters encouraged his wife, Libby, to take the kids to Northern Michigan each summer while he moved Johnson into his home and essentially played house. Why not show that? The show also talked about Master’s late father and how abusive he was as a result of his alcoholism. In truth, he had a brain tumor that may have significantly altered his behavior. The series also indicates that Masters turned down Playboy’s request that he produce articles for the magazine in exchange for funding. Masters actually didn’t turn this down and both he and Virginia stayed at the mansion in separate rooms, a sham Hefner saw through immediately.
There are many more examples of liberties taken by the Showtime creators, but the one that troubles me the most is the romanticizing of M & Johnson’s relationship. He virtually harassed her into having sex with him for “research”, something she wasn’t interested in doing but felt she had no other choice if she wanted to keep her job. Eventually she was more of a willing participant, but feelings of deep love were never really there, even when Masters left his wife Libby after 30 years of marriage. It was more of a business relationship based on Masters not wanting Johnson to marry another man. She was getting serious with a perfume executive, as depicted on the show, prompting Masters to leave his wife and children. Many of their mutual friends would have anything to do with Masters after that, can you blame them?
The most surprising part of the book was the backwards view Masters had of homosexuality and the book he published claiming up to an 80% conversion success rate with vetted candidates. Although Masters earlier works were carefully documented and scientifically sound, it is widely believed that this information was falsified or at the least exaggerated. The claim that homosexuality is a learned behavior or choice proved problematic to the gay community, setting back their cause for years. It was disappointing to see that Masters published such damaging work. Johnson and his other colleagues were highly against the conclusions drawn and begged him to make revisions.
Although the series claims Johnson eventually went back and got her BS in Psychology, she never actually obtained her college degree. However, Masters often referred to her as a psychologist and neither corrected people when they called Johnson “doctor”. There were many people that were amazed at the latitude Masters allowed Johnson, considering her lack of technical training and education. However, the fact she was sleeping with the guy probably didn’t hurt. You saw the picture, right? She deserved to run a foundation after that.
I don’t want to give the whole book away, so I will stop here and tell you this. I found myself reading only the first sentence of certain paragraphs because the book was boring in places. If you like understanding historical norms and are a fan of the series, you will enjoy reading the book. If you don’t feel that description fits you, I’d read David Spade’s book instead, with a diet coke and M&M’s of course.
The fictional William Masters and Virginia Johnson