The seed for Showtime’s provocative hit series, Masters of Sex, was first planted 20 years ago in the mind of Thomas Maier, a veteran Newsday investigative reporter, when he was assigned to interview the male half of the world-famous sex research team, Masters & Johnson, on the day of Dr. William Masters’ retirement in 1994.
As Maier came to learn intimately years later, the highly regarded ob-gyn doctor in St. Louis would never have become a household name in America’s bedrooms had he not hired Virginia Johnson, a divorced mother and former jazz singer, to be his secretary. It turned out that Masters needed her as much as Johnson needed the job. From then on, their relationship only grew more and more complicated.
“I got him on the telephone,” Maier recalled recently. “He was in St. Louis and I spoke with him for probably half an hour.”
We reached Maier in Los Angeles, where he and his 21-year-old son were watching production wrap-up on the second season of the show—Maier is one of the show producers—and having “a blast!” The series, which had its season premier July 13, only takes us to 1961—Masters and Johnson’s partnership lasted another three decades.
“I got off the telephone thinking about a man and a woman studying love and sex who are not married, then get married, become world famous because of their work, stay married for 20 years and then divorce and nobody knows why,” said Maier. “All of that had to make for a fascinating story.”
But the idea would have to gestate for a while. In his spare time, Maier was already working on Dr. Spock: An American Life, a book about the pioneering pediatrician, Benjamin Spock, which came out in 1998. And then he turned his attention to writing The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings, published in 2003.
By the time he returned to this project, it was 2006. Masters had died in 2001. But Maier was able to convince Johnson to cooperate as well as Masters’ friends and family. He also found out that the doctor had written an unpublished autobiography.
“It was not a particularly reflective memoir,” Maier said, “but it certainly provided a lot of the details, things about his childhood [and] his torturous relationship with his father…”
From Johnson, who was then 80 years old, Maier learned how pivotal she had been to Masters’ success, helping to make his professional dreams come true—as well as her own.
“Virginia always wanted to be on a stage,” Maier said. “She had been a singer in a band and had taken singing lessons. She hoped to be an opera singer at the Met… But the stage she found in life was the stage that Bill Masters provided.”
In 2009 Maier’s book, Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love, was published. Maier believes that if Masters had still been alive, the project might never have gotten off the ground.
“I think it would have been difficult,” said Maier. “He was a very secretive guy about their work.”
But Maier understands what Masters and Johnson were up against because the nature of their work was so controversial.
“It was like playing with nitroglycerin. It really was,” Maier said. “You couldn’t do that experiment today.”
Maier is convinced that one reason their study has not been replicated, at least in America, is that “you couldn’t get past the ethics boards that would object to something like this.”
By first documenting how the human body responds sexually, their pioneering work opened a lot of doors—and brought about what Maier calls “the medicalization of sex.”
“Before they came along,” said Maier, “if married couples had sexual problems, they either went to a priest, a rabbi or a minister, or they went to a Freudian-trained psycho-analyst.”
Now, said Maier, “We live in the Age of Viagra.”
Then Maier said something truly shocking: “This show really is in its own way kind of conservative—we underline the need for intimacy, for understanding, for people’s often desperate search for love.”
Tellingly, Maier discovered that after Masters and Johnson got divorced in 1991, they both went looking for their lost loves.
“Bill Masters marries his lost love from his youth and at the end of the book Virginia Johnson goes looking for the ‘boy with fiery red hair,’ with whom she lost her virginity to when she was 16,” Maier said. Johnson didn’t want to marry him because she wanted to leave the small farm community in Missouri, where she’d grown up.
“I think that as much as they were masters of all the degrees of sexuality and such, they were kind of clueless about love,” he said. “A lot of their lives were spent searching for the right person.”
Maier feels that Showtime’s executive producer Sarah Timberman and the showrunner Michele Ashford have certainly found the right people to play the key roles on this series. He believes that Lizzy Caplan’s portrayal of Virginia Johnson is “very accurate”—she’s nominated for an Emmy, and deservedly so, Maier says—and Michael Sheen, a “marvelous Shakespearean actor” who was doing Hamlet in London when they approached him to play Dr. William Masters, is doing a masterful job recreating the complex character of the man. Their chemistry is fascinating to watch as their relationship evolves. So far, critics and viewers seem to agree.
As for liberties taken with his book, Maier admits there were a few but the results are terrific.
“First of all the show is a drama, which by definition is a fictional vehicle, but as a fictional vehicle it uses my non-fiction book kind of like the chicken in a big pot of chicken soup,” he said with a laugh, praising Ashford’s adaptation. “What’s remarkable to me is how many things she’s been able to use in the show.”
Barton Scully, the closeted gay character played by Beau Bridges, is “a combo plate of two characters in my book,” said Maier.
And Dr. Lillian DePaul, played by Julianne Nicholson, is entirely a fictional creation, brought into the series to illustrate what professional women had to combat in a very sexist field. In the show, DePaul is struggling to be taken seriously, trying to get funding for her pap-smear research while coping with advanced cancer.
As a Long Islander, Maier especially enjoyed watching them shoot the pilot at Sands Point. The Guggenheim’s mansion, Hempstead House, was a stand-in for Washington University in St. Louis. John Madden, who directed the Oscar-winning film, Shakespeare in Love, reportedly convinced Sheen to play Masters in the pilot. Once the show was “green-lighted,” the program has been produced in Los Angeles, where Sheen lives.
The connection all makes sense to Maier.
“There’s certainly a lot of comedy,” he said, “but ultimately it is a Shakespearean tragedy.”