Masters of Sex

The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love


By Thomas Maier

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Now a New Showtime Original Series

Showtime’s dramatic series Masters of Sex, starring Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, is based on this real-life story of sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Before Sex and the City and ViagraTM, America relied on Masters and Johnson to teach us everything we needed to know about what goes on in the bedroom. Convincing hundreds of men and women to shed their clothes and copulate, the pair were the nation’s top experts on love and intimacy. Highlighting interviews with the notoriously private Masters and the ambitious Johnson, critically acclaimed biographer Thomas Maier shows how this unusual team changed the way we all thought about, talked about, and engaged in sex while they simultaneously tried to make sense of their own relationship. Entertaining, revealing, and beautifully told, Masters of Sex sheds light on the eternal mysteries of desire, intimacy, and the American psyche.



Praise for Masters of Sex

“Told with patience and care . . . Maier writes well, and with humor.”

New York Times

“Maier’s illuminating biography delves into the lives of the couple that started science’s sexual revolution.”


“Absorbing . . . Masters of Sex is this spring’s true must-read book for those looking to revisit the heady, early days of the sexual revolution.”

The American Prospect

“Award-winning biographer Maier . . . delivers the first in-depth look at a complex couple who helped revolutionize the study of human sexual response. Academics and amateur sexperts alike will rejoice.”

Library Journal

“A wonderfully written and totally absorbing look at an amazing couple.”


“Perhaps influenced by its steamy subject matter, Masters of Sex . . . may strike some readers as unusually graphic for a biography, but this unsettling story of sex and science in theory and practice is ultimately more cautionary than titillating.”

O, The Oprah Magazine

“Writing a readable but serious biography of Masters and Johnson was no easy task. The natural impulse is to drain such passionate clinicality of personality and leave a hollow crusade in its place. Maier’s book resists it constantly. It’s about heroes and flaws and a couple of people whose lives underlay a good half of what we know for sure about what we all think we know so much.”

The Buffalo News (“Editor’s Choice”)

Masters of Sex is a terrific book about the unlikely couple who touched off the sexual revolution. More than a biography, this is an intimate history of sex in the twentieth century.”

—Debby Applegate, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Biography for The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher

“Thomas Maier has written the intimate, engaging biography that Masters and Johnson deserve. Critics often accused the pair of ‘dehumanizing’ sex with their research—of removing its mystery. But as Gini Johnson told Playboy in 1968, mystery is just another name for superstition and myth. The more we know about the physiology of arousal, the better we can enjoy the uniquely human experience of sex for pleasure. Masters and Johnson showed tremendous courage in their research.”

—Hugh Hefner, editor in chief, Playboy magazine

“No novelist could come up with something as remarkable as the real life story of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the married experts giving advice to America on sex and love. With insightful reporting and writing, Thomas Maier has captured this extraordinary relationship between these male and female sex researchers, a legacy that transformed the way couples live today.”

—Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer

“The subject of this book—sex and love—should interest just about everyone. As a bonus, Thomas Maier is a very fine writer, an accomplished biographer, and an astute reporter. If you read only one biography this year, it should be this first-ever look at the secretive lives of Masters and Johnson.”

—Nelson DeMille, bestselling author of The Gold Coast and The Gate House

“A well-written and insightful account of Masters and Johnson, who, in a clinical sense, probably knew more about sex and marital love than any other couple in America.”

—Gay Talese, author of Thy Neighbor’s Wife and A Writer’s Life

“It’s hard to imagine any sex researcher or serious student of sexuality who wouldn’t profit from reading this book. The information revealed in Masters of Sex has never surfaced before—and besides being a real contribution to the history of science, it’s a totally captivating read!”

—Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, and author of Prime: Adventures and Advice About Sex, Love and the Sensual Years


The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings

Dr. Spock: An American Life

Newhouse: All the Glitter, Power and Glory of America’s Richest Media Empire and the Secretive Man Behind It

“The profoundest of all our sensualities is the sense of truth.”


William Masters and Virginia Johnson


“What is this thing called love?”


Sex, in all its glorious expressions, has been an integral part of the American experience in my four biographies—respectively, about Si Newhouse, Benjamin Spock, the Kennedys, and now Masters and Johnson. As Dr. Spock, the best-selling expert who raised America’s baby-boom generation, once told me with disarming honesty, “Everything is about sex!” Indeed, at its most powerful and transcendent, sex is about the progression of the species, the origin of self-identity, and the most intimate form of expression between adults.

The story of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, as perhaps none other, deals directly with the eternal mysteries of sex and love. Their public life provides an unparalleled window into America’s sexual revolution and its historic cultural changes still with us today, while their private relationship mirrors many of the most basic desires, tensions, and contradictions between men and women. I first interviewed Dr. Masters when he retired in December 1994, already showing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, which would lead to his death in 2001. After several false starts, I gained the complete cooperation of Virginia Johnson in 2005, conducting many hours of interviews, including a lengthy visit to her St. Louis home. Despite worldwide fame, “we were absolutely the two most secretive people on the face of the earth,” Johnson confided. “There’s simply no one who knew us well. People have a lot of speculation, but they don’t know.”

For years, the work of Masters and Johnson remained shrouded in strict confidentiality as a result of their own desire to avoid public scrutiny. Only now—with the willingness of many to be interviewed and access to their letters, internal documents, and Masters’s own unpublished memoir—can we fully consider their remarkable life and times. For all of the clinical knowledge they gained from America’s biggest sex experiment—involving hundreds of women and men and more than ten thousand orgasms—their story is very much about the elusiveness and indefinable aspects of human intimacy. As many today still ask themselves, “What is this thing called love?”


Long Island, New York

APRIL 2009


Gini as a young girl


Golden Girl

“It often begins in the back seat of a parked car. It’s hurry up and get the job done. The back seat of a car hardly provides an opportunity for the expression of personality.”


Into the dark, two beams of light showed the way. The piercing headlights from a Plymouth automobile cut a path through the unrelenting blackness of the Missouri countryside. Slowly the car carrying Mary Virginia Eshelman and her high school boyfriend, Gordon Garrett, rumbled down Route 160, a vast asphalt stretch without street lamps, where only the stars and moon lit the evening sky.

For his date with Mary Virginia, Gordon borrowed the brand-new Garrett family car—a green 1941 sedan with a shiny chrome grill, protruding hood ornament, muscular fenders, and an ample backseat. They motored past rows of homesteads and crops, carved from the tallgrass prairie. That evening, they joined friends at The Palace, the town’s only theater, where the melodies and dancing of Hollywood musicals let them escape Golden City’s dullness. Newsreels made them aware of another larger world outside their tiny hometown of eight hundred people. Bordering the Ozark Mountains, Golden City seemed closer to rural Oklahoma than big-city St. Louis—both in dirt miles and in Bible-thumping spirit.

Before heading home, Gordon turned the Plymouth off the road and dimmed its lights. Noise from the tires, pressing loudly against the gravel stones, suddenly came to a halt, followed by a palpable hush. Snuggled beside each other, Mary Virginia and her boyfriend parked in a secluded area where they would not be spotted.

In the front seat of the car, Gordon opened her blouse, loosened her skirt, and pressed himself against her skin. She didn’t move or resist, just stared at him in wonderment. Mary Virginia never had seen a penis before except, as she later remembered it, when her mother changed her baby brother’s diaper. On that night, shortly after her fifteenth birthday, Mary Virginia Eshelman—later known to the world as Virginia E. Johnson—was introduced to the mysteries of human intimacy. “I didn’t know anything about anything,” confessed the woman whose landmark partnership with Dr. William H. Masters would someday become synonymous with sex and love in America.

In her puritanical Midwest home, Mary Virginia learned sex was sinful, something far removed from the breathless tales of storybook romance she imbibed at the movies before World War II. Like many women of her generation, she learned that sex, at best, was a thankless chore, better left for the confines of marriage and bearing a family. Years afterward, she’d refer to Gordon Garrett anonymously as the “boy with fiery red hair.” She masked his identity just as she concealed any unpleasant truth about her life, any memory of love that eluded her. As she admitted decades later, “I never married the men I really cared about.” But she would never forget Gordon Garrett, or that night outside of Golden City, when the two teens lost their innocence.

Along the roadside, the young couple huddled in shadows, necking in the front seat until they slid into the back. Heavy breathing fogged the windows. Automobiles, still new to a place like Golden City, provided a relatively private place to be alone. Gordon pulled the clutch brake to make sure the family’s parked car didn’t roll away while their attention wandered elsewhere.

Throughout high school, Mary Virginia shared many moments growing up with Gordon. About six feet tall with a farm boy’s physique, he was rugged enough to play on the school’s football team but sensitive to Mary Virginia’s finer interest in music. They were a steady couple during senior year, constantly seen together. Gordon was her beau.

After skipping two grades, Mary Virginia found herself considerably younger than the rest of her Golden City High School class, including the redheaded Garrett boy, already turned seventeen. Eager to please, she possessed light-brown hair bundled in corkscrew curls, empathetic gray-blue eyes, and demure, slightly pursed lips. She usually wore an enigmatic Mona Lisa–like grin, which could easily burst into an engaging smile. Like other Eshelmans, she had the distinctive bone structure of high cheekbones, an upright posture, and perfectly poised shoulders. Mary Virginia’s willowy frame suggested enough of a bosom to make her seem mature, though in their assessment some boys could be downright mean. “She was a tall, slim, flat-chested girl,” remembered Phil Lollar, then a slightly younger fellow who lived near her farm. “Just an average-looking girl.” But most teenagers in Golden City admired Mary Virginia’s sense of style in a place sorely in need of it. In this small-town world, she talked, dressed, and acted like a young lady, enough so that even friends in Golden City’s class of 1941 didn’t guess her true age. Her most memorable attribute was her voice—a captivating, finely nuanced instrument she developed as a singer. Gordon’s older sister, Isabel, said Mary Virginia’s clothes never seemed ragged or disheveled, the sorry way some farm kids appeared during the throes of the 1930s Dust Bowl. Her brother’s girlfriend “always kept herself clean and neat and feminine-looking,” Isabel recalled. “She was pretty.”

Driving in Daddy Garrett’s brand-new Plymouth seemed right and proper, as close to a royal carriage as Gordon could muster for his prairie princess. Unlike other Depression-era youth, Mary Virginia always acted confident in her tomorrows, perhaps because her mother, Edna Eshelman, wouldn’t have it any other way. “I think Gordon liked her a lot,” recalled his other sister, Carolyn. “Her mother was ‘the best is none too good’ and Mary Virginia was like that too.” The Garrett sisters perceived Mary Virginia as a good girl, the kind a boy like Gordon could proudly escort to the graduation dance and might someday contemplate marrying. Certainly, they assumed, she wouldn’t be found frolicking in the backseat of the Garrett family car.

At this tender age, Mary Virginia already understood the duplicities of modern life for young American girls like herself. She knew the right words to say, the customs to observe, the dishonesty among the moral zealots and fundamentalists insistent on a woman’s lot in life. Yet she resolved never to lose that independent part of herself. She would embrace life on her own terms, regardless of what her mother or anyone else said. Earnestly, she played the part of a “good girl”—both in school and at home—though in her heart she knew she was not. “I always lived the facade of mother’s little lady but I always did exactly what I wanted to do,” she explained. “I just never let it be known.”

On the night she lost her virginity, Mary Virginia’s experience wasn’t forced, sweaty, or profane. The simple act finished within minutes. Sex felt pleasant enough for her, though far from familiar. Any thoughts of orgasm, sexual performance, or mutual satisfaction—the stuff of her intense, lifelong scientific studies with Masters—were then the furthest thing from her mind. Instead she trusted her boyfriend to know what he was doing. Only later in life did she realize it was probably Gordon’s first time too.

“It just evolved and was very natural,” she said, both wistfully and amused, of their backseat encounter. “It would have shocked my mother to death.”

So much of Mary Virginia’s life happened by chance, even the way her family landed in Golden City. Her father, Hershel Eshelman, whom everyone called by his middle name, Harry, and his wife, Edna, lived in Springfield when their daughter came into the world on February 11, 1925. Harry’s parents were Mormons from nearby Christian County, though neither he nor his wife was particularly religious. The Eshelmans came from Hessian stock, his ancestors brought over for the Revolutionary War. During World War I, Sergeant Harry Eshelman, of Battery A, 5th Field Artillery, witnessed a lifetime’s worth of blood, mortality, and the eternal beyond in France, the same field of battle where his younger brother, Tom, was wounded but managed to survive. After the war, like Harry Truman from Independence, twenty-nine-year-old Eshelman returned to southwest Missouri, seeking a simple life for himself and his bride, Edna Evans. Harry’s younger sister, a pupil in a class taught by twenty-year-old Edna at a neighborhood school, introduced them. In short order, though, the new Mrs. Eshelman made it clear she wouldn’t settle for Harry’s humble plan. “Mother wanted to marry up, and she was determined to marry him,” recounted the adult Virginia.

Though he possessed the natural skills of a gentleman farmer, Harry Eshelman didn’t burn with ambition. A rangy, slender man, Harry appeared satisfied with his own plot of land and lavishing attention on his only child. Photographs of Harry, with his long face and high cheekbones, show a resemblance to Ray Bolger, the affable scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. Mary Virginia was pleased to be the apple of Harry’s eye. “I was always considered to look more like my father and my father’s family,” she said proudly years later. “I was very much Daddy’s girl.” Harry could figure out just about anything—from building a house to solving his daughter’s algebra homework. A former cavalryman, he certainly knew plenty about horses, enough to do tricks to entertain the farm hands or to let his daughter ride the broad backs of the Percheron stallions in their backyard. “Mother would come screaming at him, ‘Watch that child!’ and he would just smile and wave and put me on,” she recalled. Inside their house, Harry taught his daughter how to iron her pleated skirt and made “wooden” shoes out of cardboard as part of her costume for a school concert. “There was nothing the man couldn’t do!” she said.

By the time she was five, Mary Virginia’s parents decided to leave southwest Missouri, already feeling the Depression’s grip. They ventured by train to California in search of a new beginning. In Palo Alto, Harry found work overseeing the lush greenhouses and gardens of a government-run hospital that tended to wounded soldiers. “It was a good job,” Virginia recalled. “We lived on the grounds, beautiful grounds with beautiful homes.” Placed in a progressive school with a kindergarten, she excelled in her studies. Verbal dexterity and a quick mind enabled her to finish eighth grade by age twelve.

To those fleeing Missouri’s arid flatlands, this hospital campus must have seemed like Eden, a garden to shelter them from the Depression’s onslaught. Instead of seeing gray dust clouds raking the skies, they marveled at the Pacific’s raw majesty and gazed along the shoreline at its misty splendor. On one festive occasion, Virginia recalled, her father went to the beach in a suit and straw hat. A photograph of him that day kept her childhood memory fresh. “I was in my little bathing suit, playing along in the surf,” she described. “I walked out a bit and got caught in the rolling surf. I was a little bit of a thing.” The waves toppled Mary Virginia, pulling her into the deep. Harry Eshelman, though fully dressed, didn’t waste any time acting the hero in his daughter’s eyes. “Daddy just walked out and saved me,” she remembered.

Inevitably, Edna had her fill of California. It had been her idea in the first place to migrate to the Golden State, along with other beleaguered midwesterners. But soon she grew homesick and disenchanted by her husband’s job as a glorified groundskeeper at the VA hospital. Edna’s mind was made up, to both her husband’s and daughter’s chagrin, and Harry knew better than to argue. He deferred to his wife’s wishes without much fuss. “My mother insisted that she wanted to go back home to her friends and family,” Virginia explained, even though most of her mother’s relatives had relocated to California. “She just longed to be back.” Harry contacted his father, still in Christian County, to help them find a new farm near Springfield, which he did—about fifty miles to the west. The Eshelmans and their young daughter packed their belongings and returned in the family car to a place in Missouri even more desperate than where they had started. “We came back and the only piece of land Granddad had available was in Golden City,” remembered Virginia. This accident of fate was further aggravated by Golden City’s insignificance. “It was a teeny-tiny place,” she recalled, “literally no one there.” Golden City touted itself as “the prairie hay capital” of the nation. For young people with bigger dreams, “Golden City was a place to get out of,” remembered Lowell Pugh, one of her contemporaries who grew up to be the town’s funeral home director. Girls like Mary Virginia had two options in life, he said, “getting married or getting out of town—that would have been the goal of any girl if she weren’t already married and pregnant.”

The Eshelman exodus from California to Missouri underlined another glaring fact: though Mary Virginia venerated her father, Mother ruled the family. Their struggle of wills proved to be the central drama of Mary Virginia’s young life. Edna’s ideas about womanhood provided the gold standard. Her daughter obediently accepted these rules—at least when within Mother’s gaze—and rebelled against them when out of reach. Appearances remained all-important in the Eshelman household. “She had a pretty clear concept of what a wife and mother should be—she playacted!” explained Virginia. “She really thought she was superior to the world or wanted to be.”

Edna Evans had been raised as a middle child in a family more humble than the Eshelmans. An attractive woman, she was thin and lithe, with cropped brown hair. If her husband looked out at the world with a friendly, naive stare, Edna’s eyes revealed a more skeptical and socially ambitious mien. She always seemed to be in some unspoken competition. Not much in Edna’s married life had turned out as she had hoped. Mired in Golden City, she seemed determined to master as much of her world as possible and to convey those lessons to her daughter. “Everyone doted on me and I grew up with the sense that accomplishment and talent were marvelous, but that marriage was the primary goal,” Virginia recalled. Mrs. Eshelman insisted the townsfolk refer to her daughter by both her first and middle names—Mary Virginia. “She wanted to call me by my double-name, in that era when everyone was ‘Judy Ann’ and ‘Donna Marie,’” Virginia remembered. Naturally, in a fit of teenage resistance, she instructed friends at Golden City High to call her only Virginia.

Mother aspired to the finer things, arranging for piano and singing lessons for her daughter, and teaching her how to be an expert seamstress and to cook. When her husband wasn’t available, Edna showed she could assume a man’s role too. “One summer during harvest time, Mother—little tiny Mother—got out and went into the harvest fields, running a tractor and that sort of thing,” Virginia recalled. “If she had to, she could do most anything.”

Living in a farmhouse five miles out from the center of this dusty misnamed town left Edna desperate for attention and a social life. Once a month, Mrs. Eshelman joined Mrs. Garrett and the other Golden City matriarchs in a monthly get-together, held in rotation at one another’s house, where they chatted, shared gossip, and enjoyed female companionship so often absent on the plain. “Edna was a more lively person [than Harry], an ambitious person for her family and herself,” said Isabel Garrett Smith. “She was very proud of Mary Virginia. She taught her well.” Although her husband emerged a New Deal Democrat in reaction to the Hoovervilles across the nation, Edna saw her own opportunity in the state’s Republican Party. “Her whole life was trying to differentiate herself,” explained Virginia. Politics provided a rare moment of excitement in the otherwise lackluster life on the Eshelman farm. No one felt this isolation more than Mary Virginia. A pear tree in the back of their farm became her reading room, where on pleasant afternoons she would leaf through the Bible or novels hidden from her mother, dreaming about the world beyond her view. “I didn’t have playmates,” she recalled. “I just used to read people. I always wanted to know what their lives were like. My grandparents and relatives and adults used to visit us, and I spent all of my time asking, ‘Tell me about when you were little.’ I loved hearing about other people’s lives because, I guess, of being alone as an only child.”

One summer, Mary Virginia visited for a week with Edna’s older sister, who permitted her niece to roam about her spacious apartment. Tucked into a drawer, she found her aunt’s private possessions, including a stack of letters written by a man who was the head of a small private boy’s school in the Missouri foothills. According to family lore, her aunt, then in her forties, had nearly married him. Mary Virginia discovered why she hadn’t. “I found these wonderful love letters, written with passion I’ll never forget the rest of my life, and they were all tied with a ribbon,” she explained. “What unfolded was that he had gotten a local girl pregnant, and she would not even talk to him from then on. She walked away and never married anyone. It was this wonderful drama.”


On Sale
Jul 2, 2013
Page Count
424 pages
Basic Books

Thomas Maier

About the Author

Thomas Maier is a long-time investigative reporter for Newsday in New York and has written five books, including Masters of Sex, which became an Emmy-winning Showtime drama, and most recently When Lions Roar: The Churchills and the Kennedys. Maier is also a producer of the Bravo mini-series based on this book.

Learn more about this author