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The facts, fictions of 'Masters of Sex'

The facts, fictions of 'Masters of Sex'


The Gateway Arch has “put St. Louis on the map,” and Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson are about to do the same for “Human Sexual Response,” as “Masters of Sex” begins its third season Sunday on Showtime.

The calendar page has flipped to 1965, and Masters and Johnson (Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan) are finally getting ready to publish the results of the epic sex study they began at Washington University way back in 1957.

Meanwhile, they are continuing their private sex study of each other, while Bill remains married to the increasingly troubled Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), and Gini grapples with her now-teenage children.

Besides being one of TV’s smartest and most engrossing series, “Masters of Sex” is an interesting case study in how facts inspire and guide a work of fiction.

Masters and Johnson, whose names became synonymous with sex in the swinging 1960s, were, of course, real people. He was a noted obstetrician and gynecologist and famous fertility expert when he started his exploration of bedroom behavior behind closed curtains at Maternity Hospital, part of the Washington U. complex, in the 1950s. She was a single mother with no credentials when he hired her as his research assistant.

Their relationship grew into a partnership, into a sexual affair (for research purposes only, of course) and eventually into marriage, which ended in divorce. Masters moved away, remarried and died in 2001; Johnson, who lived the rest of her life in St. Louis, died in 2013, just before “Masters of Sex” premiered.

Thomas Maier interviewed Johnson extensively, and became a confidant, for his 2009 book “Masters of Sex,” on which the series is based. Sarah Timberman, who acquired the book, and Michelle Ashford, who developed the series, set out to use Masters and Johnson as a window into the sexual revolution and other dramatic midcentury changes, while staying true to the essence of the principals’ own story, they said in an interview before the premiere.

After two seasons, Maier is more than happy with the result.

“They’ve done a great job in using my nonfiction, all-on-the-record biography and turning it into a TV drama,” he said by email, noting that drama “is fictional by definition.”

Given the demands of TV, he added, “what’s really surprising to me is how much they’ve actually used from the book, even little strands of stuff. Michelle Ashford has done a wonderful job in synthesizing and capturing the book’s flavor and meaning.”

Maier’s book is heavily weighted toward Johnson’s perspective, but the series has been broadened both to include more characters, some composites and others entirely fictional, and also to encompass issues with which America was dealing as the 1950s became the 1960s.

Via Virginia, “Masters of Sex” has looked at the changing role of women in mid-20th century, from subservient to “liberated.” In Season 2, via Libby, the series explored racial attitudes and the burgeoning civil rights movement. Producers even had Masters move to a black hospital called Buell-Green (likely comparable to Homer G. Phillips), while in real life the duo moved directly from Washington U. to their own institute.

“Of course, that was completely made up, but it proved rather topical when it appeared,” during the chaos in Ferguson after the shooting death of Michael Brown, Maier said. “Masters of Sex” was praised for its race-relations storylines, including one in which Libby volunteered for the Congress of Racial Equality, as adding context to coverage of Ferguson.

“I like when they come up with new stuff that wasn’t in my book but has some relation to St. Louis history or real events of the time,” Maier said.

St. Louisans, of course, will watch “Masters of Sex” with a somewhat different eye from viewers elsewhere. No shooting for any of the three seasons took place here, and producers said last summer that they still had been too busy to visit St. Louis.

This leaves the show open for nitpicking, with some details obvious to anyone and others only to people who know St. Louis. Here are some places where “Masters of Sex” is more fiction than fact.

• Masters was bald; Sheen plays him with hair, but with his trademark bow tie. The producers said before the premiere that Sheen had been eager to shave his head, but that they had said no.

• There’s not enough brick, and too much stucco. “Masters of Sex” is shot in California, where the climate is more stucco-friendly. But in the city of St. Louis in the 1950s, almost every building was brick, because of the abundant clay mines and many brick factories.

• Bill and Libby Masters didn’t live in a midcentury ranch house, as they do in the series, but in a traditional, two-story Colonial in Ladue. St. Louis did get many fabulous “atomic ranch” homes, but maybe not so early as the mid-1950s. (The architect who designed the Masters’ home, Eine? He’s made up.)

• You thought Washington University looked surprisingly accurate in the first season, didn’t you? That was really Guggenheim estate on Long Island, N.Y., helped out for accuracy by many tight shots.

• Yes, that was the Thomas F. Eagleton Courthouse in the in background of one shot in Season 2. It was completed in 2000, so no, it shouldn’t have been there.

• When Masters took his sex study to a brothel, the address was given as “Third and Sutter.” There’s no such intersection, but Masters did observe prostitutes and clients at a brothel at an unknown location in the Central West End, according to Maier’s book. The chief of police really did offer protection, too.

• Beginning their affair (sorry, “sex study”), Masters and Johnson rendezvous regularly at the Chancery Park Plaza, a grand hotel in Alton. The Hotel Stratford in Alton was a grand hotel in its day (and is still standing), but this hotel is more like the Chase Park Plaza. Producers said last year that their intention was to locate the assignations near St. Louis, but somewhere relatively obscure. St. Louisans will surely wonder how long those frequent drives to Alton, across the Old Clark Bridge, would have taken.

• Bill and Libby Masters had two children when their fertility problems were depicted in Season 1. John and Jenny, the two kids produced in the show by fertility treatments, are fictional, as are Virginia Johnson’s two eldest, Henry and Tessa. (A disclaimer to this effect runs at the end of episodes featuring them.) However, each couple’s youngest child, Howie Masters and Lisa Johnson, has the name of an actual offspring.

• The St. Louis newspaper names are largely made up. Between 1950 and ’75, St. Louis had as many as 25 newspapers, including the Post-Dispatch and Globe-Democrat, but no Chronicle, the paper whose female reporter grills Masters in Season 2. (In the 1960s, most women working for newspapers were in the women’s section.)

• After leaving Buell-Green, Masters opens the Masters and Johnson Clinic in a “transitional neighborhood” next to Communist Party headquarters. In real life, their Reproductive Biology Research Foundation office was at 4910 Forest Park Avenue.

• Libby Masters has a political awakening at a Veiled Prophet Ball depicted with many accurate details, including the look of the program art. After selling ads in the program, she attends the ball and is shocked to see the Veiled Prophet wearing a white “hood.”

• As Season 3 opens, Virginia and her kids join Masters, Libby and their kids on vacation at the lake. It’s three hours from St. Louis, but “up,” characters keep saying. In any case, it’s a charming little lake with canoes, the opposite bank easily visible. Lake of the Ozarks? Unlikely.

‘Masters of Sex’

Four stars (out of four)

When • 9 p.m. Sunday

Where • Showtime

More info • Watch the first episode of Season 3 free at

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Gail Pennington is the television critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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