By Mary Vespa
April 22, 1974 12:00 PM

It was the coy sort of connubial scene of a man and woman married to each other relatively late in life. She had bought them his-and-her Irish hats but then had to be cajoled by her husband into putting her hat on. “You look sexy,” was his immediate response, and he should know. He is Dr. William Masters; her professional name is Virginia Johnson. And they are the Pierre and Marie Curie of sexual research.

Their famed therapeutic program helped thousands of couples find new sexual freedom and fulfillment. While both say they have not had sexual problems in their own lives, Masters and Johnson have grappled with marital discord. His first wife divorced him for desertion in 1970. Johnson had been married three times. “I never quite came of age until I met him,” Gini, now 49, says. “And practically for the first time, Bill [58] is really living.”

They have not totally broken from an obsession with work that for the first 14 years of their collaboration kept them at it seven, 13-hour days a week without letup. In the last three years—they were married in 1971—he has cut back to 80-hour weeks, she often goes home to write her reports, and they have actually taken two vacations. Some of that self-imposed social exile was due to their sex research which Masters began in 1954 in conservative St. Louis, where he was working under the auspices of Washington University medical school. Even though the school is justly famous, the clinic was viewed with suspicion. “When we were present in a room with people that we had known for years—some were even distant relatives—an electrical tension would fill the air,” Gini recalls. “We had to isolate ourselves from the community so we could work,” explains Bill.

Neither Masters nor Johnson was a native St. Louisan. Bill was born in Cleveland, and, while studying at Hamilton College in upstate New York, got a pilot’s license and sold airplanes on the side. A graduate of the University of Rochester medical school, he specialized in gynecology, but gave up a $100,000 practice in St. Louis to become a pioneer in sexual research. In 1956 he hired Gini, a builder’s daughter from Springfield, Mo., as a research associate. She had taken courses in psychology but did not have—and still doesn’t have—a college degree. Her only previous career had been as a singer with her third husband, George Johnson, a bandleader.

In 1966 Masters and Johnson published Human Sexual Response, a landmark study based on observation of 694 men and women in 10,000 sexual encounters. Their second book, Human Sexual Inadequacy, followed four years later, and their third, on homosexuality will be out in the next year or two. In these earlier books the prose was so academic and impenetrable that lucrative paperback ponies were rushed out by other authors. To reach a wider public Masters and Johnson now are contemplating a syndicated newspaper column. Their nonprofit Reproductive Biology Research Foundation pays him $50,000 a year, her $47,500. (That does not count their book royalties, of which they turn back one third into their foundation.) Currently, they are concentrating on research and administration and treat only two or three couples a year personally. Their famous two-week, $2,500 therapy consultations have been taken over by five male-and-female teams, which they trained.

What Masters and Johnson have neglected in their intensive work regimen, they now acknowledge, is their four children, a son and daughter each. Her two, by Johnson, were 1 and 3 when she became a researcher. “It is my one big regret,” she says today. “I missed being with them and they missed me.” But the kids seem to have come out all right. Lisa Johnson, now 19, is a model seeking to enter the hot new female career of racing jockey. Her brother Scott, 22, is a professional musician. Masters’s elder child Sally, 23, has joined the family enterprise as a researcher. Her brother Howie, 22, just graduated from Bill’s alma mater and plans to do graduate work in English.

Sally and Lisa have moved into the caretaker’s house on the Masters’s six-and-a-half-acre suburban estate, which also includes a swimming pool, a stable and a horse track, where Bill jogs daily. If he is at the sex research clinic and she at home, they talk over an intercom. “For me to remain close to someone,” says Gini, “I must be with them. I mean I can’t bear not to share their world. I just can’t stand it.”

To Bill, happiness is “having a quiet dinner with my wife,” and often he prepares his favorite short-order meal himself—champagne and hamburgers. She is more socially poised and gregarious, but he, a no-nonsense doctor, limits them to two or three parties a year and an occasional symphony. He also is an avid football fan.

In their spacious white bedroom, Bill and Gini curl up on a king-sized bed to read, relax and talk. “We like to isolate ourselves sometimes,” says Gini. “It’s as if we’re not even at home. We’re in a suite somewhere.”

A conversation with Masters and Johnson is apt to get around to sex—their own. When people ask “how often, how and when,” Gini replies, “Who cares!” With a sigh, she says, “These people are products of an era when there was a very artificial, very unreal attitude toward sex.”

In her velvety voice, Johnson shuts off further questions with, “Our life pleases us very much.” Dr. Masters adds, “If it didn’t, we would try to do something about it.”