Sixty years ago on June 17, 1952, a brilliant young rocket scientist and occultist was killed in an explosion in Pasadena of origins that remain mysterious to this day.
Five days later Pasadena police closed the case and announced that he dropped a vial of fulminate of mercury onto the floor of his home laboratory and blew himself up.
He was 37 years old and one of the country's top chemical engineers, a founder of JPL and the inventor of the solid fuel that would take man to the moon.
I never met Jack Parsons -- I was just two months old when he died. I only knew him through his widow, Marjorie Cameron Parsons, the mystical artist known simply as Cameron. She didn't talk much about Jack in the beginning of our friendship, but I remember seeing a clipping from the LA Times on her desk marking the anniversary of the event in the "LA Yesterday" column, with a news photo taken of Cameron as she was leaving for the hospital where her husband lay dying ... or dead.
Slowly Cameron began to tell me the story of when they met. It was love at first sight. She came to his big old house at 1003 S. Orange Grove Ave. soon after being mustered out of the waves. She was responding to an ad in the local paper announcing rooms for rent.
She moved in with Jack the night they met, and they spent the next two weeks in bed. "We sat up all night and he read me his poetry." Six months later they married. Cameron, Candida as he renamed her, was truly the woman he had been waiting for.
Cameron was not Jack's first wife. That was Helen Parsons Smith, whom he married in 1935 when he was 19 and she was 24. With Helen, Jack joined the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) -- British poet and occultist Aleister Crowley's Thelemic group -- in 1941, the same year as his most successful scientific achievements, solid rocket fuel and jet-assisted take-off (JATO).
Within a short time, Helen left Jack for his Thelemic guru, Wilfred T. Smith, founder of the Agape Lodge, the Hollywood branch of the O.T.O. Jealousy was not sanctioned by the Order, so Jack quickly found comfort in the arms of Helen's younger half-sister, the beautiful, blonde Sara "Betty" Northrup.
In 1942, Jack became an officer of Aerojet, the commercial JATO production company founded with fellow rocketeers from the Caltech "Suicide Squad" and their mentor, the country's preeminent aeronautics expert, Dr. Theodore von Karman.
Flush with his success, Jack took out a two-year lease with an option to buy on a magnificent 11 bedroom Norwegian Craftsman house at 1003 S. Orange Grove Avenue on Pasadena's "Millionaires' Row." The grounds extended down to Busch Gardens and featured a charming gazebo and a romantic tea house. He invited fellow O.T.O. members to join him and Betty there in a what he hoped would be a utopian communal environment.
In the fall of 1945 Betty's attentions gravitated to a new lodger, the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who had also grown close to Jack. Any inclination to jealousy was throttled, and he wrote Crowley at the end of 1945: "...although Betty and I are still friendly, she has transferred her sexual attraction to him..."
In the nearby Mojave Desert, early in the new year, Jack performed his powerful magical invocation "The Babalon Working," with Hubbard as Scribe, channeling words from the ether while Jack performed as Priest. They conjured up the proscribed Scarlet Woman or so they believed. There she was, my friend Cameron, the most remarkable woman I ever met.
Cameron told me, "...All this was beginning to happen when I showed up. I didn't know anything about the OTO, I didn't know that they had invoked me, I didn't know anything, but the whole house knew it. Everybody was watching to see what was going on. "
The "Working" reset the course of Parsons' life and ended his relationship with Aleister Crowley. At first, the magic meant nothing to Cameron, but slowly Jack won her over. To this day, his letters to her are a graduate course in magic, and Cameron is remembered by many as a genuine witch.
The marriage was stormy -- she was gone a lot, and he struggled finding work. He ultimately lost his security clearance due to his left wing activities and was unable to work as a scientist on the confidential projects at which he excelled. At one point he was reduced to working in a gas station.
Jack and Cameron filed for divorce on several occasions, but they always came back together. By 1951 they had reconciled and moved down S. Orange Grove to the coach house behind 1071. They planned to go to Mexico to practice magic and then emigrate to the fledgling State of Israel, where Jack would establish a rocket program.
On June 17, 1952, they had packed up their car and its little trailer. Cameron had gone to the gas station to fill the car when the "accident" happened. She always told me it was murder and that Jack was too careful with explosives for such an "accident" to happen.
Cameron went on to have quite a life of her own, but she was always Jack's widow. She became the keeper of Jack's legacy. With William Breeze, current head of the OTO, she issued Freedom is a Two Edged Sword, a collection of essays by her late husband. Since Cameron's death in 1995, more of Jack's writings have come to light and hopefully will see publication soon.
Breeze has described him with great insight: "Jack Parsons represented what was best in America. He was childishly, exuberantly self-confident, and what he lacked in formal education he more than made up for with his quick mind and originality of thought. He had an undying idealistic faith in the essential decency of his fellow men and women.
"He was a staunch libertarian who believed that individual freedom, balanced by personal responsibility, was an essential basis for a harmonious society. As such he was a vehement critic of racism, the suppression of women, religious intolerance, sexual repression and anything else that diminished the rights of the individual."
The last time I saw Cameron, as she was slipping away with cancer, she rasped weakly, "Jack! Jack! I'm losing Jack!"
"No, Cameron, you are going to him!" I replied.
She died the next day in the loving arms of her granddaughter, Iris.