Cameron, Witch of the Art World
By Steffie NelsonOctober 8, 2014
Image: Detail from the cover of Semina #1.
PALE AND SLENDER, she is wrapped in a black-and-white shawl that once belonged to Rudolph Valentino, a Spanish comb fanning out from her fiery red hair. Slowly, she lifts the long, fringed lashes framing her blue eyes and fixes her liquid gaze on the camera. She extends her hand and opens her palm to reveal a tiny, horned devil, which is quickly snatched by a masked chimera with curling fingernails — the Great Beast himself — and set on fire. Casually, she leans in to light a joint off the flame.
She is the Scarlet Woman in Kenneth Anger’s mythical, hallucinatory film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), and it’s a part the actress, by then known simply as Cameron, was seemingly born to play. As legend has it, when director and star first met, Cameron proclaimed, “I am the Scarlet Woman,” and Anger responded, “I’ve been waiting to meet you for a thousand years.”
Some might say it’s taken almost as long for the visionary midcentury artist and Los Angeles underground icon, christened Marjorie Elizabeth Cameron in Belle Plaine, Iowa, in 1922, to receive the recognition she deserves, but a Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) retrospective opening this week at the Pacific Design Center campus aims to set the record straight. Titled Songs for the Witch Woman, after a collection of poems and drawings by Cameron and her first husband, the rocket scientist and occultist Jack Parsons, the exhibition includes almost 100 pieces of art, correspondence, and ephemera that bring this unique creature to life, fleshing out a person who was very much shaped by her legendary and ultimately tragic marriage, but was also an iconoclast to her core.
According to Spencer Kansa’s biography Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron, a new edition of which was published this past May, Cameron’s artistic abilities were recognized from an early age, as was the innate wildness that kept her slightly removed from her strict middle-class family and her peers. While one classmate remembers her transforming the high school gym into the Blue Moon Club for the senior prom, there were also whispers of illicit sexual affairs and suicide attempts.
Ironically, Cameron’s ticket out of small-town America and toward the counterculture came through the United States Navy, which she joined in 1943 as part of a women’s initiative spearheaded by Eleanor Roosevelt. She became a mapmaker for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, DC, a skill that provided the foundation for her future art practice, which centered on ink on paper. The last-name military form of address also gave her the moniker that she felt suited her better than Marjorie.
Upon her discharge, Cameron went to live with her parents, who had moved to Pasadena, California, where her father worked as an engineer with Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), an aeronautical research center started at the California Institute of Technology. It was through a Navy acquaintance, however, that she met JPL’s notorious co-founder John Whiteside Parsons, when the friend brought her to a party at a rambling craftsman house on South Orange Grove Boulevard in December 1945. Essentially a communal compound on what was then called “Millionaires Row,” this property was home to Parsons and a coterie of artists, anarchists, writers, and occult practitioners. It was also the site of the Agape Lodge, the American outpost of the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), an esoteric society then led by Aleister Crowley and heavily influenced by his Thelema system of philosophy.
When Cameron was invited back to the cheekily nicknamed “Parsonage” in January 1946, the 23-year-old beauty had no idea that her legend preceded her. Parsons and his “scribe,” future Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, had been conducting a series of ceremonial rituals called the Babalon Working, intended to invoke a “Scarlet Woman” (a Crowleyan term for a magician’s accomplice) who would personify the Thelemic goddess Babalon. This “working” was largely motivated, it seems, by the fact that Hubbard had recently seduced Parsons’s girlfriend — boldly embracing Crowley’s “do what thou wilt” dictum — and Jack, as he was known to friends, needed a new consort.
John Carter’s biography of Parsons, Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons, goes into graphic, occasionally distasteful detail about the secret rituals; more compelling is his etymological breakdown of Babalon, Crowley’s numerological spelling of Babylon, which itself is derived from the Hebrew Bab-El, or “gate of God” — the mystic center where the upper and lower worlds connect. In other words, Babylon, biblically associated with lawlessness and godlessness, is more accurately the realm where light and dark meet, where the Hermetic principle “as above, so below” comes alive.
Whether or not one chooses to believe the story of this magickal matchmaking, the timing, to say nothing of Cameron’s coloring, is uncanny. Parsons, by all accounts, was convinced he had conjured this siren — although the myth got so bloated over the years that a lightning storm and a car crash outside his door were added to enhance the drama. Sounding every bit the proud son, he wrote to tell his “Beloved Father,” Crowley, that his “elemental” (a supernatural entity physically manifest) had appeared: “an artist, strong-minded and determined, with strong masculine characteristics and a fanatical independence.”
Theirs is typically presented as a teacher–student relationship, and it’s clear that Parsons had a profound influence on Cameron, sharing his knowledge of Kabbalah, tarot, astrology, and more. But as he could tell immediately, she was also uncommonly independent. The couple famously spent their first two weeks together in bed, but after they were married in late 1946, they were apart for long periods and took other lovers. Cameron traveled to Europe in 1947, and the following year left to study art in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, on the G.I. Bill. There she encountered a kindred spirit in Leonora Carrington, the surrealist artist who would also serve as an important mentor to mystical filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, and met Renate Druks and Paul Mathison, who would later connect her to Kenneth Anger.
By the time she returned to California, almost two years later, her husband, the onetime rocket science prodigy, was under investigation by the FBI for sharing military information with Israel. He had also sold the parsonage and parted ways with Crowley. In spite of all this tumult, it was a fruitful time for the pair’s partnership, social life, and creative work. Cameron was freelancing as a fashion illustrator for local newspapers, and Parsons — long since separated from JPL — was building explosives for film productions in a basement lab in the carriage house they were living in. There, just a few doors down Orange Grove, they entertained often, plugging into the bohemian milieu that would be so key to Cameron’s future. She befriended Pasadena debutante-turned-sculptor Julie MacDonald, Charlie Parker’s West Coast girlfriend, who introduced her to Los Angeles’s underground jazz scene and characters like Wallace and Shirley Berman. It’s said that Parker even jammed once at the carriage house.
Cameron, Merlin, from Songs for the Witch Woman.
Ink on paper, 10 x 8 inches.
Courtesy of the O.T.O., New York.
Photo Credit: Alan Shaffer
During this time, Jack and Cameron also worked on Songs for the Witch Woman, a powerful suite of poems and illustrations they created in a shared notebook, which was dedicated to “Candida,” Parsons’s private name for his wife. His elegant, elevated language reveals a man enamored with ceremony and myth.
The opening poem, “Witch Woman,” is a direct offering to her:
And under your sorcery I fare forth
To fabulous lands and meadows green with Spring
And caught on the gossamer web of evening
I behold incredible things no poet ever told.
The accompanying watercolor depicts a naked woman rendered in fine strokes of black and teal, arms crossed over her breasts, her fingers becoming fluid, like liquid. Her gaze is distant, but her stance is open and strong.
“Aradia” also has a romantic, celebratory feel:
Your hair is a banner for a rally of rainbows,
The wind is a tame wolf with your rollicking sheep,
Splendor of sunbursts are shafts for your arrows
And meadows marshall and march at your feet.
In the graceful companion sketch, a nymph dances in green waves, with gulls flying overhead. She plays a flute, a song the poet “follows after.”
But other poems, like “Night,” reflect Parsons’s inner turmoil:
Dear dreadful dark,
Lean over me and press
The curtain of your awesome tenderness
Against my mind.
Cameron believed she had found the solution to their problems in a return to San Miguel de Allende, and after an exploratory trip, they packed their bags in June 1952. On the 17th, she was at the store stocking up on provisions and Parsons was in his lab completing a last-minute Hollywood job when something went very wrong. It’s believed that the explosion, which blew off part of Parsons’s arm and jaw and could be heard from a mile away, was caused by a dropped canister of mercury fulminate. He died at the hospital an hour later — a loss that radically rocked Cameron’s sense of identity, and would continue to impact her choices and shape her until her own death, 44 years later. She traveled to Mexico as planned, hoping to avoid the inevitable grueling investigations, but returned to California soon after, embarking on a nomadic path that included her own first serious forays into magick.
Perhaps, after a lifetime of being identified as a witch by friends and strangers alike — mostly because of her red hair — it was just easier to assume the role. Surely the revelation that her husband fully believed her to be a supernatural being, the details of which she learned from the papers and journals he left behind, raised some questions for her about her place and purpose.
Deep in her grief, Cameron moved to an abandoned house in Beaumont, California, near Palm Springs, and began a correspondence with Jane Wolfe, a former silent film star and intimate of Crowley’s who held a high rank in the O.T.O. In December 1952 she engaged in a “working” of her own designed to connect with her husband’s spirit through a ritualistically conceived child. This she called her “Wormwood Star,” a name taken from Parsons’s writings about a dark star that crashes to earth. The ritual didn’t succeed, but as she explained in a letter to Wolfe, the pregnancy was never meant to be “the actual growth of a human child but the spiritual child of a psychic union” — an “explanation” that reveals more about Cameron’s fractured mental state than anything else.
Here, at this house without electricity or running water, she also began a new series of drawings in response to Songs for the Witch Woman. The 20 black-and-white illustrations, most depicting Cameron and Jack in various mythical incarnations — he with a penetrating stare and wild black hair and she a femme fatale with full lips and feline eyes — recall Aubrey Beardsley with their strong lines, ornate flourishes, and unapologetically sexual nature. This entire portfolio, as well as the original leather-bound notebook, will be part of the October MOCA retrospective.
Both sets of drawings are also included in a gorgeous edition published by Fulgur Esoterica this past spring, which includes typeset text as well as a facsimile of the notebook, with the poems written in each of their hands. A foreword by current O.T.O. leader William Breeze, a close friend of Cameron’s for many years, sympathizes with her confusion. “Jack did Cameron no favors,” he states bluntly. “The wonder is that she didn’t go mad.”
What clearly was her saving grace through it all was her work. It is difficult in the context of today’s art world — its climate of production and acquisition and impenetrable levels of social status — to comprehend a practice as personal as Cameron’s was, but just as the Witch Woman drawings were part of her mourning process, so was all her art a means of reckoning with reality.
The curator Yael Lipschutz specializes in postwar Los Angeles art, and it was she who brought the exhibition idea to MOCA’s senior curator Alma Ruiz. We sat down recently to talk about Cameron. “She was a very powerful person,” Lipschutz told me. “But she did not use her power in relationships to other people; it all went into her work.”
In one famous instance, though, her power rose up and asserted itself in no uncertain terms. It was 1953, and Cameron was visiting the home of Hollywood aesthete Samson De Brier, whose regular salons were attended by the likes of Dorothy Parker, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Weill, and a young Kenneth Anger and his filmmaker pal Curtis Harrington. Anger was in the midst of casting Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome — the title an homage to Coleridge’s opium fueled poem “Kubla Khan,” which also brought us “Xanadu” — and Cameron had been invited by Renate Druks and Paul Mathison, both of whom had roles in the film. Anaïs Nin, who was carrying on a long-distance affair in Los Angeles at the time, was lined up to star, but when Anger found his Scarlet Woman the film immediately changed course. Naturally, this didn’t sit very well with Nin, by then something of a legend, but she was far too refined to succumb to an unflattering diva-like meltdown. Instead, she played the part of an enchanting moon goddess, Astarte, and then wrote in her diary (Vol. 5, 1947–55) about “the dark spirit of the group” whose “paintings were ghostly creatures of nightmares.” Reflecting on the situation, she concluded that, “the mood of decadence and destruction won out.”
So began Anger and Cameron’s fraught friendship. In many ways they were true kindred spirits: both channeling ancient archetypes and placing art above all (especially money, unfortunately, as neither ever saw commercial success), but as often surrounds matters concerning the occult, emotions and drama were high. Although today he acknowledges her as a mentor of sorts (he even dedicated his book of scandal, Hollywood Babylon, to her), there were periods when Anger dismissed their relationship and played down the significance of her role in the film.
Curtis Harrington, who portrayed Cesare the Somnambulist in Inauguration, was so captivated by Cameron that he directed an experimental 16mm portrait of her, also called The Wormwood Star (1955), which offers the only glimpse of a series of beautiful paintings that burned in a fire. In these works, rendered in an unusually rich palette of purples and reds, royal processions of angels and sentinels march across desert landscapes, evoking mythical beings and lands. In his autobiography, Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood, Harrington explained that, “the film is really about Cameron’s work as a painter, and the thrust of the film is to present the artist as an alchemist who, through her creative work, becomes herself transmuted into gold.”
The paintings have been referred to as the Babalon series, and maybe their destruction represents a further step in the alchemical process, a reclamation of her individual identity. As Kansa notes, death and destruction by fire is a recurring theme in Cameron’s life — an interesting twist considering Parsons identified her as a fire elemental.
Cameron herself would claim that she destroyed the paintings in a fit of madness, but Scott Hobbs, the director of the Cameron-Parsons Foundation, said he believed amphetamines were involved. By then Cameron was in a relationship with a man named Sherry Kimmel, a charismatic free spirit who was unstable enough to have allegedly inspired the McMurphy character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She gave birth to a daughter, Crystal, on Christmas Eve, but although she gave her child the last name Kimmel, it was widely believed that Sherry wasn’t the father.
If it was stability she was looking for, Cameron seemed to find a more reliable family unit with Wallace Berman and his wife Shirley, who were at the cutting edge of Beat culture. As Yael Lipschutz pointed out, there was no art “scene” to speak of in Los Angeles at this time; one accessed the counterculture through jazz and poetry, and this was the Bermans’ turf, their Beverly Glen, Los Angeles, house on Crater Lane a hub for fellow travelers and seekers. It’s been said that Cameron introduced Berman to Kabbalah, the mystical sect of Judaism that became so central to his artwork, but as he grew up in Los Angeles’s predominantly Jewish Fairfax District and studied the Surrealist poets, it was more likely a shared interest they bonded over.
Cameron, Postcard sent by Wallace Berman to Cameron, 1955
Paper, 5 x 3 inches.
Courtesy of the Cameron Parsons Foundation, Santa Monica
It was a high honor, nonetheless, when he chose Cameron as the cover subject for the first issue of Semina, the hand-printed art, culture, and poetry journal he published from 1955–1964. Wearing no makeup, her hair cropped in boyish bangs, she is almost unrecognizable, no longer her once glamorous self. Inside is a drawing of hers called “Peyote Vision,” which Berman first saw at Norman Rose’s esoteric bookstore Books 55, from when Cameron had been living in the back room. The drawing shows a woman being penetrated by a demonic figure, a forked tongue flicking out of her mouth. At that time it was rare for something so explicit to be made by a woman, and it was very different from the majority of work being created. “Art was all about these gestures and big movements,” Lipschutz said, “and she was making these laborious drawings.”
When “Peyote Vision” was included in a Berman exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in 1957, the show was raided by the vice squad, apparently responding to a tip from someone, and Berman was charged with obscenity and taken to jail. The experience left him and Cameron so profoundly shaken that both essentially dropped out of the commercial art world altogether. Gathering a close group of family and friends, they made a hasty retreat, seeking refuge in San Francisco’s more permissive Beat scene.
Cameron, Holy Guardian Angel according to Aleister Crowley, 1966.
Casein and gold lacquer on board, 29 ½ x 19 ½ inches.
Courtesy of the Cameron Parsons Foundation, Santa Monica.
Photo Credit: Alan Shaffer
Returning after a year, Cameron continued her nomadic ways around California, this time with her daughter in tow. She lived in Venice, Los Angeles; Topanga; and on a ranch in the high desert with a new boyfriend, an artist named Burt Shonberg, whose black hearse could only enhance her mystique. In 1961 she appeared as a mysterious sea witch in Curtis Harrington’s spooky feature film Night Tide, featuring Dennis Hopper as a sailor on leave, his first starring role. She also delved into poetry, publishing a small book called Black Pilgrimage — another phrase from Jack’s writings — and began a correspondence with the scholar Joseph Campbell. In the early 1970s she returned to the desert, occupying the “post office” in Pioneertown, an old Wild West movie set near Joshua Tree, before finally settling in West Hollywood, in a bungalow hidden from the street by bamboo, where she would live out her days.
By the 1970s, Cameron’s interest in astrology came to the fore. Parsons, who has a crater on the moon named after him, had imparted to her the importance of astrology as a magical tool, and as Lipschutz told me, she began to dress for the cosmos, wearing colors that corresponded with the moon’s phases. “It was a very serious belief system for her.”
In 1978 she started working on a series of drawings known as Pluto Transiting the 12th House, which refers to a position in the zodiac when we start ruminating on death and past lives. These drawings — perhaps her most unusual work — are like recorded transmissions from the ether; feather-light lines that move up and down, subtly shifting to create random, moire-like patterns as though guided by an invisible current.
Fourteen of these drawings will be on display at MOCA, as will the astrological charts that she and Jack drew for each other (her Sun was in Taurus, his in Libra; both had the Moon in Pisces). Also among the ephemera is the paper wrapping that held Parsons’s cremains — long ago scattered in the Mojave Desert, like Cameron’s ashes. “Because he has such a myth-infused death,” explained Lipschutz, “I thought it would be interesting for people to see.”
In 1989, the same year Cameron helped William Breeze edit a collection of Parsons’s writings, Freedom Is A Two-Edged Sword, she had her very first solo show at Barnsdall Park’s Municipal Art Gallery, evidently taking great pains to consider her legacy. While she knew that she may have caused her daughter Crystal unnecessary suffering, she was a devoted grandmother and a mentor to slightly younger artists like George Herms, whose own work has been reaching a new level of recognition lately.
Only in the past decade has Cameron begun to emerge from the shadows, first in a groundbreaking biographical essay by artist Brian Butler in Richard Metzger’s 2004 occult anthology Book of Lies, and the following year when she was featured in Michael Duncan and Kristine McKenna’s inspiring exhibition and book Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle. Her inclusion in two shows in the 2011 citywide postwar art initiative Pacific Standard Time solidified her place in art history, and as more young artists draw from Los Angeles’s occult history, her name and work become that much more crucial to the conversation.
Sadly and somewhat frustratingly, because large parts of her history have simply vanished while others are shrouded in myth and secrecy, it is virtually impossible to know the definitive story. Kansa, whose biography wasn’t authorized by the Cameron-Parsons Foundation, certainly did his due diligence tracking down childhood acquaintances and friends from Los Angeles bohemia, and he conducted wonderful interviews with people like Shirley Berman. On the other hand, several shocking stories in the biography are presented as fact without any sources or footnotes. So who knows? We may just be seeing the beginning of Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel. Both Hobbs and Lipschutz emphasized the importance of her writing to her artistic practice, yet very little of it has been published. And Hobbs revealed that she hoped there would be a movie of her life with Tilda Swinton in the starring role — proof of her good taste if nothing else.
Cameron was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1994, and pictures of her at the end of her life show a crone with long white hair and a peaceful expression in her eyes, any trace of the Scarlet Woman long since vanished.
In a letter to his wife that was part of their voluminous correspondence while she was traveling, during the early days of their marriage, Parsons attempted to impress upon her that “the invocation of lesser forces [including angels, demons, and elementals] is far more dangerous than the invocation of Gods.” The lower work, he continued, is “an act of science,” while “in the higher work you are actually wooing the god — it is an act of art.”
Following this logic, maybe we can conclude that Cameron, the elemental herself, was invoking only God, the higher force, in her work — leaving us with her art.
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