“Songs for the Witch Woman” Uncovers True Love Story of LA Artist and Rocket Scientist
By Robert GarrovaDecember 20, 2014
Songs for the Witch Woman by Marjorie Cameron and John W. Parsons
FORGOTTEN LOVE STORIES hide all over Los Angeles. They lie in the bottom of boxes in antique stores, or in the dusty attics of crumbling Craftsmans. They can be found in the yellowing letters between wartime sweethearts, or in vintage postcards from far away places.
Thanks to a new book out from Fulgur Esoterica, we now have a window into the love story of Jack and Marjorie — two transfixing, but somehow still obscure, Los Angeles figures. Their story involves rockets, the occult, long-forgotten mansions, a tragic death, and a love chronicled in romantic poetry and erotic art.
To read Songs for the Witch Woman is to open a dusty chest and sift through a call and response between two lovers. This volume reproduces a book of poems penned by Jet Propulsion Laboratory co-founder Jack Parsons and corresponding drawings created by his wife, artist Marjorie Cameron. Songs for the Witch Woman also includes an introduction, foreword, and afterword that put the work in perspective.
Those that come across the story of Parsons and Cameron find themselves entranced by a fantastic, sometimes bizarre history. Parsons, a genuine autodidact and brilliant rocket scientist, was a prominent figure in the Los Angeles occult world of the ’40s. Cameron, too, was a principal in LA’s early mystical underground, as well as a prolific artist and actress who appeared in films like Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.
George Pendle, author of Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons, contributed to Songs for the Witch Woman. Pendle, like many, found himself drawn in by a story fancier than fiction.
“Not only was there the Pynchonian confluence of rocketry and the occult in Parsons himself, but there was also his role as a kind of hub for a ridiculously unlikely cast of characters ranging from Aleister Crowley to L. Ron Hubbard, from Ray Bradbury to Wernher von Braun,” Pendle explains in an email interview.
Cameron’s story is just as fascinating. It was her “Peyote Vision” drawing that was considered obscene by vice cops in the ’50s, leading to a temporary shutdown of LA’s famous Ferus Gallery. “She [Cameron] flitted in and out of scenes like a wraith. But she was a quintessential player in Los Angeles’s story,” says Pendle. “You can see her as a kind of bridge between the occult and noir era of the 1930s and 1940s, and the free love and new age 1960s and 1970s.”
Songs for the Witch Woman proves more than just a simple history of another eccentric LA couple, however. Within this publication lies another book, a facsimile of Parsons and Cameron’s original work, complete with reproductions of the front and back cover, tattered pages, and scrolling handwriting. It’s more art book than biography. “It’s like a lavishly decorated cocoon in which the two of them happily languished quite apart from the world outside,” Pendle says of the original Cameron-Parsons work. “And for the reader it’s a keyhole through which we can spy on the intense psychodrama being played out between them.”
The book as it stands would not exist without tragedy though. In 1952, Parsons died in an explosion in his home laboratory. Cameron came back from a trip to the store to find her husband dead. Her drawings, some crafted before Parsons’s death and some after, haunt the pages of the book as a constant reminder of loss.
The Cameron-Parsons story has captivated anyone fortunate enough to come across it. For Southern Californians who celebrate anything that contrasts with the sunny suburban stereotype, the story of the occultist rocket scientist and the intense, red-haired artist becomes a treasured collection of sharable “Did you knows.” Did you know L. Ron Hubbard and Parsons believed they had conjured Cameron by way of a magick ritual? Did you know Cameron burned a large portion of her own work after Parsons died?
Aside from the tantalizing backstory though, what about the Cameron-Parsons work itself?
“I think Cameron’s drawings and paintings are unique, a strange erotic mix of Aubrey Beardsley, Leonora Carrington, and the world of commercial illustration, in which she at one time worked,” Pendle says. As for Parsons’s poetry, Pendle likens it to the “high Victorian monodramas” of Browning and Tennyson.
“What’s most interesting about the Fulgur book, however, is how complementary the poems are, how both Parsons and Cameron created a high Gothic aesthetic for themselves amidst the palm trees of Los Angeles,” Pendle says.
Artist Margaret Haines became interested in Cameron after seeing her in Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. An art student at the time, Haines wanted to know more about Cameron’s art, and studied anything she could get her hands on: paintings, writing, interviews, and ephemera.
Haines’s afterword for Songs for the Witch Woman isn’t a typical wrap-up, but then again, Cameron and Parsons weren’t a typical couple. She agrees that, while Cameron’s persona has definitely contributed to the mystique surrounding her work, her art should be taken seriously. Cameron was more than just the woman who was married to the rocket scientist, more than the woman who wielded a shotgun in the Mojave Desert.
“[…] I also think that, once this initial clutch to her story is let go, her work definitely stands on its own,” Haines says via email. “She was very well educated despite this image of her as a freak-witch outsider artist.”
Why publish this book now? Parsons died in ’52 and Cameron has been gone for almost two decades now. Haines and others will tell you that the Fulgur book has come about thanks to the Cameron-Parsons Foundation. Started by Scott Hobbs, a friend of Cameron’s, the Foundation has the mission of preserving the couple’s decaying writings and guarded artwork. Hobbs decided 2014 a fitting year to finally publish Songs for the Witch Woman, as it marks the centennial of Parsons’s birth.
Ultimately, though, the Cameron-Parsons love story, and therefore the book, is evergreen. The book embarks on an intimate archaeological dig, tracing the emotions of two lovers through the clarity of their handwriting, the delicacy of their line.
“They had a very advanced idea of what it meant to be with another person,” Haines says. “There is this feeling that they were both free, but also fully consumed by the other, within this ultimate passion that is maybe eschewed today. It is beyond romantic.”
Songs for the Witch Woman serves as an entrancing introduction to the life and work of one of Los Angeles’s most fascinating couples — a dancing flicker that beckons the reader to come closer, to learn more.
Beware the lure of this forgotten LA romance, however. Cameron and Parsons were not a couple to conform to a happy ending.
“They were not seeking someone to grow old with by the fire,” Pendle says. “They were each seeking someone to embrace and burn up with.”
“Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman” runs through January 11, 2015, at MOCA Pacific Design Center.
Robert Garrova is a writer and multimedia journalist living in Los Angeles.
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