Marvel Whiteside Parsons did not like the name he was given, but it did describe his life: it was quite a marvel. He changed his first name to be more common, but nothing about him was conventional.
Parsons was born into a wealthy family living on “Millionaire’s Mile” in Pasadena, California. After graduating from a small, private high school, he shunned the upper class society of his parents. His mother divorced his father after finding out about an affair, and she turned Parsons against his dad.
When he was 14 years old, Parsons started experimenting with fuel that could be used to propel rockets. He didn’t graduate from college but opted to work for Hercules Powder and then Halifax Explosives which was in the Mojave Desert. Professionally he went by the name “John.”
Helen Northrup, a local girl, was the one thing that could distract Parsons from his scientific endeavors, and they married in 1935. In his personal life, Parsons preferred to be called “Jack.” Eventually that was the name that stuck.
Parsons and his best friend Edward S. Forman got their kicks from experimenting with potential rocket motors in the Devil’s Gate Dam area of the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena. They made connections at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, California Institute of Technology (GALCIT), and in 1937 they exploited those friendships to get lab space at Caltech for their experiments. As it turns out, scientists using explosive materials don’t make good neighbors. After an explosion that damaged some of their equipment, they became known on campus as The Suicide Squad. After the second explosion, they were sent back to the Arroyo. Their outdoor laboratory is where Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) was founded, and the current campus is virtually on the same spot.
Since Parsons and his colleague from Caltech, Frank Malina, lived so close to Hollywood, they channeled their experiences into a screenplay. Their story was about some guys trying to develop rockets in California, and they didn’t try very hard to disguise the similarities between themselves and the characters. At the end of the screenplay, Parsons’ character meets an untimely death by accidentally blowing himself up while trying to stop an experiment. Nothing came of this venture, however.
In 1939, Parsons was introduced to the works of Aleister Crowley, an occultist writer, practitioner of black magic and founder of the religion of Thelema. Crowley’s writings resonated with Parsons, and he joined the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), an international secret society led by Crowley. Parsons joined the OTO’s local group called the Agape Lodge, which was based in Pasadena and led by Wilfred Smith. Parsons assumed yet another name, “Frater 210,” but he only used it in the context of his occult practices.
Parsons pursued both his scientific and spiritual interests with equal zeal. In 1942 he, Forman, Malina and Theodore von Karman founded Aerojet Corporation whose first product was the Jet Assist Take Off (JATO) rocket motors. Their immediate application was to give extra boosting power for military planes during World War II.
With the money he was getting from Aerojet, Parsons could support his spiritual activities. He got a huge house on South Orange Grove Blvd. in Pasadena and relocated the Agape Lodge to the downstairs. He and Helen lived in the largest room upstairs and turned it into a temple. The other rooms were used by Smith and many unconventional renters.
Again, the neighbors didn’t appreciate Parsons’ activities. There was once a rumor that a naked lady was jumping through fire in the back yard, but whenever the police came to investigate such allegations, Parsons intercepted them at the door. His good looks, charming personality, sense of humor and claims of being a respected scientist at Caltech convinced them there was nothing to be concerned about.
Drugs and illicit sex were routine. With so many people living in such close quarters, it didn’t take long for Smith and Helen to have an affair and a son. Parsons divorced Helen and immediately took up with her younger sister, Sara Elizabeth Northrup, known as Betty. He convinced Betty, 11 years his junior, to drop out of USC and live with him, but they never got married. They followed the OTO belief that jealousy was an emotion not felt by enlightened people, and even though they were committed to each other, they each had many lovers.
In 1944, GALCIT became the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Parsons is credited with being one of the founders. After World War II, Aerojet was bought out by General Tire. Parsons didn’t see much of a future in rocket fuel without a war, and money wasn’t a big priority for him, so he sold his stock. For two years he worked for Vulcan Powder Company in Pasadena.
About that time a man named L. Ron Hubbard came on the scene. He received a medical discharge from the Navy after having been at the Pasadena Area Station Hospital. Hubbard and Parsons met through a common interest in science fiction and became friends. Hubbard was looking for a place to land and moved into the house despite having a wife and two kids in Washington State. It didn’t take Hubbard long to integrate himself into the life and practices of the group, including poaching Parsons’ girlfriend, Betty. Parsons found it very difficult to keep his jealous feelings at bay, but that didn’t seem to jeopardize his friendship with Hubbard.
Parsons engaged in an 11-day, multi-stage, ceremonial ritual called Babalon Working to manifest the “Scarlet Woman,” fulfilling a prophecy of Aleister Crowley. Hubbard joined Parsons in the rituals primarily acting as the scribe and recording his visions. When a red haired woman named Elizabeth Cameron showed up at the house one day, Parsons was convinced he had successfully conjured her.
Parsons needed income, so he and Hubbard and Betty started a new business venture called Allied Enterprises. They were planning to buy sail boats on the East Coast and bring them to California for resale. Hubbard contributed about $1,100 to the company against Parsons nearly $21,000. In April 1946, Hubbard and Betty left town with the majority of Allied’s money and were found living on a boat in Miami with no intention of returning to California. Parsons high tailed it to Florida and discovered that Hubbard had actually bought three boats. Parsons sued Hubbard who was ordered to give Parsons two of the boats and repay the money he absconded with, which he never did.
This was a turning point for both men. Hubbard married Betty, although he hadn’t divorced his first wife, and when Parsons returned to California, he married Cameron. Parsons was ready for something different spiritually, too. He separated from OTO and sold the house.
Parsons found work at North American Aviation Company and later Hughes Aircraft. While at Hughes Aircraft, Parsons was working with Israel to design and build a plant to develop explosives and armaments. He used his clearance to take home confidential documents. He claimed they were old ones he was using to add to his resume, but the FBI started investigating him for spying. This got him fired from Hughes.
He and Cameron left Pasadena for a while but returned to live in the carriage house on the Orange Grove property he once owned. Parsons worked as a consultant for the movies and at a gas station, and he continued to experiment with explosives at home.
On June 17, 1952 there was an explosion which the neighbors a mile away heard. Parsons’ arm was blown off, and he died shortly after arriving at the hospital. He died the same way his character in the screenplay did, foreshadowed almost 15 years earlier. He was only 37 years old. His mother lived nearby, and they had always maintained a very close relationship. She was distraught about the death of her son, and she immediately overdosed on sleeping pills and died in her chair.
Parsons legacy included many patents for liquid and solid fuel for rockets. A specimen of one of his solid fuel motors is on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. In 1972 he was honored by having a crater on the moon name after him. It seems appropriate that the crater is on the dark side.
QUESTION: What role does religion play in your life?
©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved
Canter, John, Sex and Rockets, The Occult World of Jack Parsons. Los Angeles: Feral House, 1999.