As he was developing the highly explosive and toxic chemicals that would launch America into space, Pasadena’s Jack Parsons was ingesting cocaine, morphine and other drugs in his own earthly world of orgies and Satanism
Part 1 of 2
By Michael Collins
“Only in the irrational and unknown direction can we come to wisdom again.” — Jack Parsons
Hard on the northwest corner of Pasadena is an institution that the city has long identified with – NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. First directed and founded, in part, by the legendary Caltech professor Theodore von Kármán, JPL is now the 6,000 employee, 176-acre spread to some of America’s greatest technological triumphs. Our space program began January 31, 1958 when the first U.S. satellite, Explorer I, built and controlled by JPL, soared towards the heavens. JPL had made its mark in space craft navigation and control. The company has since constructed deep space vehicles that have explored every planet, save Pluto, and also manages the worldwide Deep Space Network which studies the ozone, oceans and our own terra firma.
A tarnished plaque, by JPL’s visitor’s center, commemorates the Halloween 1936 event where history was made. A group of scientists, under von Kármán’s direction, initiated the “first rocket motor burning gaseous oxygen and methyl alcohol (which resulted in) the subsequent founding of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1944.” One of the “individuals who participated…” was John W. Parsons.
A delightful screwball
Von Kármán later wrote in 1958 that Parsons was in the top three of American rocketry only after von Kármán himself and fellow rocket scientist Frank Malina. Parsons helped lead the way in creating the first American rockets putting the “jet propulsion” in JPL’s name. He also was key in the idea to start using potassium perchlorate as a rocket fuel oxidizer instead of aluminum and other chemicals. This idea led to the development of aluminum perchlorate which is still used today for the same purpose in the Space Shuttle and America’s nuclear missile arsenal. Breakthroughs like these led to the March 19, 1942 formation of the then Pasadena-based Aerojet Corporation, now a massive military industrial complex company called Aerojet General Corporation.
Even though von Kármán praised him for his “rich talent for chemistry,” the grand man of rocketry also called Parsons “a delightful screwball” who “loved to recite pagan poetry to the sky while stamping his feet.” According to former Aerojet employee Frank Zwicky, Parsons invoked Pan, the untamed horned god of fertility, before each rocket test. But Parsons’ wackiness extends far beyond the random pagan chant according to the Feral House book “Sex and Rockets” by John Carter (which is the pseudonym of an individual who wishes to remain unknown for fear of losing his government job).
Carter writes that Parsons immersed himself in the black “magick” rituals of famed British occultist and bisexual drug addict Aleister Crowley. Soon Parsons began holding cabalistic drug-drenched sexual soirees at “the Parsonage” in an exclusive part of Pasadena then called the “Millionaire’s Mile.” Visitors to his home included science fiction writers like Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and future founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. Before being mysteriously blown to bits at the tender age of 37, Parsons went on to proclaim himself the Antichrist and apparently consummated his Oedipal complex with his mother, and the family dog. On film.
“Here in one man is about a dozen incredible stories — and all in the city of Pasadena!” said notorious Feral House book publisher, Adam Parfrey. “If only the Little Old Lady from Pasadena knew what was going on in the house next to hers!” Parfrey has made his name publishing a wide and wild variety of tomes including “Apocalypse Culture,” “Death Scenes: A Homicide Detective’s Scrapbook,” and, my favorite, “Grossed-Out Surgeon Vomits Inside Patient.”
“I’ve always been interested in the Jack Parsons story — here’s a man who is considered one of the most influential ‘left-hand path’ (dark) occultists of the 20th century, and at the same time was an extraordinary rocket scientist and co-founder of JPL,” Parfrey told the Weekly. “Without John Whiteside Parsons it would be hard to imagine the United States getting to the moon in the 1960s. And here is a man who dabbled in hard drugs, promoted occultism in his Pasadena mansion, and influenced the development of L. Ron Hubbard.”
Mixin’ it up
“In these experiences the ego will be totally altered or completely destroyed in the death that must precede a rebirth into life. The terror, agony and despair that accompany this process cannot be minimized.” — Jack Parsons
Marvel Whiteside Parson was born October 2, 1914, in Los Angeles to Marvel and Ruth Parsons, but was mostly raised in Pasadena’s famed Millionaire Mile. Soon thereafter, Marvel Sr. started having an illicit affair, which resulted in a Parsons divorce. Ruth never called her son Marvel again and began addressing him as John.
An eighth grade bully changed young John’s life – another kid, Edward S. Forman, saved John from a sure whuppin’. The two were inseparable after that and were soon setting off fireworks in Parsons’ backyard. By 1928, Foreman and Parsons started experimenting with small, solid fuel rockets. John began using glue as a binder for various gunpowder concoctions, an idea that would later lead to some of his greatest, and most toxic creations, the use of perchlorate as a rocket fuel oxidizer.
At the age of 18, Parsons joined the Hercules Powder Co. of Pasadena while attending a small, private establishment, University School. Two years later, Parsons went to work for Halifax Explosives in the Mojave Desert. Parsons soon met a pretty, well-to-do girl, Helen Northrup, at a church dance and the couple wed in the spring of 1935. “The early marriage to Helen served to break your family ties and effect a transference to her, away from a dangerous attachment to your mother,” Parson wrote referring to himself in the third person. “The experience at Halifax and Cal Tech served to strengthen your self reliance, scientific method and material powers.”
And what an experience at Caltech! JPL began in the 1920s, although it was then known as the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, California Institute of Technology (GALCIT). In 1926, GALCIT came under the control von Kármán. The first goal of the group was to develop a working rocket motor so they persuaded Pasadena to lease it three acres of land in the Arroyo Seco, just above the Devil’s Gate dam. The creek wash experiment site is now part of JPL. There Parsons, Foreman and Malina toiled in the ravine and repeatedly failed in their rocket motor tests, even though JPL considers the Halloween 1936 experiment its birth. A photograph portraying the trio, along with two other scientists, kickin’ it in the stream bed around an experimental rocket is now recreated, employing mannequins, at JPL’s annual open house and is called “the Nativity Scene.” It seems ironic that such a holy-sounding display features a re-creation depicting Parsons who would later claim he was the Antichrist.
Later GALCIT experiments met with better success. By January 16, 1937, the group had achieved firing a test rocket that roared for 44 seconds. By April, emboldened by its achievements and von Kármán’s power, the team moved onto Caltech proper and became known as the “Suicide Squad.”
While Parsons continued rocket propulsion, he also delved into the world of the occult, namely the Ordo Templi Orientis (Order of the Temple of the East), or ‘OTO.’ The occultic order’s highest secret grades, or levels of enlightenment, are thought to involve employing ‘tantric’ rites or sex ‘magick.’
Aleister Crowley joined the OTO in 1910 under the impression that it was like other Eastern Masonic orders. Three years later, Crowley, who called himself “the Beast 666,” published his infamous “The Book of Lies.” The Satanic tome angered OTO co-founder Theodor Reuss. He accused Crowley of revealing the highest order of the OTO, so he initiated Crowley into that order, or degree, so as to swear him to secrecy. By 1921, Crowley assumed control of the OTO and began replacing its Masonic material with what he called the “Thelema” which is the Greek word for “will.” The OTO, basically, was a secretive sex magick cult, which grew to obsess Parsons.
Parsons and Helen soon moved back to Parsons’ childhood Pasadena haunts into an old mansion next to Lilly Anheuser Busch, widow of the beer scion. The home at 1003 S. Orange, which became known as the Parsonage, was crammed with occultic tomes and expensive hi-fi equipment as Parson loved to crank up the volume on classical music. In the library hung a large portrait of Crowley. Soon Parsons shocked his neighbors when he started renting out rooms in the estate to undesirable types. Parsons placed ads in a local paper that made it clear that only artists, narcissists, atheists, musicians, bohemians or other exotic types need apply for rooms.
Parsons began having noisy parties where all sorts of weirdness went on. One visitor wrote that “two women in diaphanous gowns would dance around a pot of fire surrounded by coffins topped with candles…” Wild stories started flying and the police were soon at Parsons’ door investigating a report that a nude pregnant woman had jumped through a fire nine times. Parsons assured the cops that his was a respectable rocket scientist and police were on their way. Subsequently, a 16-year-old boy reported Parsons to the cops, claiming the scientist’s followers had forcibly sodomized him at a “Black Mass” at the house. The police didn’t buy the story and reported that the Parsons “cult” was little more than “an organization dedicated to religious and philosophical speculation, with respectable members such as a Pasadena bank president, doctors, lawyers, and Hollywood actors.” In 1942, the cops received an anonymous tip, via post from Texas, that accused Parsons of “black magic and sex orgies.” Parsons denied the charges and was cleared of any wrongdoing.
But sexual norms were being broken at the Parsonage. Crowley sent the first official OTO member to Parsons’ mansion, an Englishman named Wilfred Tabot Smith, in the early `40s. A good-looking womanizer, Smith began having sex with Helen Parsons who bore him a son in 1943. Though Crowley was no stranger to scandal and had a number of kids by different women, he nonetheless was angry. Crowley wrote him saying that Smith was giving the OTO “the reputation of being that slimy abomination ‘a love cult.’ Already in 1915 in Vancouver, all I knew was that you were running a mother and daughter in double harness – since then one scandal has followed another.”