Support for LAist comes from
We Explain L.A.
Stay Connected
Podcasts LA Made
Blood, Sweat & Rockets: Sexmagick in the Desert
LA Made Season 1 - Blood Sweat and Rockets
Episode 4
26:33
Blood, Sweat & Rockets: Sexmagick in the Desert
While Frank Malina struggles with the militarization of his work, Jack Parsons is not so bothered. Instead, he's having the time of his life enjoying the Squad’s success and giving in entirely to hedonism and Sexmagick. It's all fun and games until the FBI starts investigating. Episode 5 will launch January 10th. This episode is sponsored by BetterHelp. Save 10% off your first month at BetterHelp.com/ROCKETS

M. G. Lord 00:00
[music in] Until a few years ago, the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas had an aircraft called the KC-135. It's a big four- engine military jet used to study microgravity. A typical flight, about two to three hours, flies a route of 30 to 40 parabolic arcs. It's like a roller coaster. You go up, up, up, up, up, smashed against the floor by about twice the force of gravity. Then you go down, down, down, down, down, floating in freefall. Each arc has 20 to 25 seconds of "zero gravity," when passengers experience how it feels to be in outer space. Almost nobody at the Johnson Space Center called the plane the KC- 135. Ever since the Mercury program, astronauts have been calling it the "Vomit Comet." Anyway, in 2001, I went to Houston for a week of physiological flight training that would culminate in a flight on this KC-135. I was invited to fly as a journalist on a student research flight with dancers who were studying "conservation of angular momentum," a very fancy pretext to choreograph a dance in microgravity. I assumed the students would float gleefully around the padded cabin while I would be lashed to a seat in the back, throwing up. But here's the thing. We took off, got ready for the first parabola, went up, up, up, up, then crested and went down. 30 times. And I didn't get sick, not once. Instead, I felt inexplicable joy. I was in microgravity. I did triple somersaults. Anyone who knows me knows this is not the kind of thing I would likely say, but as I was floating around, I kept thinking, I feel as if I'm being held in the palm of God. Back on the ground, "held in the palm of God" stayed with me. [music out] My awareness of the world and its interconnectedness intensified. I felt transformed. You know, early in the history of science, the mystical and the scientific [music in] were not rigorously segregated. Sir Isaac Newton was obsessed with alchemy. Galileo practice astrology. Alfred Wallace, who helped Charles Darwin formulate natural selection, believed he could communicate with spirits. Then there's Jack Parsons, co- founder of Aerojet, regarded by some as a father of modern rocketry, and-- self-proclaimed antichrist. I'm M.G. Lord. This is season one of LA Made: Blood, Sweat and Rockets. [music out]

M. G. Lord 03:10
[music in] Jack Parsons. So before he starts calling himself the antichrist, before he becomes known both for his achievements in rocketry and for hosting some of Southern California's wildest orgies, Parsons is just another kid from Pasadena. Admittedly, at the start, quite a wealthy one.

Justin Chapman 03:30
Jack Parsons was born, Marvel Whiteside Parsons was his original name, the same name as his father.

M. G. Lord 03:36
That's Justin Chapman, a journalist based in Pasadena. Chapman wrote a three-part series on Jack Parsons to commemorate the 70th anniversary of his death.

Justin Chapman 03:46
His dad was not a good dude and cheated on his mom with prostitutes. And so his uh, mother, Ruth, changed his name to John Parsons with the nickname Jack Parsons. And they moved in with her parents to a mansion on South Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena, known as Millionaire's Row, with lots of stately mansions and big estates. And her parents were really wealthy, up until the stock market crash of 1929.

M. G. Lord 04:18
As a boy, Parsons had long hair and a round face. His fancy clothes and pretentious English accent, perhaps something he got from talking to his servants at home, set him apart from the other kids in school. One of Parsons' closest childhood friends was Ed Forman even though the two of them grew up in separate worlds.

Justin Chapman 04:39
Jack Parsons was rich where the other students weren't. He also dressed nicely as a child and throughout his life. He was always dressed in suits, so that made him stand out and, and get picked on by uh, bullies and, and other kids. And actually, that's how he and Ed Forman became friends, is that Ed Forman stuck up for him and sort of saved him in a couple of situations.

M. G. Lord 05:00
Parsons' life radically changed in 1929 at the start of the Great Depression. His family lost its wealth, and within two years, his grandfather died. Parsons, now the sole male breadwinner, took a job at the Hercules Powder Company, where he became an explosives expert. He hoped to get a degree in chemistry and physics at Pasadena Junior College, but a lack of funds forced him to drop out after one term.

Justin Chapman 05:06
He, you know, was uneducated in that sense but had a brilliant mind that was able to think outside the box and come up with these new fuels and ways of, of doing rocketry. And he wanted to get an education, ultimately didn't need it to accomplish what he did.

M. G. Lord 05:50
So, as we learned in an earlier episode, the Suicide Squad- [music out] Parsons and Forman, Frank Malina, Tsien Hsue-shen- find success selling specialized rockets, JATOs, to the U.S. Military for the war effort. [music in] But the solid fuel JATOs are still having issues. The powder can't withstand large changes in temperature. The military sees this as something of a design flaw and would prefer a fuel source that won't blow up unpredictably. Parsons tries different mixtures of chemicals, but to no avail. Then, a breakthrough. As the story goes, one day Parsons watches workers spread black asphalt on a roof and an epiphany strikes. Why not use asphalt instead of powder? Suddenly, hundreds of years of rocketry are turned upside down. Safer to handle, easy to store, much easier to use. An entirely new category of rocket fuel is invented.

Justin Chapman 06:58

The formula that Jack Parsons and Frank Malina developed is still used uh, in uh, nuclear missiles and the, the space shuttle and everything we've used to get into space. That discovery in addition to eventually launching the U.S. rocketry program, also led to the success of Aerojet.

M. G. Lord 07:17
So, rocketry was a passion for Parsons, but I don't know that it was the prevailing passion in his life, because from a very early age, Parsons was also fascinated by the occult. The occult, broadly speaking, means things that are supernatural, outside the realm of science. It can mean magic or witchcraft or just garden-variety mysticism. In the 1920s, when Parsons was growing up, the occult was frequently tied to "spiritualism." People attended seances to supposedly speak to people who had died. Emphasis on supposedly. And Los Angeles itself was becoming a hub for alternative spirituality, especially among the Hollywood film community, where some actors regularly consulted astrologers about their careers. Here's Justin Chapman again.

Justin Chapman 08:12
It was sort of a transitional period, early 20th century, where, you know, the stronghold of religion was waning a little bit with evolution, different scientific advances that Einstein made, and others. And there's a lot of pseudo-science at the time.

M. G. Lord 08:27
In the case of Parsons, it's kind of perfect timing. He's an only child, brilliant and intuitive, somewhat handsome, but also frequently lonely. Forman was a sidekick, a brother of sorts. What Parsons seems to miss most in his life is a father figure, until he encounters hedonist and occultist Aleister Crowley. And that's how Parsons becomes the "most valued member of a mysterious new religion." [music out] [music in] Liljan Wunderman, Frank Malina's first wife, met Jack Parsons and his wife Helen Northrup through Malina's work at Aerojet. They often invited her over to their house to listen to records, and then to the desert for camping. There, she got a feeling that Jack and Helen weren't like the other buttoned-up residents of Pasadena. Here's Wunderman recounting that story to me when I interviewed her on December 22nd, 1999.

Liljan Wunderman 09:29
[audio clip] All of a sudden, these people are screaming "Pan, Panio, Pan, Pan" out in the middle of the desert at the moon, and I'm thinking, Jeez, something really weird is going on. What, you know, what is this? And Jack is talking to me about a man named Crowley and his poetry...

M. G. Lord 09:53
That man Jack's talking about is Aleister Crowley, occultist, poet, and founder of the Church of Thelema.

Justin Chapman 10:02
He was called the wickedest man in the world in the British tabloids.

M. G. Lord 10:06
Pasadena journalist Justin Chapman again.

Justin Chapman 10:10
He was uh, into sex magic and black magic, believed that people should be able to do whatever they wanted. But he was also a big father figure for Jack Parsons. He sort of is a mentor, a spiritual mentor over a number of years.

M. G. Lord 10:24
Crowley is a bisexual, bohemian heroin addict. Also a misogynist and racist, by anybody's standards. Yet Crowley, at that time, was a major influence on Western counterculture, and he became a major, albeit remote influence on Parsons. We didn't find any evidence that the two of them ever met in person, but Parsons pored over Crowley's work, and the two of them corresponded for years. Still, when Liljan found out Parsons was a fan of Crowley, she didn't think much about it until Parsons and his wife, Helen, invited her to a party in Los Angeles around 1940. She went there without her husband.

Liljan Wunderman 11:08
[audio clip] The party in Los Angeles was the one that finally told me that this guy was really off on some trip that I didn't understand at all. You had women dressed in diaphanous things, you know, with everything showing, and uh, there were women dancing around in no clo- almost no clothes.

M. G. Lord 11:29
And Liljan says that at the center of the room, were two coffins.

M. G. Lord 11:34
[audio clip] Was there a mass? Or did you just...

Liljan Wunderman 11:36
[audio clip] Well, there was a service. There were readings, you know, of some kind, and there was incense flowing. There were candles. But somebody came out of the coffin and started dancing. And uh- then it became quite clear to me that there were real sexual goings ons here that I was not uh, I didn't know what the hell it was. I went to Frank when he got home and I said, " Listen, do you have any idea what, what your friend Jack is into?" [M.G. laughs] And I told him thinking he would be shocked, and he says, "Oh, yeah. Well, leave him alone. That, that's him. He's um, he's like that."

M. G. Lord 12:12
To understand what the hell Liljan witnessed, [music out] here are the basics. In the early [music in] 1900s, Parsons' idol, Aleister Crowley, started a religion called Thelema, anointing himself as a prophet. They have a mystical order they call the Ordo Templi Orientis, or OTO. And by the 1920s and 30s, that religion was spreading, including to Greater Los Angeles. Crowley's got a representative there who oversees the OTO's business at the Agape Lodge, located at that point in Hollywood. Now it's 1939. The lodge has a weekly ceremony open to the public called a Gnostic Mass. A 25 year old Parsons and his wife Helen start attending meetings regularly. The OTO's ceremony, its Gnostic Mass, is a pagan twist on a Catholic communion. You "accept" the body of Jesus Christ in the form of a wafer of some sort, you drink a sip of wine that stands in for his blood, but there's one major difference.

You're doing this in front of a naked woman. I mean, there are plenty of other things that happen. You can find versions of the ceremony on YouTube. But one of the big questions I have is- why? [music out]

Justin Chapman 13:35
The OTO's central belief is "Do what thou wilt." Essentially, people should be able to do [music in] whatever they want. In addition to political freedom and spiritual freedom, it was also a proponent of sexual freedom and breaking taboos, mostly around sex. And so they use sex magic to do that, which is using sexual intercourse and, and orgasm in rituals to harness energy towards a specific goal, whether that's summoning some being or trying to have some outcome in your life. A, a lot of it is "members only" kind of information. You know, there was sharing of partners, there's polygamy, there's homosexuality, there's, there's all these different, just taboo-breaking sexual activities. OTO allowed Parsons the freedom to explore in ways that he felt society was holding him back. He wanted to be able to have different partners and explore different things that weren't typically allowed in 1930s, 1940s America.

M. G. Lord 14:39
For Parsons, his occult practices and his rocketry experiments are two sides of the same coin. It's about discovery. It's about transcending the norms of the day. Unfortunately for Parsons, it becomes tricky to balance his passion for both.

Justin Chapman 15:04
Jack Parsons essentially lived a, a double life and they would seem like separate urges, but really, I think they were both related to his need really to expand human consciousness, expand humans' physical reach into space. And I think he probably didn't see it as a double life. He probably saw it as uh, the, his interest as related, [music out] especially early on when rocketry was not considered legitimate science. It was considered uh, just the stuff of science fiction novels, but it was these two things that led him to contribute to science in such a meaningful way.

M. G. Lord 15:42
[music in] Around the time the Squad has success with JATOs, a rift develops between Parsons and Malina. It's November 1941. One of GALCIT's employees, a night watchman hired on Parsons' recommendation, gets drunk. He steals a car at gunpoint. Here's Malina's version, as recorded in an interview for the JPL archives. "They'd had a seance and so on. What all they were doing, I don't know. Anyway, he had a gun, and he found a car on the street where Parsons was living, and there was a couple necking in the car. He forced them out at the point of the gun, took the car, drove to Hollywood, evidently not quite knowing what he was gonna do. And then, after a certain amount of time, he drove back to Pasadena. When he arrived at the flagpole by the Colorado Avenue bridge, the police were waiting for him. I went to the jail to talk to the fellow and asked him what exactly made him do a stupid thing like that? Well, he was very vague, and I couldn't get anything out of Parsons or Forman as to why this had happened. It then became quite evident that whatever it was that Parsons and Forman were playing with had certain worrisome aspects." Well, "worrisome" proves to be more correct than Malina knows. Having an employee arrested for grand theft auto could threaten GALCIT's contracts with the military, their prime customer. Malina found it difficult to trust Parsons after that. By 1942, Parsons and his wife Helen have moved to a mansion on South Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena.

Pretty quickly, Parsons starts to buck the neighborhood's convention. [music changes] He converts the estate into a boarding house. He only wants tenants, according to an ad in the newspaper, who are "...atheists, anarchists, or other exotic types." People call it The Parsonage. On top of that, the OTO's lodge gets relocated to the property, and Smith, Parsons' mentor, lives on the grounds. They start throwing wild parties, that typical mix of sex, drugs, and pagan worship.

Justin Chapman 18:16
Generally, he's doing these rituals. He and Ed Forman are tinkering with explosives and, and learning how to do those things, doing drugs. Uh, they, they got into uh, morphine and peyote and cocaine. So that became a big part of his acti- his uh, work activities as well, and trying to go above his pay grade in terms of these sex magic rituals.

M. G. Lord 18:41
At one point, Parsons starts a magazine called Oriflamme. The first issue includes a poem by Parsons that kind of sums up the period.

Parson’s VO actor 18:51
"I hate Don Quixote. I live on peyote/ marijuana, morphine and cocaine./ I never know sadness, but only a madness/ that burns at the heart and the brain."

M. G. Lord 19:04
In a letter to one of his friends in the OTO, Parsons writes,

Parson’s VO actor 19:07
"You know, I was an only and lonely child, and it is a fine thing to inherit such a large and splendid family. I never knew a father, and it is nice to have one now."

M. G. Lord 19:19
Well, the large and splendid family isn't without its problems. For one thing, Parsons starts an affair with Betty, his wife's half-sister, who's 17 years old. [music out] According to Chapman, it actually started much earlier.

Justin Chapman 19:37
A couple years before they got involved with the OTO, because Helen became a member of the OTO as well- it was around the same time- Jack started an affair with her half [music in] sister, younger sister, Betty, who... She told her daughter um, before she died later in life that she was 13 at the time, and he was uh, 25 or 27.

M. G. Lord 20:00
Now, different sources assign Betty different ages. According to "The Unknown God," Martin Starr's book about Aleister Crowley, Betty, just prior to her death, told her own daughter that she was 13 when the affair started. And that's what Justin said, too. But according to an interview with Betty earlier in life, she was 15. We know Parsons was born in 1914, Betty in 1924. No matter what, that's a 10-year age gap. Whatever Betty's age was, it was likely underage, perhaps significantly. And once again, we see

Parsons being reckless, flouting rules and morals. That's his approach, right? On top of all the drugs, the demon summoning, he also keeps large barrels of gunpowder stored around the house. He loves experimenting with different chemicals, without much worry for blowing things up. At work, at home, life is something to be toyed with. [music out] This is of course, not without repercussions. To add to his complicated homelife, Parsons soon must deal with an investigation of the Parsonage. The well-to-do neighbors of [music in] South Orange Grove Avenue are fed up with the mayhem. They file numerous complaints. The police start poking around, including the FBI.

Justin Chapman 21:31
And they're like, "Well we, you know, we had, we had heard that it was a, a gathering of perverts over here." So that's how the, the neighbors looked at what was going on at the house. You know, there's reports of a pregnant woman jumping over a huge fire during one of these rituals outside. Just lots of reports of, of orgies and, and parties and drugs. They called the police and the FBI on Jack Parsons a number of times, and they would come and investigate, and he'd tell 'em, "Hey, we're just a freedom loving group, you know, studying philosophy and, and spirituality and, and are anti-fascist and anti- communist" and uh, knew how to talk the cops out of taking any action, and they didn't.

M. G. Lord 22:12
So Parsons gets away with his sex magic orgies for now. But the same wildness that drives him to experiment, that makes him the life of the party, is wearing on his Aerojet colleagues and his partners. [music out] Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And maybe that's true. But my problem with Parsons' Satanism isn't the goofy sex rituals. It's the philosophy behind it. "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law." That's not about freedom or defying convention. It's about selfishness. It's the antithesis of someone like Frank Malina. Malina is high-minded, egalitarian. He hoped people [music in] could work together to create a better world. He wants to explore space for the benefit of humankind. Whereas Jack Parsons, no matter his scientific prowess, always seems to me like an insecure little boy, out to conquer space just to prove he can. Here's the thing. My "held in the palm of God" experience in that vomit comet was about feeling connected, being a part of something bigger than myself. It makes sense to me that so many people look up at the stars, or look down at the Earth from space, and come away with the desire to work together for the benefit of us all. What doesn't make sense to me is how someone has those experiences and selfishly decides, "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law." And in the next episode, we'll hear how Parsons' philosophy affected one of the people he worked with. Barbara Canright, a bright mathematician who made crucial contributions to the Squad's JATO experiments. Canright had personal experiences with Parsons that affected her so deeply that she refused to speak of them ever again. That's coming up next on Blood, Sweat and Rockets. [music out]

M. G. Lord 24:25
[music in] LA Made: Blood, Sweat and Rockets is hosted by me, M.G. Lord. The show is a production of LAist Studios in collaboration with Western Sound. Shana Naomi Krochmal is our Vice President of Podcasts, and Antonia Cereijido is the Executive Producer for LAist Studios. Ben Adair is the Executive Producer for Western Sound. Dan Leone is the showrunner. Producers are Savannah Wright, Tyler Hill, Caitlin Parker, and Becky Nicolaides. The show is written by Rachel Knowles, Rosecrans Baldwin, and me, M.G. Lord. It was edited by Savannah Wright. Sound designed by Tyler Hill. Mixing and mastering by Tom MacLean. Research and consulting by History Studio. Our website at LAist.com is designed by Andy Cheatwood and the digital marketing teams at LAist Studios. The marketing team of LAist Studios created our branding. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Taylor Coffman, Sabir Brara, Kristen Hayford, Kristen Muller, Andy Orozco, Michael Cosentino and Leo G. LA Made: Blood, Sweat and Rockets is a production of LAist Studios. Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. [music out]