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L.A. Then and Now / Cecilia Rasmussen

Life as Satanist Propelled Rocketeer

March 19, 2000|Cecilia Rasmussen

I height [sic] Don Quixote, I live on peyote,

marijuana, morphine and cocaine.

I never knew sadness, but only a madness that

burns at the heart and the brain.

--John Whiteside Parsons


He was an unorthodox genius, a poet and rocket scientist who helped give birth to an institution that would become mankind's window on the universe.

He was also a devotee of the black arts, a sci-fi junkie and host of backyard orgies on Pasadena's stately Millionaires' Row.

John "Jack" Whiteside Parsons, a founder of the legendary Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a maverick visionary honored with a moon crater bearing his name, gave no early hint of the inner stirrings that propelled him to worship the devil and lead an extraordinary double life: respected scientist by day, dedicated occultist by night.

Over a little more than a decade, the tall and vainly handsome Parsons skillfully twinned his two existences as rocketeer and antichrist leader of the occult Ordo Templi Orientis.

His mysterious death in an explosion in 1952 left many wondering whether Parsons was a victim of murder or suicide--or simply of an accident at his own momentarily careless hands.

Born Marvel Whiteside Parsons in 1914, he was a mama's boy who hated authority and detested social mores. He was reared by his aging, wealthy grandparents and his mother, Ruth. Embittered by her adulterous husband, also named Marvel, who abandoned his family, Ruth began calling her son John.

Young John found his companions in poetry, which he read the way other boys read comic books. He also gulped down the space and sci-fi fantasies of Jules Verne. He and his childhood pal, the mechanically gifted Ed Forman, tinkered with black-powder rockets and pocked their backyards with craters.

Parsons was at USC when word of Caltech graduate student Frank Malina's project on rocket propulsion and high-altitude rockets reached him and Forman. The young duo brazenly offered to help. Even though neither youth had a degree, Theodore von Karman, the director of Caltech's Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory and one of the world's leading scientists, took them up on their offer.

Unencumbered by academic knowledge, Parsons was a cookbook chemist obsessed with things that go bang, while Forman helped turn designs into hardware. On Halloween 1936, the rocketeers dug trenches and piled up sandbags in the Arroyo Seco and attempted to test a rocket motor they had built. Fueled with a brew of gaseous oxygen and methyl alcohol, the motor burned for three seconds.

This inauspicious beginning marked the start of rocketry in California at a time when America still saw space exploration as pulp fiction. The test site in the Arroyo Seco later became JPL.

Von Karman allocated campus lab space to the rocketry project. But after two lab explosions, the group--by then dubbed the "Suicide Squad"--was kicked off campus and headed back to the Arroyo Seco.

Parsons' new fame as Caltech's best explosives expert took him to the courtroom as an expert witness. In 1938, he testified against Los Angeles Police Department Lt. Earl Kynette, a mayoral crony accused in the car bombing of an ex-LAPD detective-turned-private eye.

Parsons earned his bread and butter working on a jet-assisted takeoff unit that developed into a solid-fuel rocket that would help win World War II.

Early in the war, in 1942, Parsons and his wife, Helen, moved into an aging Pasadena mansion. The house on South Orange Grove Boulevard was next door to the former estate of beer baron Adolphus Busch with its famous gardens.

But Millionaires' Row had never seen anything like Parsons and his friends.

Parsons converted the rooms into 19 apartments, and invited in an odd mix of Bohemian artists, writers, scientists and occultists. The residents mockingly named the place "the Parsonage," for it was anything but.

Before dropping out of USC, the poetry-loving Parsons had cultivated an interest in the writings of Aleister Crowley, the English sorcerer and Satanist who called himself "Beast 666" and "the wickedest man in the world."

Soon the house on South Orange Grove was a laboratory of another sort--for black magic.

In 1944, Parsons resigned from JPL in favor of whizzing through time and space via peyote, mescaline, marijuana, opiates and hallucinogens.

Soon, the marriage began to unravel. Helen became pregnant by another member of the Parsonage circle, and Parsons took up with Helen's beautiful 18-year-old sister, Sara Northrup, before divorcing Helen.

Mutual curiosity about the mind's power led Parsons into a friendship in 1946 with L. Ron Hubbard, the future founder of Scientology. Hubbard moved into the house and later married Sara, Parsons' lover and sister-in-law, before divorcing his first wife.

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