In 2002, frieze published an essay by George Pendle titled ‘Strange Angels.’ Taking readers back to pre-war Los Angeles, Pendle told the bizarre-but-true story of John (‘Jack’) Whiteside Parsons, the autodidact rocket scientist whose work laid the foundations for space travel. Parsons’s life formed part of ‘a strange, Pynchonian network’ that linked ‘the Edwardian occultist Aleister Crowley […] and the maverick genius of America’s cinematic avant-garde, Kenneth Anger,’ not to mention artists Marjorie Cameron, George Herms, Bruce Connor and Wallace Berman, the actor Dennis Hopper, sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein, and the future founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. In 2005, Pendle developed his essay into a full-length biography of Parsons, titled Strange Angel, which has now been dramatized as a TV series with the same name, and which began streaming on CBS All Access in June 2018. frieze magazine’s US Editor-at-Large, Dan Fox, who commissioned the 2002 essay, caught up with Pendle to talk rocketry, mysticism and TV.
Dan Fox What, in a nutshell, is the Jack Parsons tale?
George Pendle Jack Parsons wanted to travel to the moon but the scientific establishment thought this was impossible. So, inspired by the pulp science fiction he was reading the 20-something Parsons built rockets in his backyard, inventing the science of rocketry as he went along and co-founding the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. But Parsons wasn't satisfied. He also wanted to travel to even stranger lands through occult means. The scientific establishment thought this was impossible but Parsons figured it hadn't exactly got a good track record on what was possible or not. So he became a member of Aleister Crowley’s occult group, the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), learned magickal rituals – including the secrets of sex-magick – and alongside such figures as L. Ron Hubbard and Robert Heinlein, conjured up elementals, spirits, storms and more. By day he built rockets for the military, by night he engaged in esoteric rituals. Unsurprisingly the FBI removed his security clearance, his career was destroyed, and he spiralled down amidst allegations of black magic and madness. He died at the age of 37 in an explosion in his home laboratory in Pasadena.
DF What interested you in his life story?
GP Isn’t that self-explanatory? Parsons was a weird hub of seemingly disparate worlds – science, science fiction, the occult. That made him irresistible. Also, very little was really known about him. He was an inhabitant of footnotes and hearsay, always in the shadows. I figured he could use some daylight poured on him.
DF What are your impressions of the TV adaptation?
GP It’s still early days, and I have no skin in the game, but I'm pretty impressed by how accurate it is. There is so much detail in the show that came from the book: the car Parsons drove, what brand of cigarettes he smoked, what knot he would have used to tied his tie. It’s like having an entire staff realize the inside of my mind. Some names have been changed and characters condensed but the spirit feels very true to what I imagine it would have been. His story follows such a huge arc that the steady pace they're setting in the first couple of episodes augurs well for a complete wig-out in the later seasons. And they've got some top notch cult (naturally) directors for some of the episodes (David Lowery, Ben Wheatley) so it seems like they're going to do it right. Also Jack Reynor, who plays Jack Parsons, manages to carry off Parsons’s pencil moustache with aplomb – a vital and necessary talent.
DF What's it like seeing your work adapted for the screen? How does the TV depiction of Parsons map onto the idea you had of him in your mind?
GP It’s great. He’s been living in my head for 16 years so suddenly seeing him spring to life on screen, in such detail, is like freeing a prisoner from his cage. And yet I also have found myself having slightly mixed emotions, as I imagine any jailor would when their prisoner is finally released. I’m delighted Parsons’s story is finally getting an airing on a big stage, but a Gollum-like part of me keeps muttering, ‘He’s mine, you hear! All mine!’
Though I scraped everything I could from the cracks of history, much of Parsons’s life is still unknown. So what the TV show is doing is taking what I found and running with it, which I couldn’t do because I was writing an historical biography. For instance, the character Ernest in the TV series – a next door neighbour who introduces Parsons to the cult – is a fictional device. The way Parsons actually got into the cult was through friends suggesting he come along. It wasn’t terribly dramatic and I think Parsons was a lot less ambivalent about it than he appears to be in the TV show. But by creating this character of Ernest they’re giving that part of the story much more narrative drive – a character who is all Id, a manifestation of that side of Parsons made flesh.
DF What is the appeal of Parsons’s story to a contemporary audience?
GP I think Parsons’s willingness to defy possibility, probability and plausibility holds a perennial appeal. He symbolized in many respects an age of freedom and exploration – whether it be backyard rocketry or homegrown occultism – which slowly became consolidated into systems of control like the military-industrial complex and corporate cults like Scientology.
Yet I think, as current interest in using psychedelics for medicinal and therapeutic purposes suggests, more people are realizing that the mind cannot always be served by modern science as it stands, and that they might be able to help themselves by following strange paths and seeing where they lead. The brain is a very peculiar beast, and it takes all kinds of goads and leashes to get it to operate properly. I wish I’d been a bit older when I wrote the book because although I tried to be as objective as I could, I don’t think I was as open to Parsons’s occult interests as perhaps I should have been. I never doubted Parsons’s belief in the veracity of magick, but I did doubt its veracity myself and that may have given the book an unconscious bias against that side of him. Having lived another 15 years I’m much more interested in people taking solace in whatever will help them. The reality of something is less important than its relevance to you. Psychedelics, mystical experiences, spinning class, whatever it may be. Just because you believe there’s an occult force out there speaking to you, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad for you. Perhaps it can help you.
DF ‘Ad astra per aspera’ (to the stars through hardship) was Parsons’s motto, and he has been described as the ‘James Dean of CalTech.’ Is there something about Parsons’s story that isn’t just about stars in an astronomical sense, but in the Hollywood sense too? Is it a story of self-invention, of the transformation of personhood?
GP Yes, very much so. Ever since the Europeans arrived, California has always held a strange alchemical pull, and I wanted to delve into that. People have moved to the state, and to Los Angeles in particular, to be transmogrified, to leave their old lives behind them. Everything base can become gold in the blink of an eye there. There are a whole host of modern archetypes that have cropped up around this metamorphosic quality, whether it be the prospector panning for gold, the consumptive seeking out the sunlight for their health, or the wannabe actor or actress arriving in the city on a bus from the Midwest. This aura of transformative possibility utterly infuses Parsons’s story.
When it comes to Hollywood specifically, Parsons was not untouched by the movie bug. He wrote a film treatment in the late 1930s with his rocketry colleague Frank Malina, in order to try and raise funding for their work. It’s a complete roman à clef, telling the story of heroic, anti-fascist rocketeers and Nazis trying to steal their ideas. This was before anyone ever knew the Nazis would be interested in rockets.
I remember when you first commissioned me to write the story you pointed me in the direction of Mike Davis’s book City of Quartz (1990) which is a brilliant study of Los Angeles as both a utopia and dystopia. I wanted to show how Parsons was a natural spawn of that city. My book, and the frieze piece, was called ‘Strange Angel’ for a reason: Parsons couldn’t have existed outside the City of Angels. He was, in a way, a kind of living embodiment of what was possible in Los Angeles at the time, for better, and for worse.
George Pendle is a writer based in Washington D.C., USA. You can read his writing for frieze here.
Strange Angel is currently airing on CBS All Access in the US.