Marjorie Elizabeth Cameron Parsons Kimmel always detested her first name. An artist and cult figure, she preferred simply “Cameron,” the name she used when signing most of her captivating, often phantasmagoric and occasionally pornographic drawings, paintings, watercolors and poems. Of “Marjorie,” she joked in a 1995 interview, “I call her my secretary. She deals with that world out there.”
Nearly 20 years after her death, Cameron's unique body of work has finally landed the artist a museum retrospective at MOCA — “Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman,” which shares a title with a new book published by U.K.-based Fulgur Esoterica, featuring art by Cameron and poems by her first husband, Marvel “John” Whiteside Parsons, also known as “Jack.”
Cameron lived one of the 20th century's more remarkable lives, and was a contemporary to some of its most prominent men, beginning with Parsons, a rocket scientist and occultist, who co-founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In postwar Los Angeles, she hobnobbed with actors Russ Tamblyn and Dennis Hopper, worked with prominent artist Wallace Berman, participated in occult rituals with L. Ron Hubbard and starred in a film by underground auteur Kenneth Anger.
But why wasn't Cameron's work recognized while she was alive, and why is that changing now? The clues are in the artist's own life story, recorded in interviews by friends Carol Caldwell and Scott Hobbs (Hobbs later founded the Cameron Parsons Foundation, which maintains an archive today), as well as an interview conducted by author and art historian Sandra Leonard Starr, who donated the tape to the Getty Research Institute.
Along with firsthand accounts given to the Weekly by Cameron's surviving colleagues, friends and family, the interviews help paint a portrait of a dedicated artist who nevertheless had a tortured relationship with her work — and who couldn't help but bear scars from the tragedy that made her an independent woman.
When he met Marjorie Cameron in 1946, Jack Parsons was living in an impressive, 11-bedroom house, which Cameron later described as “a big old mansion on South Orange Grove Avenue,” also known as “Millionaire's Row.”
The home was the U.S. headquarters of the Ordo Templi Orientis, a Masonic-inspired fraternal society then under the leadership of British occultist Aleister Crowley, who developed the complex religious philosophy of Thelema. Its tenet is, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will.” Crowley was grooming Parsons to be his successor, even though the two had never met, corresponding mostly through letters.
Parsons also had fallen in with a crowd of science-fiction buffs who were intrigued by Parsons' involvement with both science and the occult. Among them was L. Ron Hubbard, who would later form the Church of Scientology.
According to George Pendle's comprehensive 2005 biography of Parsons, Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons, the rocketeer had been trying to conjure an “elemental mate” with Hubbard's assistance. Inspired by “an old magical system” devised by Queen Elizabeth I's astrologer, Hubbard and Parsons went to the Mojave Desert and positioned themselves at the crossing of a pair of huge power lines. After two weeks of prolonged experiment, Parsons said, “I turned to [Hubbard] and said 'It is done,' in absolute certainty that the operation was accomplished. I returned home, and found a young woman answering the requirements waiting for me.” It was Cameron.
For Cameron, the story is perhaps less romantic. She wasn't the result of a magical experiment; she came from the Midwest, raised in a family that later moved to Southern California. And in her version, Cameron, then 24, met Parsons through a mutual acquaintance.
“When I got out of the Navy, I came home to Pasadena and went to the unemployment office to collect my check, and somebody I had known in the service — who I had never really liked — contacted me and told me about this mad scientist that [lived] in Pasadena that he wanted me to meet,” she said in a 1995 interview with Caldwell and Hobbs.
The oldest of four children, Cameron was born in 1922 and raised in the small town of Belle Plaine, Iowa. Her precocious talent as an artist and a provocateur had been apparent even as a student in the second grade.
“I was sitting in the back row and I drew a picture of somebody shitting,” she later recalled to Caldwell and Hobbs. As a crowd of classmates inevitably gathered, the budding artist caught the attention of her teacher, who tried to confiscate the image. “She took me to the principal's office and I sat there all afternoon with that paper in my hand, refusing to give it up…,” Cameron said. “I call that my first exhibit.”
As a child, she was restless and rebellious. She hopped freight trains for fun, had vibrant dreams and thought about magic on long, moonlight walks. And after one of her closest friends killed herself in high school, Cameron admitted she too had tried to commit suicide a number of times. “I became the town pariah,” she told Caldwell and Hobbs. “Nobody would let their kid near me.”
After high school graduation, she enlisted in the Navy, joining the WAVES. She worked in the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, followed by a period in a naval photographic unit near Washington, D.C. After the war, Cameron moved to the Los Angeles area, where almost all of her immediate family members had found jobs at Caltech or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
When Cameron met the lab's co-founder, Parsons, she would later tell Caldwell and Hobbs, they immediately spent two weeks together holed up in Parsons' bed.
Parsons was already in the process of divorcing his wife of a decade. Within a year of meeting, in October 1946, Cameron and Parsons were married in a civil ceremony in San Juan Capistrano.
It was shortly before this time that Cameron participated in a ritual on which sci-fi fans would fixate for decades to come. With L. Ron Hubbard as “the Scribe,” Parsons as “High Priest” and Cameron as the “Scarlet Woman,” Parsons hoped to manifest a goddess in human form through what he called the “Babalon Working” ritual.
The ritual, Pendle explains to L.A. Weekly, was “Parsons' attempt to usher in a new era in mankind's history. He believed that this age would begin with the arrival of Babalon, a female goddess in human form.” Parsons' “Babalon,” inspired by the “Babylon” in the Bible's Book of Revelations, “was to bring about a new libertarian age of free love and anti-authoritarianism, a world vision that was fulfilled, to a certain extent, with the arrival of the '60s.”
He continues, “Cameron was an intrinsic part of this summoning, and Parsons bound her to him through this epoch-changing event. This was not just an intense relationship, it was an apocalyptic one. Even after Parsons' death, the Babalon Working would stay with Cameron, infusing her life with a narrative of epic proportions.”
In interviews, however, Cameron was more circumspect: “They worked with me without telling me what was going on. Everybody assumes that I was in on it — that I really knew. But I didn't know.”
According to Cameron, Hubbard ran off to Miami soon after the ritual, and “the communications got more and more weird.” A Ouija board instructed her and Parsons to get rid of Hubbard's stuff and get the hell out of their house, she said, so they did.
While Cameron described her relationship with Parsons as a love story, it wasn't without drama. Beginning in 1948, she lived in Mexico for two years after she and Parsons agreed to an open marriage. “I associated with homosexuals, I had lovers among bullfighters, I went nude bathing with mariachis, I danced in a whorehouse…” she recalled in a 1977 recording. After an impassioned letter–writing affair with Parsons, however, Cameron moved back to California to physically reunite with him.
Around that time, Cameron and Parsons met Wallace Berman, who was at the center of a creative scene that was to become the de facto SoCal chapter of the Beat movement. At the time, though, he was still making ends meet as a professional furniture distresser.
His widow, Shirley Berman, now 80, recalls first meeting Cameron and Parsons at one of the couple's Pasadena parties. Berman says, “She was this beautiful, flaming redhead, and she had this husband that, when we were introduced, I almost fainted. He was, like, the most gorgeous movie star. I mean, he was really good-looking,” Berman also remembers the couple's enchanting home inside a three-story coach house: “If I had a place to live all my life, it would have been that house. It was just unbelievable.”
Cameron and Shirley Berman would remain in contact until Cameron's death, though Berman says her friend would disappear for months at a time. Cameron's broad interests and subsequent association with different social groups is one of the things her surviving contacts remember most about her, Berman included.
“Cameron had many different crowds of friends, and I think she was a different personality with each crowd,” Berman says. “She wasn't an even personality at all, but she was always a very gracious person, and I think that's what I really loved so much about her.”
On June 17, 1952, the unthinkable happened: Jack Parsons was killed in an explosion in his home lab. He was just 37. He and Cameron had planned to travel to Mexico the following day, and the explosion happened while she was out putting gas in their car.
Officially, the cause of death was an accident brought on by mishandled chemicals, but Cameron always felt there was something else going on. According to Parsons' public FBI file, the bureau had been investigating Parsons and suspected he was a communist, which fueled her paranoia. “See, my husband died violently in an explosion and it was at the height of the witch hunt here in California, and I have no doubt that my husband was murdered,” she told art historian Starr in the late 1980s.
But given Parsons' track record with explosives, it's not implausible that it was simply an unfortunate incident. A near-deadly gas-apparatus explosion in 1939 involving Parsons and his partner in rocketry, Edward Forman, had earned them the dubious nickname “suicide squad.”
Forman, who was Parsons' best man at his wedding to Cameron, believed his death was an accident, too. “I think it was just wishful thinking on her part, in a way,” Berman agrees.
Cameron was devastated by Parsons' sudden death. So was Parsons' mother, who immediately committed suicide after receiving word that her only son was dead.
The media hounded Parsons' widow. A photo of a distraught Cameron appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times under the banner headline, “Rocket Scientist Killed in Pasadena Explosion.” Within three days after Parsons' death, news of his occult ties had reached the media. “Slain Scientist Priest in Black Magic Cult,” the Los Angeles Mirror exclaimed, running a picture of Parsons alongside a photo of a turban-clad Crowley smoking a huge pipe.
Cameron fled to Mexico but later returned to the United States and stayed with friends before heading off to the desert town of Beaumont, California — soul-searching, painting and writing poetry while also developing her own brand of ritual magic and becoming further involved in astrology, tarot and astral travel.
Cameron felt her late husband wanted her to carry on his mystical legacy while establishing a name for herself. “The last year that my husband and I were together — all the time that we had been together — he had been preparing me for a public role, which he believed I was destined to fulfill,” Cameron later told Starr.
Back in Los Angeles, a friend introduced Cameron to eccentric experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger, who himself returned to Los Angeles in 1953 after having lived in Paris.
Anger would later gain notoriety as author of Hollywood Babylon, which chronicled some of the city's most salacious scandals. At the time, however, he was cultivating a career as an underground auteur and set out to make an art film called Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, planning to feature French erotic writer Anaïs Nin as its star.
Upon meeting Anger, Cameron harnessed her singular flamboyance and theatrical eloquence to proselytize the works of Aleister Crowley, which she'd embraced following Parsons' death. With Crowley's influence, the plot of Pleasure Dome quickly changed to accommodate Cameron and her occult rhetoric.
Anger reminisced about his first encounter with Cameron in an unreleased 2001 videotape kept by the Cameron Parsons Foundation: “I believe in reincarnation, predestination — and I had recognized Cameron from someone I've known in several past lives.”
Because Nin had already achieved fame as a writer and the lover of Henry Miller, she had been mollycoddled by the cast and crew. “And so suddenly, Cameron blew in unannounced,” Anger said. “And there was this little shrunken creature which was Anaïs Nin in front of the majesty of Cameron, because Cameron wiped her out, you see.”
The petite 51-year-old Nin then quietly picked up her heavy makeup bag and retreated, leaving 32-year-old Cameron to star as the Scarlet Woman while Nin was demoted to a much less dynamic part. (The 38-minute avant-garde film is available today as part of a two-disc DVD set of Anger's films, “The Complete Magick Lantern Cycle.”)
Some in Cameron's circle weren't impressed. Wallace Berman, for one, “didn't like [Anger] and felt that I was wasting my time,” Cameron told Starr. But this didn't stop Cameron from drifting between their respective creative orbits, and by 1955, she seems to have been equally involved in both Anger's and Berman's social spheres.
In addition to the occult, another one of Parsons' passions was peyote, so in 1955, Cameron decided to mail-order the hallucinogenic from a botanical garden in Texas and try it for herself. “I got these nine big, juicy green buttons as big as apples, and I cooked them and ate them like vegetables,” she told Starr. “The walls disappeared.”
After taking the drug, Cameron found herself sick in bed, which is where she created the drawing Peyote Vision. It depicts a naked woman who strongly resembles the artist, having sex doggy-style with a translucent alien. The piece was a bold visual representation of repressed sexuality, a work ahead of its time.
Cameron's drawing so impressed Wallace Berman that he reproduced it in the 1955 debut edition of Semina, a self-published magazine. Two years later, in 1957, when Berman included it in a show at the Ferus Gallery on La Cienega, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department shut down the exhibition, saying it was pornographic.
Cameron believed that Berman himself called the lawmen. “When he exhibited it at the Ferus Gallery, he fully intended that show to get busted,” she told Starr. “He wanted to provoke the cops.” (Berman's widow blames one of the gallery's owners.)
The provocateurs evidently hoped Cameron would defend the drawing in court, but she refused. She told Berman that her uneasy relationship with the press following her husband's death left her with no desire to make a scene.
A month after Cameron's peyote experience, she became pregnant by a man she never identified, and on Christmas Eve 1955, she gave birth to her only child, Crystal.
In 1959, Cameron married 33-year-old Sheridan Kimmel, and Crystal took his surname. But “Sherry” also died mysteriously, just seven years later. For the most part, Cameron was a single mother, long before such a role was commonplace.
It wasn't easy. Early in her motherhood, an exasperated Cameron called the Bermans, asking if she could come to their home to sleep. The couple took her crying infant on a long drive, which calmed the girl down. Meanwhile, Cameron collapsed at the Bermans' house and literally slept for days. “I felt so sorry for her. I've never seen her in that state,” Shirley Berman recalls ruefully. “She was just absolutely exhausted.”
Though weary, Cameron carried on with her migratory lifestyle and indulged her urge to create. Not long after Pleasure Dome, she made another short film with Anger's longtime acquaintance, filmmaker Curtis Harrington. The Wormwood Star is a stunning 10-minute visual essay coupling Cameron's poetry with her art. “I was very taken with her immediately, by her presence. It was something,” Harrington said in a videotaped 2002 recording kept by the Cameron Parsons Foundation. “You couldn't take your eyes off of her.”
But more than her striking looks, Cameron's work is what impressed Harrington: “I had the idea of making a film about her painting — a kind of a tribute to Cameron, a poetic tribute. And that is how The Wormwood Star came about.”
Since her art was inexorably tied to her esoteric beliefs, it was always difficult for Cameron to sell it. She didn't see her work as a commodity but rather as part of her very existence. That prevented her from being able to detach herself from her creations, and also threatened the attachment itself. In response, she often burned her own art.
Shirley Berman remembers Cameron calling shortly after she burned her art in an incinerator in the mid-'50s. When the Bermans arrived at Cameron's home, they found a fragile, trembling artist, her work destroyed.
Decades later, Anger explained, “She [was] releasing the spirit that she put in the drawing into the fire,” meaning Cameron sacrificed her art as an act of conscious, occult-inspired transmutation. Once the art moved beyond her imagination, it had also served its purpose and became unnecessary, providing Cameron the opportunity to emancipate herself from it physically.
“It was release,” Anger continued. “In other words, if she'd kept them as drawings or paintings, she would have been enchained to them.”
The destroyed art includes much of what's featured in The Wormwood Star, which has since become a rare visual record of Cameron's earlier works.
Nonetheless, Cameron created even more, and continued her peripatetic existence, even with her daughter in tow. In 1957, the two moved in with Cameron's friend David Meltzer, a poet, in San Francisco.
Today, Meltzer laments the fact that interest in Cameron's work has become so entwined with Crowley and Parsons rather than standing on its own.
“I must admit that anytime I've run into a person who's interested in Cameron — and they're usually guys — it's because they're interested in Parsons and black magic and Crowley, kind of like Beavises and Butt-Heads,” 77-year-old Meltzer quips. “I had great regard for her work, both graphic and written, and I'm sorry, in a sense, that her past involvement with Crowley … seems to be one of the primary ways that she's perceived rather than really as a very fascinating and worthwhile artist and poet. I mean, yes, she was a practitioner of the hermetic — the occult — but it's unfortunate that she's not regarded as the creative artist and strong spirit that she is.”
During the early 1960s, though, Cameron cultivated the image of herself as a witch. She appeared as an eerie, black-clad siren in Harrington's first feature, Night Tide, which starred a young Dennis Hopper. “I couldn't think of anyone whose image was more sinister or mysterious than Cameron,” Harrington said in a 2002 interview. “I was delighted that she agreed to be in the film; I think she's quite a remarkable presence in it.”
Meanwhile, Cameron was still a peripheral part of Berman's coterie, which had grown to include Hopper, Dean Stockwell and Russ Tamblyn, best known for playing Riff in West Side Story.
“She was one of a kind. It was like she just came from another planet,” Tamblyn recalls today. “There weren't many women like her.” But because of Cameron's association with Crowley, Tamblyn acknowledges that he was somewhat put off by her: “She was kind of weird and a little spooky, to me, that side of her. Very strange — and her daughter was pretty strange, too.”
Throughout her life, Cameron rebelled against mainstream society. She was among the first women to join the armed forces; she lived a free-spirited, transitory existence when most females were expected to get married and settle down; and she was a single mother decades before such a thing was acceptable.
But her unconventional lifestyle wasn't without its consequences.
Cameron's experimentation with drugs didn't abate once she had her daughter. In artist John Chamberlain's unfinished 1969 film, Thumbsuck, made in Santa Fe and kept at the Cameron Parsons Foundation, Cameron is filmed applying kabuki-style makeup and smoking a blunt, while the filmmaker's children and Cameron's daughter gather around, mesmerized.
She also didn't enroll her daughter in school, preferring a sort of freestyle homeschooling. “Cameron's attitude was, the only way Crystal could learn anything was just to engage with it,” Meltzer remembers. “If people didn't like it, they'd have to tell her they didn't like it, but that Cameron wasn't going to intervene as the mom figure in any of these cases.”
Today, Crystal Kimmel, 58, lives in Desert Hot Springs with her 32-year-old son. “She let me stay out of school,” Kimmel says of her mother. “I started being bullied because I couldn't read or write back in first grade, because I had dyslexia, and they didn't know that it was dyslexia. They thought I was retarded. … So instead of her pushing me to stay, she kind of just let me, you know, do what I wanted.”
Another of Cameron's longtime friends was Patricia Quinn, ex-girlfriend of Marlon Brando and the actress who played the title character in the 1969 film Alice's Restaurant. Quinn met Cameron in the late '60s, when both were living in Santa Fe, and found herself impressed by Cameron's integrity as an artist. “I recognized her as an original; a pioneer in feminism,” Quinn says. “We were both rebels fleeing our traditional backgrounds and making a new path for ourselves.”
Still, Cameron's odd parenting style worried Quinn. “I had intense feelings about her mothering skills. She seemed to distance herself from any responsibility for Crystal's actions. I was no expert myself, but I couldn't understand her lack of concern…” In the end, though, Quinn stresses that Cameron was an honorable woman: “She was true to herself, and that's why she was a great artist.”
Cameron's daughter still laments never having had the structure she feels she needed. “I think she could have taught me more things than I taught myself. You know, I had to grow up fast,” Kimmel says. “She didn't leave me the tools to sort of get through everything on my own.”
She adds, “She let me experience things with her that maybe other mothers would say, 'Why did Cameron do this?' You know, she let her daughter experience LSD with her when I was about 9 years old.”
Kimmel has raised six children of her own; she's earthy, strong and straightforward. But Cameron's devotion to her art clearly had a destabilizing effect. As an adult, Kimmel found herself in abusive relationships and taking heavy drugs, although she says those days are behind her.
“While she was hiding out drawing, I was out there causing a ruckus,” Kimmel says. “She really didn't … have a leash on me.”
By the end of 1973, Cameron was a grandmother, and she settled into the role by forgoing her nomadic lifestyle in favor of fostering bonds with her grandkids.
Her first-born grandchild, Iris Hinzo, now 40, has a unique impression of her grandmother, one that's in blunt contrast to the witchy, itinerant, art-destroying Scarlet Woman and negligent parent. “My grandmother was the backbone of the family,” Hinzo says. While Hinzo's parents were freebasing, brawling and calling the police, Hinzo found refuge in Cameron's charming home in West Hollywood. “It's just, she was very safe. My mom's home wasn't safe for me,” she says. “My grandmother raised me, pretty much.”
In her later years, Cameron gardened, cooked organic food, drank tea, smoked pot and earned a teaching certificate in Tai Chi. She also became interested in the Hopi culture and homeopathy. She'd still perform rituals at every solstice, burning candles, lighting incense, chanting and ringing bells, “like priests do,” Hinzo says with a smile.
And Cameron still made art. In 1989, she had a show at Barnsdall Art Park. “The Pearl of Reprisal” was the only real exhibit to feature Cameron's work during her lifetime. (She also read her poetry.)
By then, the artist's flaming red hair was long and gray. Decades after the love of her life died so violently, Cameron still avoided strangers who wanted to talk to her. “I guess she always felt that people would exploit her,” Hinzo says.
As it turned out, Cameron had good reason to worry. When she died, both Kimmel and Hinzo recall random people showing up and taking Cameron's stuff and suddenly, as Hinzo says tearfully, “All these things [went] missing.”
Kimmel agrees. “After she died, they kind of just came like vultures. … Like, artists wanted pieces of her.”
An exception was Scott Hobbs, an expert Iyengar yoga instructor and confidant, to whom Cameron became close in the 1980s, later entrusting him with her life savings. Hobbs has since made it a mission to reassemble Cameron's scattered art and preserve her legacy with the nonprofit Cameron Parsons Foundation, established in 2006. Co-founders include artist George Herms and the late Rockie Gardiner, whose “Rockie Horoscope” column was a mainstay of L.A. Weekly for 25 years until the astrologer died in 2008 at the age of 70.
The Cameron Parsons Foundation has helped bring Cameron's work out of the shadows, and in 2007, Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery in New York presented an exhibition titled simply “Cameron.” In a sign of growing interest in Cameron's work, an unofficial biography, Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron, was published in 2011 (the book is not endorsed by the Cameron Parsons Foundation).
Most recently, curator Yael Lipschutz worked with MOCA director Philippe Vergne to organize a new show, which showcases more than 90 pieces of Cameron's work. “Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman” finally gives Cameron the recognition she lacked while she was alive.
“Cameron was under-recognized during her lifetime, in part because of her own rejection of the commercial art world, and in part because that world set up structures that did not embrace an independent-minded female artist whose work did not follow the trends of the day,” Lipschutz says.
Jack Parsons' extraordinary career, brief life and dramatic end was another factor. Coupled with his fervent devotion to mystical practices, Parsons' story made him an L.A. cult figure and led to Cameron's lifelong reticence with the press. Even as an older woman, she continued to be wary of reporters, who'd pursue her about Parsons' mysterious life and death. And Cameron's strong reluctance to sell her work and her history of destroying it made public appreciation even more difficult.
That's all changing. As Lipschutz explains, “The type of intensely personal, visionary explorations spearheaded by artists like Cameron is rare today, and her re-emergence into the light indicates how hungry young artists and intellectuals are for a more vital path. It is this exhibition's aim that Cameron's transcendental art will illuminate this road.”
Cameron died from a brain tumor on July 24, 1995, at 73. The only person present was her eldest granddaughter, Hinzo, then 21 years old and eight months pregnant.
Hinzo recalls being inexplicably drawn to the VA Hospital where Cameron lay, bald and unable to speak. She sat down on Cameron's bed, took her grandmother's weak hand into hers and looked out the hospital window. There, Hinzo observed an odd whirlwind — a curious kind of funnel stretching to the sky. She looked over at Cameron, saw her chest heave and, at that moment, she was gone.
“Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman” is on view through Jan. 11 at MOCA Pacific Design Center.