Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsonsby George Pendle
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ROCKET SCIENTIST KILLED IN PASADENA EXPLOSION screamed the headline of the Los Angeles Times. John Parsons, a maverick rocketeer who helped transform the rocket from a derided sci-fi plotline into a reality, was at first mourned as a scientific prodigy. But reporters soon uncovered a more shocking story: Parsons had been a devotee of black magic.
George Pendle re-creates the world of John Parsons in this dazzling portrait of prewar superstition, cold war paranoia, and futuristic possibility. Fueled by childhood dreams of space flight, Parsons was a leader of the motley band of enthusiastic young men who founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a cornerstone of the American space program. But Parsons's wild imagination also led him into the occult- for if he could make rocketry a reality, why not magic?
With a cast of characters including Howard Hughes,
L. Ron Hubbard, and Robert Heinlein, Strange Angel explores the unruly consequences of genius.
"This is your book if you want to start reading up on the space age. Highly recommended."
"A spellbinding story of a man with eccentricities that went well beyond a fascination with rocketry."
This amazing book is set in a more brightly coloured universe than most scientific lives are.
"Elegantly written. Pendle, with his graceful, measured prose, skilfully steers us through the quagmire of Parson's personal life."
"Strange Angel could be a hybrid sired by Gravity's Rainbow out of Foucault's Pendulum. Explosively fascinating."
"Pendle weaves a fascinating yarn. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to enjoy it."
"An engaging treatment of a time when the modern world moved at the same speed as crazed mania."
"A riveting tale of rocketry, the occult, and boom-and-bust 1920s and 1930s Los Angeles."
"[A] rambunctiously funny, deliriously weird, and incredibly true story of a space-science pioneer turned lustful witch."
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Read an Excerpt
The paradox implausible, the illusion that must be seen to be believed.
-Ray Bradbury, Los Angeles Is the Best Place in America
In December 1913 Ruth and Marvel Parsons left the ice and snow of the East for what they hoped would be a new future. Woodrow Wilson had recently been declared the twenty-eighth president, and while all Europe watched the increasing tensions in the Balkans, many Americans were turning their backs on the Old World and looking towards the warm promise of their very own West.
Ever since gold had been discovered in California in 1848, thousands upon thousands of people had poured towards the Pacific Coast, flooding a state which up until then had had a population of barely 18,000. The alchemical surge of the gold rush brought not just prospectors but their attendants-the thief, the cardsharp, and the minister, the last intent on converting the hordes set free from the laws and moral codes of the East. It was not an easy task. California, declared one Methodist preacher, was "the hardest country in the world in which to get sinners converted"; indeed, "to get a man to look through a lump of gold into eternity" was nigh impossible.
By 1913 most of the gold had disappeared, but the transmutative effect of the rush survived. The promise of a golden life was now the prize. Agriculture had surpassed mining as the state's biggest industry, and California was transformed into the Garden of America, creating for itself a reputation as a land of orange groves, vineyards, flowers, and sunshine. A health rush succeeded the gold one, as doctors who regularly prescribed a change of climate to deal with a long list of complaints and disorders now suggested California as the ultimate cure. The state would always retain its symbolic connection with that most persuasive of American myths, the pursuit of happiness.
The young couple now traveling by railroad through the freezing winter had married just the previous year in the bride's hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. Ruth Virginia Whiteside, the only child of Walter Hunter Whiteside and Carrie Virginia Kendell Whiteside, was twenty-two years old when she married. Doted on by her parents, she had lived a sheltered life, growing up in a wealthy manufacturing family in Chicago. Her father had been hugely successful as the president of the Allis Chalmers farm equipment company before taking over the reins of the Stevens-Duryea automobile corporation in Springfield. There Ruth met Marvel H. Parsons, a man's man two years her senior, who loved the great outdoors and whose family had founded the town of Springfield in the early seventeenth century. His unusual first name had come from his mother, Addie M. Marvel, but he was known to all by the less awkward name of "Tad" or "Teddy." The marriage had seemed a good match, a consolidation of middle-class fortunes: Marvel's father was a real estate developer who had codeveloped the Colony Hills neighborhood just outside Springfield. He was also president of the Eastern States Refrigeration Company, which owned warehouses extending along the Grand Junction Wharves in Boston. Yet for all its financial sense, Ruth and Marvel's union was ill-starred.
Within less than a year of the wedding, Ruth gave birth to their first child. It was stillborn. The young couple was devastated, particularly Ruth. With her health fragile and their home in Springfield clouded by tragedy, a move away from the East was thought best. It did not take long to choose a destination. Nowhere were the surroundings more propitious, the opportunities more abundant, or the boosters more feverish than in Los Angeles, the ecstatic beating heart of the Land of Sunshine.
It had not always been so. Founded as a Mexican colony in 1781, Los Angeles was a stagnant pueblo for nearly a century. By 1850 the city housed little more than 8,000 inhabitants and was known as the "Queen of the Cow Counties" from its role as the trading center of the southern Californian beef industry. Under American occupation it had transformed itself from a sleepy settlement into a violent border town. A motley assortment of "cowboys, gamblers, bandits and desperadoes" drawn both by the cattle and the possibility of gold ensured that one murder was committed for every day of the year. The Reverend James Woods, a visiting missionary, was shocked by the lawlessness, drunkenness, and low regard for human life he saw. "The name of this city is in Spanish the city of angels," he wrote in his diary, "but with much more truth might it be called at present the city of Demons."
But in the decades that followed, unprecedented floods and drought saw the cattle industry falter. With the construction of the Southern Pacific Railroad and the city's shift from cow town to farming center, more and more well-heeled immigrants began to arrive. By the end of the nineteenth century the hell that the Reverend Woods had set eyes on had been transformed into its exact opposite.
"We have a tradition," wrote one Californian journalist, "which points, indeed, to the vicinity of Los Angeles, the City of the Angels, as the site of the very Paradise, and the graves are actually shown of Adam and Eve, father and mother of man and (through some error, doubtless, since it is disputed that he died) of the serpent also."
Boosterism on the biblical scale became common and reinforced what the gold and health rushes had already proven: that here was a place to redeem oneself, to return to the garden before the Fall, to sever all connections with the past and, hopefully, to make a wondrous new beginning.
In 1910, Los Angeles had 319,198 residents, a sixfold increase from twenty years before. But that growth would be dwarfed by what was to follow. When Ruth and Marvel arrived three years later, William Mulholland, the city's chief engineer, had just opened the first aqueduct into the desert city. As the water poured through it, ensuring the city's urban destiny, Mulholland spoke as if he had co-opted divinity into his scheme. "There it is," he proclaimed, "take it." And the people did. More and more took it each year. The Californian dream was the belief that fantasy just might be made into reality, the dream that people, like the resources of California itself, could be tapped and transformed from barren disappointments into verdant successes.
Los Angeles was now a sprawling, bustling city, spreading over some sixty-two square miles and rapidly incorporating the surrounding communities, most noticeably Hollywood, which had already begun attracting film companies with its climate fit for year-round filming. Along with real estate, cars, and shipping, filmmaking would soon become one of the city's largest industries. Los Angeles architecture was a patchwork of styles, combining elements of the Spanish mission designs of yore with the ranch house of the American Midwest. The garden bungalow became the preferred form of housing, and the automobile was swiftly becoming a key component of city life, as ubiquitous as the electric streetcars.
The Parsons settled into a house at 2375 Scarf Street, just south of downtown Los Angeles. The munificence of their respective families had helped pay for the couple's journey westwards, but now they had to fend for themselves. Marvel found himself a modest job at the P. A. English Motor Car Company on South Grand, selling auto accessories to the ever increasing number of car owners. The new metropolis entranced him. In the words of the Californian critic Carey McWilliams, Los Angeles was not so much an urban landscape as "a great circus without a tent." Inhabitants came not only from across the United States but from China, Japan, the Philippines, India, and Mexico, providing the majority of the farm labor force and bringing with them many of their customs and religions.
Attire on the streets of the city ranged from straw hats to fur coats. Electric signs blazed everywhere; "clairvoyants, palm readers, Hindu frauds, crazy cults, fake healers, Chinese doctors" all plied their trade. In 1906 over 50 percent of Los Angeles' population may have been Protestant, reflecting the number of transplants from the midwestern states, but a whole new breed of radical metaphysical religions, such as Christian Science, New Thought, and Theosophy, had begun to take root alongside the mainstream beliefs. Confucianism, which had arrived via Chinese immigrants, began to seep its way into the sermons of some of the more liberal Protestant churches. Spiritualism found proponents of its creed of mystical development and séances, especially in the Hollywood film community where it was now becoming something of a craze. Secular utopian communes were also springing up outside the city, most notably the short-lived Socialist community of Llano del Rio which at its peak had over 1,000 self-sufficient men, women, and children farming 10,000 acres of land.
Despite the vast number of religious groups and the fact that the Anti-Saloon League of California had suppressed virtually every drinking establishment in Los Angeles by 1910, organized vice was rife, and many of the police force were on the take, foreshadowing the corruption that would be another of the city's defining features. Brothels could frequently be found on the same street as churches, and although evangelists did their best to paint a veneer of moral rectitude over the immoral proclivities of the city, they instead imbued it with a quality of schizophrenia.
The Parsons decided to celebrate their arrival in town by trying for another child, and this time there was to be no heartache. Almost ten months after his parents set foot in Los Angeles, Marvel Whiteside Parsons was born at the Good Samaritan Hospital on October 2, 1914. As his father had always gone by the nickname Tad or Teddy, so the new addition to the family was also helped out of his unusual moniker; his parents called him Jack.
The new family moved into a bigger house at 2401 Romeo Street, just off the long stretch of Wilshire Boulevard that ran to the northwest of the city center. But rather than solidifying the marriage, the arrival of little Jack heralded its end. Los Angeles lacked many of the social strictures of staid Massachusetts, and Marvel Parsons was pursuing the vices of the city with reckless abandon. In the months before Jack's birth and in the immediate weeks after it, he made frequent visits to a prostitute. Whether he was caught in flagrante delicto or whether he admitted his wrongdoing in a fit of guilt, we have to imagine; surviving letters do not say. However, by January 1915, two and a half years after they were married, Ruth had forced Marvel to move out of the house on ill-named Romeo Street.
It was a bitter split. Marvel Parsons continued to live and work in Los Angeles and write Ruth long, pained letters in which he begged for forgiveness. He wanted to return to the house but was afraid "of being shot or scaring [her] to death." His letters suggest the frantic anger which Ruth now felt. Having lost her first child, abandoned her hometown, and given birth to a son, she had been rewarded with Marvel's unfaithfulness. If Ruth had been a demure and fragile New Englander up until now, her husband's infidelity demonstrated how ferocious she could be.
Copyright © 2005 by George Pendle
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author of CITY OF QUARTZ
Meet the Author
GEORGE PENDLE writes about science, art, and culture for the Times (London), the Sunday Times, and the Financial Times, among other publications. He lives in New York City.
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Although the book lags a little bit from time to time, the story is so interesting and unexpected that I couldn't put this book down. If you have any interest in the strange cultural eddies behind the big currents of history and/or science, you will like this book.