JPL: Jack Parsons’ Losses

Rocket Boys, Credit: JPL/NASA

Pasadena’s South Orange Grove is often referred to as “Millionaire’s Row,” with its finely manicured grounds, sustaining property values and a history of expansive estates. But what could be the connection between the boulevard of Pasadena’s elite and rumors of inter-dimensional beings, psychedelic drugs, an alleged sex ring, and a self-proclaimed antichrist.

I descended into the basement of Pasadena Museum of History to find the answer. I was greeted by a sweet East Indian, soccer mom volunteer, and asked “What do you have on 1003 South Orange Grove, the house that Jack Parsons lived in?”

“I think that’s the old Arthur Fleming Estate,” she said. “Let me check.”

Cue the blue-haired docent, “Jack Parsons, sounds familiar…”

After nearly a half hour of murmuring, shuffling and discussion, while I searched through property records, the blue-haired docent turned to me with a squint, “Jack Parsons… Oh, you mean the crazy guy!”

And not two seconds later, a woman’s voice from deep within the archives shouted, “the one who blew himself up!”

Yes, Jack Parsons blew himself up on “Millionaire’s Row.” But not too long before that the persons and passions surrounding his life challenged the status quo of mid-century American life and science. The most prominent of which is Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL), established under the wary consent of Cal Tech and now exists as a NASA Laboratory.

On Oct. 2, 1914 Marvel Whiteside Parsons was born to Ruth Whiteside Parsons and Marvel H. Parsons. After divorcing her husband, Ruth Parsons unofficially renamed her son John, who was referred to as “Jack” from then on. He was raised by his mother and grandparents at 537 South Orange Grove.

Marvel H. Parsons was never able to reconcile with his former wife or be a part of his son’s life. However, he eventually became the new owner of the Fleming Estate at 1003 South Orange Grove, just blocks from where his former wife and son lived.

The estate was built in 1912 by architect Fredrick L. Roehrig for local philanthropist Arthur H. Fleming. At the time the property was valued at $2,500. Coincidentally, two years prior, “in 1910 Mr. Fleming and his daughter Marjorie bought the 32 acres which is now the site of the California Institute of Technology,”  according to a memorial tribute to Fleming in Cal Tech Engineering and Science, Volume 4:1, September 1940, p.14.

Young Parsons’ family moved from South Orange Grove to Glendale and then back to Pasadena in a home in the San Rafael Hills. During those years he became part of a group known as the Suicide Squad, a group of Cal Tech scientists whose experiments with explosives got them kicked off campus and exiled to the Arroyo Seco.

After dropping out of USC and the death of his estranged father, Jack became the newest owner of the Fleming estate. It was speculated that he converted the house into nineteen apartments, and it was referred to as the “Parsonage.”

Strange Angel, a biography by George Pendle

Strange Angel, a biography by George Pendle

Parsons never earned an official degree in science, but his advances in Rocketry spanned from Cal Tech, Howard Hughes, Aerojet and of course JPL. He did earn an infamous reputation due to the repeated neighborhood complaints to the Pasadena Police Department that the Parsonage was a den of wild sex orgies, infant sacrifices and bohemians.

His advances in being a danger to himself were also quite monumental; from the use of hallucinogenic drugs in occult ceremonies to summon an inter-dimensional being named to the numerous financial failures. Biographers also speculate that due to the lack of a significant male bond in his youth, Parsons formed deep attachments to dubious men.

Parsons put his faith into Aleister Crowley, the occult leader, to whom he gave a majority of his fortune and for whom he hosted the Agape Lodge church at the Parsonage. Eventually, Crowley wrote that “I have no further interest in Jack and his adventures; he is just a weak-minded fool, and must go to the devil.”

Later, L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Dianetics, became a friend of Parsons and moved into the Parsonage, assisting with occult ceremonies. According to biographers, Hubbard recruited Parsons into a business venture to buy boats in Florida, but in the end he lost again.  Not only did Parsons lose over $20,000 to Hubbard in the phony deal, but also his girlfriend, Sara Elizabeth Northrup, the sister of his first wife, Helen.

Even Parson’s confidant, Wernher von Braun, the German rocket scientist and space engineer, who would later be a driving force at NASA, but he was also a former member of the Nazi party.

In 1942, Parsons “wisely joined in on the founding of Aerojet,” according to John Carter’s biography, “Sex and Rockets.” There he made an advance in rocketry by replacing black powder with Potassium Perchlorate to oxidize rocket fuel, “only to foolishly sell out a few short years later,” for about $11,000. Those same shares he sold would have been worth tens of millions by the 1960’s. Later Potassium Perchlorate was replaced with Ammonium Perchlorate and although effective it is highly destructive to the endocrine system and known to harm fetal development.

Near the end, his work and passions had become strictly focused on the occult. He had lost all association with any scientific institution that he was ever a part of, including being stripped of his Navy security clearance, twice. His only source of income came from doing special effects for the movie studios.

“This work – it is fraught with all sorts of hazard, and mistake would involve us both in disaster,” Parsons wrote to his second wife, Marjorie, in a letter dated Jan. 25, 1950. “For over two thousand years now every one who tackled this job has made a fool of themselves.” He had lost so much in his life, especially his credibility in the scientific community. JPL is facetiously referred to as “Jack Parsons Laboratories” or “Jack Parsons Lives.” Two years after writing that letter he lost everything.

On June 17, 1952 Parsons blew himself up, but not at the Fleming Estate, “no the sound of the explosion came from 1071 South Orange Grove, the old Cruikshank estate” according George Pendle’s biography “Strange Angel.” Just after the explosion, he was found literally in pieces surrounded by debris that included vials, test tubes and hypodermic needles. He had been working with a highly unstable substance called Fulminate of Mercury.

He was rushed to Huntington Memorial Hospital. In the past he had declared that he was willing to go whenever it had been willed by his faith, which he did, but according to Pendle not before he said, “I wasn’t finished.” He was 37 years old.

According to Pendle, shortly after learning of her only son’s death, Ruth Parsons got herself drunk and swallowed about 50 Nembutals. She was “declared dead at 9:05 p.m., less than four hours after her son.”

None of Parson’s South Orange Grove addresses exist anymore. Most of the great homes on “Millionaire’s Row” were torn down to make way for condominiums.

Poetry of Madness

I height Don Quixote, I live on peyote,
Marihuana, morphine and cocaine,
I never knew sadness, but only a madness
That burns at the heart and the brain…

-John “Jack” Whiteside Parsons

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