It’s time to celebrate the complexities of America’s Madonna/whore complex about women with the birthdays of Marjorie Cameron (1922-1995) and Sandra Dee (1942-2005). It would be easy to categorize Dee as the Madonna and Cameron as the whore. But things are rarely so simple.
Sandra Dee (born Alexandra Cymboliak Zuck) was one of those young actresses Hollywood quickly typecasts as a sweet young innocent girl. It helped that she was actually a teenager when she was acting as one. Marriage to clean-cut heartthrob Bobby Darin cemented her image. But as many young actresses have found out, it is hard to break away from being the ingenue. Americans didn’t want to think of her as anything else, and were disappointed when she and Darin divorced. In 1960s America, divorce still carried enough of a stigma that it ended Dee’s Hollywood career as a wholesome youngster without giving her entrance to more sophisticated roles.
So where does magic creep in? As Dee’s movie career was ending, she snagged the leading female role in the 1970 screen adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. In this movie, she get to talk about sex, cavort with naked people, and even be seduced or raped on an altar as part of a black magic ceremony. Wow! Quite a departure from her “good girl” image. Except it wasn’t. She was playing a college co-ed, a virgin who falls into her dire situation through a combination of drugs and being clueless. At least she does better than her best friend in the movie, who seems to be a bit more frank about sex, and therefore by Hollywood logic gets to be devoured (and possibly raped) by the monstrous offspring of Yog-Sothoth.
I have to admit to a certain fondness for the movie version of The Dunwich Horror. (You can take a look at the trailer here.) The opening animated credits and some of the scenes convey a genuinely creepy atmosphere. It got me interested in reading Lovecraft. That said, it was a bad choice for Dee. She looks too old for the role, and stumbles through the movie as if she’s on sedatives. The movie gets to debase her from the Madonna to the whore, but she doesn’t effectively come across as either.
Dee’s career was just about over after The Dunwich Horror. She made some appearances, mostly on TV. But she was mostly forgotten, and in ill health for most of the rest of her life. If she’s remembered at all anymore, it’s for the movies she made as the young innocent actress who wasn’t even twenty years old.
The reputation of Marjorie Cameron, on the other hand, seems to be firmly on the “whore” side. She was the second wife of rocket pioneer and occult magician Jack Parsons, his “Scarlet Woman,” who participated with him in his “Babalon Working” ritual in 1946 to create a spiritual child. And she turned up as the Scarlet Woman, literally and figuratively, in Kenneth Anger’s 1954 film, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. Having bright red hair helped.
I first saw Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome only a few years ago. It might best be described as a personal and symbolic vision, done up as an experimental film. The movie is packed with references to mythology and magic, especially Aleister Crowley’s magic. I suspect most viewers either see it as a marvelous achievement or boring and pretentious nonsense. Either way, Cameron’s Scarlet Woman is the most striking image in the film. (This film is included in a DVD packaged as Films of Kenneth Anger I or The Complete Magick Lantern Cycle, which is how I saw it. There are stills all over the net, but I suspect posting them constitutes copyright violation, which I usually avoid on this blog.)
However, Cameron’s career as the Scarlet Woman lasted only about a decade. She lived for more than seven decades. What was she doing the rest of the time? Online sources reveal surprisingly little. She served in the military in World War II, was an artist, hung out with other figures in Hollywood’s occult and underground circles, and married at least one more time. But one gets little idea of what her life was actually like, or, for that matter, what she lived on. There’s a biography that I’ll have to track down to see if it will tell me more.
Polar opposites though they may seem, there is a link between Cameron and Dee. Among the people Cameron knew in occult circles in Hollywood was a young actor named Dean Stockwell. And Stockwell used some of his occult background when he was cast as the nefarious magician Wilbur Whately . . . the man who seduces Sandra Dee in The Dunwich Horror!