Review: Spencer Kansa, Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron

N.B.: A revised and enlarged edition of this book has been published in 2014. The author informs me the new edition addresses some of the issues I raised. (This does not mean the author agrees with or endorses my review.) I have not had the opportunity yet to read the new edition, so this review should be read keeping in mind it refers to the older edition, published in 2011.

I mentioned in a post a while back that I wanted to read the recent biography Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron by Spencer Kansa (Oxford: Mandrake.UK.Net, 2011). Well, I obtained a copy and have read it. It’s not bad, but it’s not great. If you’re interested in Cameron’s life after the death of her (first) husband, Jack Parsons, this is a good place to go. But if it’s Parsons or magic that you’re interested in, you’ll need to wait for another book.

A painting and photo of Cameron adorn the cover of the book

A painting and photo of Cameron adorn the cover of the book

I learned about Marjorie Elizabeth Cameron Parsons Kimmel (1922-1995) when reading about Jack Parsons. John Whiteside Parsons (1914-1952) was a noted rocket pioneer who was also an occultist and follower of infamous British magician Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). “Candy” Cameron was his second wife and magical partner; indeed, Parsons thought of her as an elemental he had summoned using magic. Biographies of Parsons[i] mention that Cameron went on to star in Kenneth Anger’s 1954 art film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, and made a career as an artist of weird paintings and drawings, but don’t go into details.

Researching and writing the first full-length biography of an individual requires an adventurous spirit, because the biographer has no precedent and must blaze his own trail. Spencer Kansa deserves credit for making the attempt. He pulled together a lot of material, and, journalist that he is, supplemented it with many interviews, mostly of people who knew Cameron in the years after Parsons died.

The result is a more balanced view of Cameron’s life, with a bit more information on her life before Parsons, not much new at all about her life with Parsons, and a lot more about the her life after Parsons, which was actually the longer part of her life. Kansa does a good job of describing how Cameron was as much a personality as an artist in the underground art scene in southern California in the 1950s and 1960s, and how her years with Parsons continued to shape her life for decades after his death.

There are significant limitations and problems with Kansa’s book. Some of these may be unavoidable, because of a lack of evidence. It may simply not be possible to trace the evolution of Cameron’s art or her thinking on magic, subjects Kansa treats lightly. On the other hand, Kansa seems to have relied too heavily and uncritically on interviews, which reflects his background as a journalist. It gives the biography a gossipy air, which is often appropriate when discussing, say, Cameron’s busy sexual life, but leaves one wishing Kansa had done some fact-checking to anchor the gossip, and cover topics not captured in gossip. For example, Kansa mentions at one point that Cameron had not held a job in decades, but seems to have been uninterested in figuring out how she did support herself during those years.

The single biggest problem with the book is that Kansa needed a strong editor. The text raises obvious and significant questions that Kansa should have researched and answered, or at least indicated that he tried to do so. (To take the most obvious one, since Cameron spent some of her later years helping to raise her grandchildren, knowing when her daughter married and had children would have been helpful.) There are lapses in organization, such as when events appear out of chronological sequence for no obvious reason. A proofreader should have gone over the text for grammatical errors and other infelicities of language, which are numerous enough to be annoying. And a good editor would have discouraged Kansa from including several badly blurred or pixillated photographs of little significance in the book. (Though maybe that was the publisher’s call, saying the book needed so many pictures to sell.)

Journalism is sometimes called the first rough draft of history. I think it fair to say that Kansa has given us a first rough draft of a biography of Marjorie Cameron. Good and necessary that he did it, even if it is flawed. Subsequent biographers will start with his book.

Whether there will be subsequent biographers is another story. Marjorie Cameron may continue to attract some interest, but I am sorry to say that I expect she will never be seen as a major figure in the histories of the era. She sounds like an interesting person. But much of what makes her interesting is her relationship to other people who left behind more noteworthy accomplishments. Parsons gave her an aura of magic, Anger captured it on screen. Too many of her paintings and drawings have been lost (many she destroyed herself) for her to leave an influential artistic legacy. If she left a distinct magickal[ii] legacy apart from her relationship to Parsons, Kansa doesn’t mention it, and given her personality as he describes it, I rather doubt she did. New information may spur the writing of more biographies. But Cameron is more likely to remain one of those figures who crops up in other people’s biographies, someone who gives us an intriguing look, and then vanishes.

Cameron as the Scarlet Woman in "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome"

Cameron as the Scarlet Woman in “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome”

[i] The earlier Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons by “John Carter” was mostly superseded by George Pendle, Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons, though Sex and Rockets is a bit more detailed on the magic.

[ii] The odd spelling “magick” is due to Crowley, who wanted to distinguish what he did from stage magic.


About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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6 Responses to Review: Spencer Kansa, Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron

  1. E. J. Barnes says:

    John Whiteside ParsonS (1914-1952)
    Parsons thought of her as aN elemental

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Corrected; thank you! And it should be noted that another reader caught yet another error, which I have corrected. Mr. Kansa is not the only person who needs an editor, it seems!

  2. crimsonprose says:

    A star of a different colour, one might say. Interesting review. I knew nothing of her; I thank you.

  3. crimsonprose says:

    PS: Brilliant branding of the new blog!

  4. A. says:

    Fair review of this book. It badly needs the guidance of an editor. Was really looking forward to reading this but am finding the casual approach to structure and syntax already a bit irritating. It probably works for music journalism but I think this area of study needs a more rigorous academic approach. Like you say, a commendable first draft, but ….

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Coincidentally, I’ve just finished reading an academic book tackling another figure for whom only limited materials exist and hadn’t had a proper biography. (This is Ida Craddock, a mystic and sex reformer circa 1900.) The result was indeed better. When I post a review of it, I’ll probably draw some comparisons with this book.

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