Marjorie Cameron


Marjorie Cameron (1922-1995)—better known as ‘Cameron’—was a renegade even by the standards of L.A.’s various bohemian subcultures. An artist and occultist, she possessed a magnetic presence that drew people like Kenneth Anger, Anais Nin and Samson de Brier to her. She also befriended Tosh Berman’s parents. Wallace Berman (1926-1976), Tosh’s father, was a driving force in LA’s art world who once spent a few days in jail because of one of Cameron’s ‘obscene’ drawings. Even as a boy, Tosh was impressed with Cameron and remained friends with her until her death in 1995. He recalls her spirit for PKM readers.

The artist behind the “obscene” drawing for which my dad, Wallace Berman, was arrested, Marjorie Cameron—better known to her friends and fans simply as Cameron—is one of the truly fascinating women of the 1950s. She was a remarkable painter and graphic artist, and the mixture of the occult, Eros, and sensuality is very much in one’s face when you appear in front of her artwork. She was also married to the rocket scientist Jack Parsons, a principal founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and a well-known occultist and adherent of Thelema, an esoteric religious movement developed by Aleistair Crowley. She became his widow in 1952 when he accidentally blew himself up in his lab at their home in Pasadena.

My mom told me a bit about Jack Parsons. Without a doubt, he was a wild one. He and Cameron must have been a standout couple in an era when things were hush-hush. Their circle included fellow rocket scientists and various science fiction writers, including L. Ron Hubbard, later the founder of Scientology. Some have claimed that Hubbard went through Parson’s trash to come up with the seeds or concept of Scientology. Though that is not out of the realm of possibility, the only thing known for certain that L. Ron took from Parsons was his first wife’s sister—with whom Parsons was having an affair—and enough cash to purchase a yacht.

Cameron, Parsons’ second wife, was already very much a free-spirited individual when she married him in 1946. She was a self-proclaimed witch, yes, but to define her by that one category would be a huge mistake. As a child and as an adult, I never once had a discussion with her about her specific interest in magick. However, the occult arts are a subject she had a deep interest in and, according to my mom, Cameron compartmentalized her social life to a certain degree so it’s not surprising she never shared that side of her life with me.

An undated portrait of Cameron by George Herms

She first met my dad and mom at an afternoon party at the house she shared with Jack Parsons in the early 1950s. Cameron was drawn to Wallace and Shirley—my parents—because they were the only artists at this gathering. Everyone else was a rocket scientist or involved in some other scientific field. Though Parsons was always friendly to my mom and dad, it was Cameron who was drawn to my parents, and without her presence, I don’t think they would have entered the world of Jack Parsons. My mom has commented to me on Parsons’ movie-star handsomeness and his propensity for making dramatic entrances to the dinner parties to which they were invited at his house. It was more his style than anything else. He knew his presence made an impression on people.

Jack Parsons and Marjorie Cameron

Just before Jack and Cameron were going to make a big move from Pasadena to Mexico, Jack had to finish off a work project for the film industry; he’d been hired to prepare some explosives to be used as special effects in a movie shoot. While Cameron was getting gas for their car, he blew himself up in his first-floor lab/workspace when he allegedly dropped one of the explosives. A person living in the household, but unharmed from the blast, found Jack alive, but missing an arm and half of his face was gone, just exposing his jawbone and teeth. He died on the way to the hospital.

Cameron went into a deep depression and often called or stayed with my parents at this time. Having lost a parent—my father was hit and killed by a drunk driver on his 50th birthday in 1976—and seeing what my mom had to go through, I can understand what kind of pain and psychology of such a loss can mean to someone. Thinking about this, I believe that due to Jack Parsons’ death, Cameron became more focused on the occult arts and was determined to live her life the way she wanted. No structure or a form of society was going to hold Cameron to any social rules or manners. The woman, already a bohemian, became an even more over-the-top bo-ho figure.

Through Cameron, Wallace and Shirley met actor and raconteur Samson de Brier, who invited them to his Hollywood house to attend his big Halloween party, the theme of which was: “Come as Your Madness.” My dad dressed up as Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein’s better half. That particular party was the inspiration for Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). Cameron would play the Scarlet Woman in the film, and the writer Anaïs Nin starred as Astarte, with her head in a birdcage—her costume for the original Halloween party. Joan Whitney, a close friend of my parents, played Aphrodite.

Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome by Kenneth Anger (1954):

Whenever I think of Cameron, I also think of Samson de Brier. Samson was a total mystery to me as a kid. Others have commented that his colorful stories about his life may not have been true, but to this day, I believe what he said. Very much an iconic fixture in Hollywood, Samson had a house full of treasures or junk, depending on one’s point of view. In my memory, Samson was always colorful, surrounded by women who appeared to have no trouble worshiping him. He was one of those figures who could stand perfectly still, not do anything, and attract attention from the right people. My parents were very fond of him. He also caught the attention of Hollywood stars curious about the other side of life. James Dean and Marlon Brando were among those who were said to have spent some time at his pad on Barton Avenue and, in fact, Anger shot Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome there. One presumes that the beautiful decor in that film came courtesy of Samson’s impressive collection of costumes and his distinct interior taste.

The beautiful thing about Samson is trying to separate the myth from the truth, but I suspect that the legend is very much the truth when it comes to Samson. He claimed to have met Andre Gide and Gertrude Stein in Paris when he was a teenager, and perhaps was even a lover to Gide. All of this is possible but, like a lot of ‘legends’ of this period, there is a need to believe in the myth, because it’s so perfect and beautiful in its way. And I prefer the legend to the truth. It’s the same with Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, in which many say the stories are not real. Still, they miss the point of the book’s title—it’s “Anger’s” Hollywood Babylon. Therefore, it is a version of truth or narrative. The world of Anger, Samson, and sometimes Cameron falls in that line of fictional history.

I only went into Samson’s Barton Avenue home once, and that was through an invite from one of his female friends. When I saw Samson at art openings or film events, he was usually with a pretty woman. All of his women were protective of him, and in my view, they were at odds with each other. I was sworn to secrecy not to reveal who took me to the house after Samson passed away. I think it was a day or two after he died. At the time I was the director at Beyond Baroque, the literary/arts center in Venice, California. I was helping to arrange a memorial to Samson in our building and theater space. When you walked in his house you were overwhelmed with the various objects of art and junk. They all had their presence in the household, as did a collection of TV Guide magazines stacked on a table.

“Untitled (Peyote Vision)” 1955 by Marjorie Cameron, (from Semina journal, no. 1) by Wallace Berman

Samson struck me as a man who came out of a 19th-century adventure novel. He often reminded me of the author Sax Rohmer who wrote Fu Manchu novels. I think of him in exotic robes. Even though Samson was born in China, it is more of the generation of the romantic idea of the Orient. Everyone who had an invite into the bohemian world of Los Angeles would have to run into Samson. Sometime in the early 1990s, I hosted a screening of the silent movie Salomé (1923), starring Alla Nazimova, undoubtedly one of the most “exotic” movie stars of her (or any other) time. Charles Bryant was the director, but Nazimova was the producer. It was said, or rumored, that the entire cast of the film was either gay or bisexual. When I stated that in my introduction, Samson, who is reportedly in the film, yelled out “nonsense!” from the audience. I believe no one in that crowd was under 70 years of age.

Wallace Berman, “Cameron”, taken in 1962, printed in 2006
silver gelatin print edition of 5

My parents had no interest in magick or anything to do with religion or religious practices in general. On the other hand, they knew Cameron quite well. The artwork that got my dad busted for obscenity was a drawing she did for Semina. This is an art journal that Wallace made from the mid-1950s to the 1960s, and it focused on visual art such as drawings and poetry. Cameron contributed an ink drawing of an abstract figure having sex with a woman. In today’s world, this would not be considered obscene and maybe even allowed on today’s Facebook. Still, at the height of the McCarthy decade, when Americans were particularly uptight regarding matters of sex, Wallace’s first exhibition was closed down by the Los Angeles Police Department for exhibiting pornography. The irony is that my father made a piece with a close up of a penis going into a vagina. But that was missed when the Vice Squad came to the gallery. What they did see was Cameron’s drawing, which was part of Wallace’s assemblage piece, where he put in actual copies of his Semina journal into the sculpture.

The irony is that Cameron’s artwork was the work that got my dad busted, and he ended up in jail for a few days. I’m not sure why she didn’t get involved in his defense. I cannot imagine Cameron taking the initiative to go to court or even deal with the obscure hold of the law over art. At that time, too, she was still pretty distressed over her husband’s death. Like Wallace, she was also wary of the Cop/Judge/Courthouse world. As a jazz-loving hipster (in the 1940s sense), one is not generally in tune with the world of the Fuzz.

Cameron was very much a free-spirited person, and I regret that I didn’t hang out with her as an adult because she must have been a lot of fun. She never pushed her beliefs on anyone who was not interested in the occult arts. Cameron had an extensive network of friends throughout the world. I’ve heard that she was very close to Juliette Gréco, the celebrated French chanson singer. The image of Gréco and Cameron together in a jazz club in the Left Bank is an image that is almost too perfect. Such a relationship is believable when you are a fan of both the culture of post-war Paris and Los Angeles. I always felt that there was a strong connection between the French existentialists and the American Beats. Even clothing from the two separate social groups was similar. I am conscious that there wasn’t a sinister bone in her body, even though, as a kid, I knew she was a “witch,” but she was a cool-looking witch. Although on the other hand, I have been told by my Uncle Donald that she did a painted portrait of me as a dead baby. Mind you; I never saw this painting. Still, I don’t find it offensive. I am more amused by it than anything else. My uncle told me he was gifted with this painting by Cameron, and once in his hands, he tore the art up.

The irony is that Cameron’s artwork was the work that got my dad busted, and he ended up in jail for a few days.

Cameron has a daughter, Crystal, who was a force in and of herself. I have faint memories of being terrified while playing with her as a child. I was a few years older than her, but we played very physical games, and she was very strong. When my parents or Cameron invited me to play with Crystal, I shuddered in fear. High-energy, and she never tired, I was no match for Crystal, because I think she looked at me as a huge doll. To put it in another way, I was always happy when we left and went home.

Crystal had children, and I believe she lives in the desert now. Decades later, I saw her on the bus in West Hollywood, where she lived very close to her mother’s house, which I think was on the same block.  We greeted each other, but our past seemed to belong to someone else’s memory. My life with Crystal in my childhood seems to be a dream to me. I keep my dreams separated from my waking life.

I am conscious that there wasn’t a sinister bone in her body, even though, as a kid, I knew she was a “witch,” but she was a cool-looking witch. Although on the other hand, I have been told by my Uncle Donald that she did a painted portrait of me as a dead baby.

In the late 1980s, I used to run into Cameron at the local Ralphs Market on Sunset Blvd in West Hollywood. It was known as the ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Ralphs,’ because it was near the Guitar Center and other instrument retail shops, and the Denny’s there (now torn down) that used to feed many rock ‘n’ roll people, including Rodney Bingenheimer. Seeing Cameron at the market was always an enjoyable experience for me. As she aged, she never lost the twinkle in her eyes, and that is what impressed me in those days. She did look like a witch, but the enjoyment of her being was very much in her eyes.

The last time I saw Cameron was at Samson de Brier’s memorial at Beyond Baroque in 1995. It was an amazing and very upbeat afternoon. Besides Cameron, there was Paul Mathison, Curtis Harrington, all from Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, made in 1954, the year of my birth. Anger didn’t show up, so it wasn’t a complete reunion, but still, as I sat there with the three of them, I felt the presence of a culture of great importance in front of me. Cameron was ill and recovering from her cancer, but she was weak. Regardless, she was the most beautiful and sweet person in the room. Being in her presence was easy because there was no ego or attitude with her. I always found her to be open and easy to be with, in private and in social gatherings.

Sadly, I organized another memorial a few months later, but this time it was for Cameron. It was shortly after her death on June 24, 1995. Samson passed on April’s Fool Day. Compared to Samson’s memorial, the only person I knew was the artist George Herms, an old friend of Cameron’s. The rest were members of Ordo Temple Orientis (OTO) Order of the Temple of the East, an occult group founded at the beginning of the 20th century. Its most famous member was Aleister Crowley. George gave a speech, and I remember him saying that kissing Cameron on her deathbed was like kissing a very young woman.

After that, I don’t recall any further testimonials or speeches, but I could be wrong due to fading memory. On the other hand, I do recall that Cameron’s character and personality didn’t fit into the mode of the OTO as I saw them that day. They had a seriousness and severity that I found conservative compared to Cameron’s laugh and enjoyment of life. I felt like a stranger among Cameron’s other grouping. My lasting memory of her is one of lightness, although a dramatic presence in its emotional intensity.

Marjorie Cameron circa mid 1940s

For further information on Cameron, I recommend Wormwood Star: the Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron by Spencer Kansa (Mandrake of Oxford) ISBN: 978-1-906958-60-2