Writing a book is an heroic process, it really is, but even more so when it comes to biographies. Especially these days when so few people bother to read books anymore and the rewards are seldom very remunerative for most authors. In the case of biographers, it’s a different kind of satisfaction. It takes a real sense of purpose and desire to see someone’s story told properly; to get things down as accurately as possible for history’s sake before the participants are picked off by time. In this sense, there is often a very real race against the clock.
I’m quite partial to biographies. I have a pretty sizable personal library, and by far the largest part of the books I own are life histories, especially the tales of cult figures or rebellious type people (Beats, Lenny Bruce, Leary, Crowley, Dali, Warhol, etc). There is a special fondness I have for books about extremely marginal personalities (Andy Milligan, Charles Hawtrey, Charles Ludlam) and I appreciate the effort, the true labor of love, that goes into such obscure endeavors. The more obsessive, the better.
Marjorie Cameron (1922-1995) was a “witchy woman” and Beatnik artist known widely in several overlapping Los Angeles bohemian circles, but she was hardly famous. Since her death, there has been a gradually growing public awareness of Cameron’s art, or at least what’s left of her work, that the artist herself did not destroy in a moment of mental instability. Her paintings, now highly sought after by collectors, can sell for in the tens of thousands of dollars. In recent memory, her work has been exhibited in major museums (The Whitney’s “Beat Culture” show and the the excellent “Semina Culture: Wallace Berman and His Circle” exhibit) and the Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery in NYC published a gorgeous monograph of her work in 2007.
Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron by Spencer Kansa is a fascinating and very, very well-researched look into Cameron’s perplexingly strange life. The title refers to Cameron’s belief that she was the end-times “Whore of Babalon” prophesied in the Book of Revelations, in the flesh, This was a result, she thought, of a black magic ritual performed to summon or “conjure” her by her future husband, rocket scientist Jack Parsons, and L. Ron Hubbard, in his pre-Scientology days.
Cameron’s often wobbly orbit in life saw her cross paths with significant cultural players like underground filmmaker Kennth Anger, who cast her as “The Scarlet Woman” (typecasting!) in his 1956 film, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, which also featured author Anais Nin. (Anger was Cameron’s roommate at several points over the decades they knew one another). She was certainly a part of Wallace Berman’s intimates and co-starred in. Night Tide a low-budget horror film with Dennis Hopper (who recounts a brief period of sexual intimacy with the older woman). Crisscrossing the country and tracking down all of the various characters the author spoke to must have been quite a chore, and as a reader and longtime admirer of Cameron’s work, I’m grateful for the attention Kansa paid to detail.
Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron is one of those books that’s obviously not for everyone, but me, I’ve probably read Wormwood Star three times in the past month. If it sounds like something that might interest you, well, it probably is.
Below, one of Cameron’s brief, but memorable, scenes in Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Dennis Hopper stars in creepy 60s Beatnik cult film, ‘Night Tide’