A few months ago, a writer named George Pendle emailed me, asking if I'd like a review copy of his book, Strange Angel : The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons.
I knew a bit about Parsons from reading Robert Anton Wilson's books, which occasionally references him. I knew Parsons was a pioneering rocket scientist from Pasadena who co-founded Jet Propulsion Laboratories, and that he was an avid follower of occultist Aleister Crowley. I also knew that he accidentally blew himself up with explosives. He seemed like an interesting but doomed and mentally ill man.
I hoped that Pendle's account of Parson's would go beyond the brief mentions I'd read in Wilson's books and online, and I wasn't disappointed. In fact, Strange Angel is the best book I've read so far this year. Pendle's telling of the story presents the dizzying roller coaster ride of Parsons' life within the well-researched context of the era in which Parson's lived. I loved Pendle's multi-pages forays into the history of Pasadena as a paradisical Eden for old money families from the mid-west and New England, and the crooked Los Angeles political machine of the 1930s. Pendle also provides the best short biography of English occultist Aleister Crowley I've ever read. L. Ron Hubbard figures prominently in the book, too: he lived in Parson's house in the 1940s before he founded Scientology. Pendle paints an unflattering portrait of Hubbard, claiming he swindled Parsons out of around $(removed),000 and swiped Parsons' girlfriend, to boot.
Pendle conducted interviews with people who knew Parsons, and scoured the archives of JPL, Cal Tech, Thelema Media (which publishes Crowley's books) to collect enough bits of factual history to construct a dimensional portrait of a man who heretofore has been presented as a cardboard cut out. Parson's life was far more interesting and sadder than I could have guessed. This would make a great movie. Link (Listen to George Pendle read an excerpt from Strange Angel.)