It was October. 7, 1949, and 26-year old actress and model Jean Spangler was living out her last known day on earth. After this, she would vanish like a mirage, without a trace. She left behind a mystery more tangled than a film noir plot.
Jean asked her sister-in-law Sophie to babysit her five-year old daughter while she went out that evening. It was 5 pm in autumn L.A., and the sun was setting on the city of dreams. Where was Jean going?
Jean claimed she was meeting her ex-husband Dexter Benner, to discuss an increase in child support payments. One can imagine he wasn’t too happy with that. Their marriage had ended in a messy divorce three years earlier, with a dramatic custody battle in which Dexter declared Jean an “unfit mother,” and threatened to take her daughter away from her forever.
She was known to be a party girl who ran in a rough crowd of mobsters, wannabe bit-part players, and Hollywood B-list stars. Jean was like a slightly more successful Elizabeth Short, although they both shared the same jet-black hair, sea-blue eyes and ambition for stardom. And they would both have their lives snuffed out much too early.
Before Jean’s disappearance, actor and friend Robert Cummings had claimed she had told him “I have a new romance,” and when asked if it was serious, she had said “Not really, but I’m having the time of my life.” Jean was known to be terrible at choosing men, as every relationship she had would end in financial, legal or physically violent disaster.
Later on, stumped detectives would complain how “The only thing we’ve been able to find out, is that this girl really got around.”
Even more troubling, Jean was believed to be three months pregnant before she vanished. And she was not ready to deal with another child. Her friends had claimed she was searching for a doctor to perform a back-alley abortion, as the procedure was illegal at the time.
The troubled girl originally from grim Seattle, who wormed her way into glamorous L.A. and Hollywood supporting roles, could not steer clear of dangerous men. There would be far too many suspects in this case, and far too few answers.
Two hours after Jean left home that cool autumn evening, she phoned Sophie and let her know she would be coming home late because she was filming on a movie set. Later on into the investigation, the Screen Extra’s Guild would inform police that they had found no evidence she was working that night.
The last confirmed appearance of Jean was at a farmer’s market near her home at 6 pm. An employee said Jean appeared to be waiting for someone. Her whereabouts afterwards remain a mystery.
Sophie grew alarmed when Jean didn’t return home the next morning, and reported her disappearance to the police.
Jean’s discarded purse was soon found in a park 9 km from her home, with the straps nearly torn off, indicating some sort of violent force. Her body would never be found, and she seemed to have vanished into thin air.
In her purse was a cryptic note:
“Kirk: Can’t wait any longer, Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away.”
Police took this to mean that Jean was aborting the baby of a man named Kirk, and Dr. Scott was the abortionist she had snuck away to see that night.
Or it was a bizarre Star Trek reference.
Her mother had gone away to visit family in Kentucky at the time, but other family members were still present at the home. It seemed absurd to think that she would’ve been able to hide a bloody and messy illicit abortion from her mother, daughter, sister-in-law, and brother.
The theories of what happened to disappearing Jean are as follows:
No# 1. The killer was Kirk Douglas, alleged to have a mean streak towards women (read about his supposed rape of Natalie Wood). Jean had a bit part in Young Man with a Horn, a corny 1950 musical starring Kirk, Lauren Bacall, Doris Day, and Hoagy Carmichael. She was on her way up, climbing the map of stars, but somebody would tear her down.
Kirk claimed to not have known Jean, then later recanted that they had talked a bit on set. Jean’s mother claimed a man named Kirk had once picked her daughter up from home, but had chosen to wait in his car rather than come inside. Many claim the coincidence in name was too odd to be true, as how many women out there get down with a Kirk? Perhaps they had a secret affair, and things went sour when he found out she was pregnant.
2. Ex-husband Dexter Benner and his new wife Lynn had killed Jean due to her requesting more ample child support payments, and for being a hindrance in general for the couple. Lynn was supposed to be a friend of mobster Mickey Cohen, and Dex was still bitter about having lost custody of his daughter. This makes for a toxic formula.
Jean had also cheated on Dexter with a man named Scotty during their marriage, which caused the couple to divorce. Dex could have been holding a humiliation and rage-fueled grudge for this, and finally exploded in violence. However, Lynn covered for Dexter and gave him an alibi, saying they were together when Jean’s disappearance occurred.
3. Scotty, the man Jean had an affair with. Like in the plot of From Here to Eternity, Jean had met Scotty while her husband was stationed in the army in the South Pacific.
He was said to be a tall and handsome air corps lieutenant, who was much better at giving her a good time than her stuffy manufacturer businessman husband. Jean seemed to have only married Dexter for the financial stability he had given her, and looked for excitement outside of the marriage.
The tropical romance with Scotty had turned violent, and he eventually beat Jean and gave her a black eye. Scotty threatened to kill her if she ever left him. This was the last straw for Jean, and she ended the affair. Scotty’s lawyer claimed they hadn’t spoken since 1945. Some suspect the “Scott” in the note is damning evidence, but the lieutenant was nowhere close to being a doctor.
4. The suspicious “Dr. Scott” mentioned in the letter was an abortionist Jean had gone to see that night. The risky procedure went wrong, and Jean had died, causing the doctor to panic and dump her body somewhere secret. The police were never able to find this elusive suspect, or any other abortionist or doctor who they could link to Jean.
5. Mobsters had killed Jean. She was romantically linked to gangster Davy Ogul, who himself disappeared two days after Jean had. He was the henchman of mob boss Mickey Cohen, ironically also a friend of her ex-husband’s wife. Some say he had turned against his former boss, and planned to testify against him in court. Months after Jean’s disappearance, a hotel clerk would claim she saw her in the company of Davy and other mob men in Texas.
Despite all these leads, police could not piece together any coherent resolution. The case was more muddled than a Raymond Chandler noir novel, and even worse, no more physical evidence was found after the discovery of Jean’s purse and the brief note.
Dexter gained custody of the couple’s daughter Christine after his wife’s vanishing, though Jean’s mother attempted to gain visitation rights. Defying court orders, Dexter and Lynn took the girl to Florida and never returned.
As for Jean’s mother, she said about her daughter “I’m sure she would have communicated with us if she was alive and free. And nobody can tell me she’d have left her baby unless she was forced to.”
The case went stone cold, and no more useful evidence was discovered after 1950. Some even claim she was murdered by the same unknown killer who had taken the life of the Black Dahlia a few years earlier. The dark-haired beauties remain symbols of lost dreams in the nightmarish and crime-filled landscapes of 1940s L.A.
Jean was the prototypical Old Hollywood starlet searching for fame and fortune on the silver screen, but instead she sunk down into the harrowing and hellish depths of tinseltown, and was mostly likely kidnapped, murdered, and disposed of by a cruel individual. And so what else could have been said by 1949 newspapers other than this: Jean Spangler has vanished and we will never see her beautiful black and white silhouette onscreen as a lead.