The Ecstatic Rise and Bitter Fall of Barbara Bates

Hollywood: it chews you up, and then spits you out. This proverb was never more true than in the case of Barbara Bates; a psychologically fragile Old Hollywood actress who managed to withstand several career disappointments, until a final tragedy drove her to grim suicide.

Born in Denver, Colorado in 1925, Barbara always had a gift for glamour. She was a dark-haired, shy and demure enchantress, who modelled as a teen and studied ballet, eventually winning a beauty contest that changed her life. The prize? Round trip tickets to Hollywood, of course.

In 1944, Barbara and her mother went to L.A. in search of fame and glory. Two days before they were due to return home, they met a publicist for United Artists studio named Cecil Coan.

Barbara was only 19-years old, and Cecil was 45 and married with four children. None of this deterred the pair, who began a torrid affair that unexpectedly turned into a successful 22 year marriage. He divorced his wife as soon as possible to marry Barbara, 26 years his junior. Despite the initial creepiness of the pairing, they were deeply in love and would stay together until Cecil’s death.

Immediately, Cecil began working his magic and turned Barbara into a budding starlet. In September of 1944, Barbara signed a contract with Universal Pictures.

Cecil had introduced her to producer Walter Wanger, who was looking to cast “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” for his upcoming picture Salome Where She Danced. Barbara received a role as one of the seven dancing girls, alongside Yvonne De Carlo. She seemed set for stardom, but her career would stall in the next few years.

In 1947, producer William T. Orr convinced Barbara to dye her hair blonde. After she did, however, he told her, “You are not the blonde type. Be yourself.” Asshole, much?

Blonde Barbie

At this time, she also began pin-up modelling on the side to make some extra cash. Shy and reserved Barbara resented doing sleazy cheesecake shoots, but they caused her to catch a thirsty Warner Bros. rep’s eye, and she received her first big role alongside Danny Kaye in the 1949 musical comedy The Inspector General.

Sadly, much of her part was lost on the cutting room floor. To add insult to injury, Warner Bros. tried to force Barbara to go to New York to promote the release of The Inspector General, but she was too proud to submit to the studio’s whims and they fired her. An exasperated Barbara then attempted suicide, but the studio managed to cover it up and hide this from the press. This was the beginning of a repeated series of suicide attempts by Barbara, prompted by either personal or career lows.

Barbara (middle) pretends to play chess with Julie London and Daun Kennedy in a 1945 pin-up

In 1949, she discussed the ins and out of being a star with a newspaper. She described how:

 “Every Hollywood newcomer goes through a sex school. They have regular exercises to bring out your…uh…fire. They told [drama coach] Sophie Rosenstein to ‘put some sex into me.’ She did. Sophie made me throw back my shoulders and stick out my chest.

Then I had to sit in front of a mirror and breathe deeply—for hours and hours… They want you to become conscious of your body and to…well…to throw your curves at the world. And all the while you’re supposed to be thinking sexy thoughts. They don’t tell you what. That’s one thing they leave up to you.” 

If that sounds grotesque to you, you’re not the only one! Barbara was already in a unstable state: she was known to suffer from depression and mood swings from the very start, clearly due to untreated mental illness. Instead of being honest with her about realistic career goals, various Hollywood studios treated Barbara like a cheap floozy, giving her only tiny insignificant bit parts as a meager reward for signing on with them.

Barbara had also developed a reputation of being difficult on set. Jeffrey Hunter, who co-starred with Barbara in 1952’s Belles on Their Toes, claimed that she was “very disturbed. I felt uncomfortable in her presence and felt she was a very troubled young woman.” However, Ray McDonald, who starred alongside her in the 1953 Mickey Rooney musical All-Ashore, claimed that “she was easy to work with but had moods of depression.”

In May of 1949, another sleazy yet typical Hollywood incident occurred: Notorious lech Harry Cohn (head of Columbia Pictures from 1919 to 1958) offered to sign a contract with Barbara on one condition: she divorce her husband. She refused. He called her two nights later, and drunkenly invited her to his yacht. She refused again.

In E.J. Fleming’s book The Fixers, he describes how Harry Cohn “was said to have verbally or physically raped every woman that ever worked for his studio.” Harry was a known pervert who was rumored to have forced the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak to sleep with him in order to be cast in starring roles. His track record makes Harvey Weinstein seem chaste in comparison, and would be definite cause for a #MeToo hashtag in the 21st century.

However, it was the late 1940s, and since Barbara refused to play Hollywood’s licentious game of casting couch bingo, she would never gain the big-name stardom she had always dreamed of.

But alas, there finally came a small light at the end of the tunnel: Barbara managed to land a contract with 20th Century-Fox, who cast her in the biggest picture of 1950, the Bette Davis classic All About Eve.

Barbara in All About Eve

Barbara’s role was minor, but it was the one she would always be remembered for. The Hollywood Reporter described her memorable appearance in the final scene as “sum[ming] up the whole action and point of the story. It’s odd that a bit should count for so much, and in the hands of Miss Bates all the required points are fulfilled.”

With the money from her big role, she bought a 51-foot yacht named The Bayadère, which cost $45,000 (adjusted as $480k for modern inflation). Barbara spent 8 months learning how to sail and navigate the yacht at a Coast Guard School. Hollywood did have a few perks after all! The studio even installed a radio-telephone on the yacht to enslave contact her at all times.

Barbara had a few more notable roles left: the 1950 cheesefest Cheaper by the Dozen, and the brainless 1953 Jerry Lewis-Dean Martin comedy The Caddy. She was frustrated with these moronic films, lamenting to gossip columnist Erskine Johnson on how “I thought great things were going to happen [after All About Eve]. So far—nothing. They keep casting me as a 16-year-old; I can’t seem to get up to 20.”

Enjoying a sandwich and coke on her yacht

Then came her dream role: Barbara was screen tested for the suicidal ballerina character in Charlie Chaplin’s 1952 comedy-drama Limelight. As a former childhood ballerina, she would have been perfect for the part. Chaplin was delighted with her audition, and offered her the role himself.

Unfortunately, dictatorial Fox refused to loan Barbara out to United Artists to film the picture, due to the fact that they resented Chaplin for his supposed communist ties. Barbara was left heartbroken and destroyed after losing the role of a lifetime.

After this, Barbara’s career tanked. She was fired from the 1954 sitcom It’s a Great Life for “erratic behavior.” What set her off? Well, let us examine an interview Barbara gave columnist Lydia Lane on the set of the TV show, just months before she was canned:

 “I have had such trouble keeping thin. I dearly love anything sweet—especially chocolate—and to say no really takes discipline. But it isn’t healthy to be dieting all the time… The thing to do is find the weight at which you are comfortable and level off.

I keep a check by weighing in every morning, and if I’ve gained even a pound, I start cutting down. I have a calorie chart which I carry in my handbag and this helps me limit myself to 500 calories a day until I’m back to normal. I haven’t had to diet for quite a while, and it’s a wonderful feeling.”

On the set of Rhapsody (1954)

500 calories a day? Who wouldn’t feel like shit on this diet? Obviously, Hollywood has an obsession with thinness and actresses are required to stay in shape. But this was eating disorder territory, and it was no wonder poor Barbara was losing her mind from the pressures mounting all around her.

Out of work and desperate, Cecil arranged for Barbara to go to England and sign on with the Rank Organisation in 1956. The studio felt she was too old at the age of 31, and advertised her as being a 24-year old. She was cast in a few films, but suffered a nervous breakdown and health issues which caused her to abandon the sets while filming. Many suspected that Barbara attempted suicide once again. Nevertheless, she was fired by Rank in 1957, and was forced to return to the USA.

She played in several TV commercials to make some quick cash, as the couple had lost money due to bad land investments in Spain. Barbara’s old friend Rory Calhoun landed her a final movie part in his 1958 western Apache Territory. Her last TV appearance was in a 1962 episode of The Saint. An unceremonious end for a troubled career.

In 1960, the couple converted to Catholicism and moved to a modest Beverly Hills apartment. Throughout her chaotic life, Cecil had proven to be an unmoving rock of support for Barbara. He was her manager, agent, husband, lover, best friend and closest confidante for most of her adult life. Tragically, Cecil was diagnosed with cancer, and the last sane threads of Barbara’s life quickly unraveled.

She put aside her career to loyally care for the ailing Cecil, but the stress of being his constant nurse caused Barbara to snap. She attempted suicide by slitting her wrists, but survived yet again. These were very dark times for her, and the final straw was when Cecil died in January of 1967. She was at his bedside, romantic and steadfast until the very end. But when Cecil passed, something in Barbara died with him.

If she was already suicidal even in the presence of Cecil, now she was completely lost. Feeling aimless, Barbara left California for good and returned home to Denver. To her credit, she did attempt to rebuild a life: she attended a secretarial school by night, and worked as a nurse’s aide in the daytime. She was also a dental assistant at one point, and often volunteered at church.

What does this tell us? Barbara was dead broke. Cecil’s hospital bills must have drained her Hollywood fortune. Being relegated to the boring common life of a wageslave after starring alongside Elizabeth Taylor in films and purchasing half a million dollar yachts was disastrous.

At the end of 1968, she remarried: to a sportscaster named William Reed, who also happened to be a childhood friend. The marriage did not seem to be very romantic, and was most likely just an arrangement of convenience to prevent the onset of late-age loneliness.

So here was Barbara: back in her hometown, aging, married to a man from her youth, her Hollywood career totally faded; as she worked obscure random jobs to rake up pitiful sums of cash she would have laughed at in her days as a top actress.

It was all too much.

On March 18, 1969, Barbara’s mother returned to their suburban home, and found the garage was locked and sealed from the bottom. Upon unlocking the door, she found Barbara dead in the front seat of her Volkswagen. She had committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 43.

This came after a mere four months of marriage, indicating Barbara’s unhappiness in her newfound relationship. There are also reports that she was pregnant at the time and that this may have set her off. She was quietly buried in Crown Hill Cemetery, Colorado.

Barbara once said “I have no illusions about being a star. Every time I did something really important, they ended up cutting it.” This was an accurate summation of her life and career: she lived a brief, painful and beautiful existence full of heartbreak and malady. Hollywood had drained her and then tossed her aside when they deemed her too old, mentally ill, and washed up. She was the victim of the monstrous machine of cinema, but she managed to free herself with death.

Jean Spangler’s Eerie 1940s Hollywood Disappearance

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.

Jean cries during her 1948 custody battle

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.

The purse with the broken straps

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.

Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall on the set of Young Man with a Horn

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.

Spurned ex-husband Dexter Benner

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.

The infamous note

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.

Police search for Jean’s remains at Griffith Park

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.”

Mother Florence mourns her daughter

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.

Jean’s five year-old daughter Christine would never see her mom again

How the Black Dahlia Became a Gruesome 1940s Beauty Icon

 Elizabeth Short AKA The Black Dahlia was a gorgeous young woman found murdered in an empty lot in Los Angeles in January of 1947, at the age of 22. She was naked, bruised, severed in half at the waist, and mutilated. Her face had been cut ear to ear in a hauntingly perverse Glasgow smile. She had been beaten, tortured and possibly raped. Horrific photos of the crime scene and autopsy are plastered rather distastefully across the internet.

 Even during her time, the media was captivated by her. They quickly picked up on the fact that the young girl was an aspiring actress, and endlessly reported on her many love affairs and striking looks. The American news press couldn’t get enough of her. The fame that Short had desired in her lifetime had only come to her in death, and it had become a national morbid obsession.

An alluring mugshot of Beth taken in 1943. She had been nabbed for underage drinking at a bar.

 People who knew her described her luscious mane of black hair, her stunning blue eyes, her mysterious and charismatic presence, and of course, her immaculate sense of style and penchant for dark, heavy makeup. The Black Dahlia quickly became a bizarre and disturbing 1940s fashion icon.

Short’s friend Lauretta recalled “how Beth was drawn to the unusual, such as the brooch she wore in the shape of a large black flower with a sterling silver Egyptian face in the center. When asked where it came from, Beth just smiled and wouldn’t say.” – From“Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder” by John Gilmore.

Other passages from Severed continue to depict Short’s penchant for beautiful and strange personal effects: “Once she showed Lauretta an ivory colored cigarette case in the shape of two clasped hands, which she used to keep business cards in. ‘She was unusual wherever she went, and for Hollywood, especially at that time, that’s a bold statement.’

Lauretta also recalled giving a fine piece of lingerie to Beth: ‘She adored black lace. Elizabeth was of the night. She was of the dark…’” 

By all descriptions, Short looked and acted like a film noir heroine. She was mysterious with everyone she knew, and refused to divulge intimate secrets even to lovers or friends. Nobody was ever truly close to her. She was cool, attractive and impossible to get to know.

Veronica Lake in The Blue Dahlia

It’s also worth noting that her “Black Dahlia” nickname was ascribed to her after the 1946 Alan Ladd film noir The Blue Dahlia, starring the similarly tragic and femme fatale-ish Veronica Lake.

Short wanted to break into Hollywood badly, and was an avid fan of film who went to watch movies in theaters whenever she could fork up the money for it. It’s possible that one dark and lurid L.A. night, she could’ve walked by a poster for The Blue Dahlia plastered on a wall by some lonesome alley, and thought: Will this ever be me someday? Will I see my name on the marquee? She had yet to know her name would be scrawled across newspapers for something much more terrifying.

And now, let’s take a look at Short’s make up routine.

 Crime historian Joan Renner described how:

  “rather than following the post-war vogue for a natural looking makeup, Elizabeth Short used a heavy hand to create a dramatic contrast between her complexion and her hair color. If anything, her look leaned more towards Goth girl than glamour girl.“

I’m seeing a little Siouxsie Sioux in her

 Short’s roommate Linda Rohr, who worked in the Rouge Room at Max Factor, stated that:

  she was always going out and she loved to prowl the boulevard. She had pretty blue eyes but sometimes overdid with makeup an inch thick. She dyed her brown hair black, and then red again.”


She also said Short’s makeup was startling, “like a geisha… The way she fusses over details and spends three times as long as anyone I know with her makeup. I can come and go and she’s still in the bathroom putting on her face.” 

Beth and her handsome army beau Matthew Michael Gordon, Jr.
He would die in a plane crash in 1945 less than a week before the end of WWII. Beth never forgot him.

Short’s roommates did not appreciate the immense amount of time she would take getting ready in the bathroom, but her dates sure did. Men would come knocking on the door late at night asking for her, while she hid inside and pretended not to hear.

 One of Short’s most fabulous beauty secrets was using candle wax on her teeth to fill in cavities and to make her teeth shine, since she could not afford dental work. She was constantly broke and had to rely on the kindness of others to stay stylish and camera ready.

Beth in front of what seems to be a poster for the 1943 film adaption of Elvira Madigan

The brutal Black Dahlia murder symbolizes the loss of innocence and beauty in 1940s L.A. (just as Sharon Tate’s murder at the hands of the psychotic Manson family did for the 1960s), and has become a sort of myth or legend. Underneath the evil of her murder, there was just a unique and fascinating young woman trying to make it in a literal cutthroat industry, which took her life too soon. We are left only with the mystery of what could have been, and with pictures and stories of the 22 year old’s hypnotic beauty and grace.