The disappearance of Jean Spangler
The late 1940s was a time when the studios still reigned over Hollywood, the mob ruled the Sunset Strip, and crooked politicians and police brass ran Los Angeles. Two years after the Black Dahlia affair, Hollywood was shocked by the disappearance of another young woman named Jean Spangler. She and Short looked remarkably alike, probably one of the reasons Hollywood took notice. This stunningly beautiful 27-year-old actress had achieved a measure of success with small roles in Hollywood films and early television commercials, quite like the young Marilyn Monroe.
On Oct. 7, 1949, two years after Short’s death, Spangler said good-bye to her sister-in-law Sophie and 5-year-old daughter, saying she was going to meet her ex-husband to discuss custody payments and then go work on a film set that night. She never returned. Spangler’s purse was found with torn handles and an unfinished note. The note was addressed to “Kirk” and read, “Can’t wait any longer. Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away,” ending with a comma as if it hadn’t been finished.
Spangler was never found. There was speculation that the mysterious Kirk may have been Kirk Douglas, (ridiculous) and there were also theories that she was killed by a jealous ex-husband or died due to a botched abortion. The case remains unsolved. The note seems to hint at an abortion “it will work best this way” but of course the medical visit could have been quite different. It’s a shame the police didn’t speak to this Dr. Scott.
“This case was to missing persons what the Black Dahlia was to homicides, it had enough twists and turns to rival any Ray Chandler novel,” stated Kyle Wood, a crime historian. It gets better. A mob kingpin, a major movie star, a back-alley butcher and her ex-husband all played a potential role in the disappearance of Spangler. Speculations at the time included that Spangler was pregnant with a powerful man’s child and “she was going to shake him down for payment.” Denise Hamilton, a novelist, stated, “You have a beautiful, young starlet. Brunette. She’s sultry. She’s tall. She’s leggy. And she’s trying to make it in Hollywood,” Hamilton said. “It’s absolutely a classic noir mystery,” She revealed that her mystery, “The Last Embrace,” was inspired by the Spangler case.
Spangler’s reputation was abused in the media. The word up was “she got around. She dated everybody,” including men from the mafia. “She’s a party girl. She goes out with a lot of people: gangsters, movie stars, Hollywood executives. They found her little black book after she disappeared, and there were a lot of prominent names in it,” said Hamilton. So said the press. The day in question was a normal day, according to Spangler’s family. She stated she was going to the movie set then to her ex-husband’s house. seeking an increase in child support payments. Although Spangler didn’t return home for 2 days, this behaviour wasn’t entirely unusual and Sophie didn’t report her absence.
Spangler’s purse was found near Griffith Park, a large, beautiful forested area where horsemen often rode. 60 horsemen and 140 volunteers scoured the area to look for evidence or the body. Their efforts were in vain. It was at this time that LAPD focused its attention on the strange note in Spangler’s purse. A police department handwriting expert carefully examined Spangler’s note and confirmed it was her handwriting. In order to try to decipher the cryptic message, investigators studied Spangler’s life from her childhood up until her disappearance. 1923 Spangler was born in Seattle WA, to an itinerant family. She graduated from Franklin High School (with a gorgeous picture in the year book) in Loss Angeles and in June 1942 Spangler married her high school sweetheart, Dexter Benner. It wasn’t a good marriage but soon after the vows, Spangler was pergnant.
Suspect One – Lt. Scott – Jean`s husband was inducted into the military and sent overseas. By the time he returned Spangler was living with another man named Lieutenant
Scott (not the doctor). They were discussing marriage. When Benner returned he got custody of Christine due to Spangler’s infidelity with Scott (that’s the way it worked in LA in 1946). This was a sensation that played out on all the LA newspapers: s powerful military lieutenant, a beautiful actress, a cuckolded husband. It was heady stuff for the media.
Four days later Spangler returned to see her lawyer. She sported a large black eye and explained Scott had beaten her up, threatened to kill her if she tried to leave him, but she broke it off anyway. Smart lady. There are so many reasons to implicate this man in the murder it`s as though he has a neon sign over his head. The physical abuse and death threats of course are key. And his status as a Lieutenant with the military means he has powerful connections, perhaps someone who helped him keep Jean`s murder quiet. That`s the problem with this suspect. Isn`t it all just a little too perfect. Apparently the police agreed. Nothing more came from investigating Scott after Spangler went missing.
As if that wasn`t enough in 1948, one year before her disappearance, Benner launched a smear campaign against
his ex-wife charging that she was an unfit mother, that she was a (wink) glamour girl. A glamour girl in 1948 was no one`s idea of a good mother. The casting couch was notorious. The Florentine Gardens and Earl Carroll were the nightclubs where people went to see and be seen. Spangler was cast as a showgirl at the Earl Carroll theatre. Betty (irony) Bedouin befriended her there. She claimed `there was never a dull moment with that girl.`She sounded much like Short: I don`t think she ever had an argument with anyone. Eventually Spangler won custody of 4-year-old Christine. The glamour girl reputation I can understand the court might overlook so long as Spangler was proven a good mother. But a known party girl who partied with the mob. Somehow that information must have stayed out of court.
Spangler was busy. She worked non-stop. She had bit parts and commercials. She worked with Kirk Douglas and Bob Cummings. She had numerous romances. She had a nightlife and she liked rough characters. She dated two men, Dave Ogul and Frank Nicolli, henchmen for Mickey Cohen, the kingpin at the time for the LA mob. In the fall of 1949 Spangler told a girlfriend that she was“expecting.“ Spangler also told friends that she expected to receive a `great deal of money“ in the near future. Clearly, Spangler was hinting at extortion or else how would she get it. Now Spangler was playing with fire. If she tried to blackmail a man who had a lot to lose should word get out that he had impregnated her, clearly he was big time.
Suspect Number Two – Kirk Douglas.The day she disappeared, around 5:45 pm Spangler was seen in a market. She went into a store for about 90 minutes looking for a purse for Christine (ironic considering Spangler`s purse was the first clue police had that she had disappeared). At 7:30 she called home to check on Christine. She told Sophie that she was at work and would be home late, most likely a lie. She must have been picked up by someone she was waiting for, whether the man she was possibly blackmailing, or someone else. It was probably the man she was blackmailing – she`d been waiting for her `ride`for two hours. It wasn`t long before people began to suspect a major movie star – Kirk Douglas – merely because they had made a movie together. Now I don`t know a lot about Douglas but I do know this: he doesn`t seem like the type to knock up a beautiful young woman then be forcibly blackmailed into providing for his kid. Nope. I don`t think he has it in him.
Suspect Number Three – Dr. Scott, Abortionist – If Spangler indeed was getting an abortion it must be remembered that abortion was illegal in 1947. That meant back-street butchers, as they were called, were sought after by desperate girls and women who had no idea how much danger they were in. This was how the police suspected Spangler may have died; not that it was a homicide, but rather an accidental murder due to a botched abortion. Actresses in the 1940s often had abortions: Marilyn Mornoe once admitted she`d had twelve. Studio producers didn`t want pregnant actresses. Established women could afford to start a family but not young unknowns.
Ralph Asdel, a retired detected, suggested the abortionist (had there been one) might have panicked, disposed of Spangler`s body and thrown away her purse. There were several Dr. Scott`s in the area. It was known that one of these was an abortionist operating in Sunset Strip at the time. With all the Dr Scott`s in the area, it was odd that the police never tracked him down.
Naturally the police looked at the second name in the letter: Kirk. They also wondered if Kirk Douglas was the suspect. Douglas contacted the police before they contacted him.
Perhaps he simply had nothing to hide. He informed them he knew Spangler, had dated her briefly, but that was all. My vote is on the abortionist. I believe Spangler, like many unfortunate women, died from a botched abortion. The terrible irony is that poor Short was killed with metal instruments by someone who appeared to have knowledge of the human anatomy. Spangler died in a somewhat similar manner, except of course,
hers was a much more “humane“ murder and certainly not intentional. As such, Spangler’s death would have been a manslaughter, as it was unintentional, without malice aforethought and didn’t involve torture. Short’s murder was a first degree murder: not only was it illegal to murder this woman but it was the prolonged, painful manner in which she was killed that made it a first degree murder.
Suspect Number Four – The Mob – However another twist on the Spangler story took place that very night: two members of the mafia, specifically `friends “of Spangler`s, Ogul and Nicolli, also disappeared that night. They were scheduled to testify against Mickey Cohen in court; they may simply have skipped town or Cohen could have had them killed. Now the suggestion arose that maybe the mob received a call to “get rid of Spangler“. Asdel however disagreed with this theory. “I wasn`t aware that the mob went around killing girls too much. They might beat them up once in a while.“ However, people theorized the mob got a hold of Spangler and that she was either thrown into the ocean or buried somewhere in the desert. And Cohen`s possible illegitimate child. Spangler wouldn`t be stupid enough to blackmail the kingpin himself. She knew from dating his henchmen that such a move would spell nothing but concrete shoes.
Suspect Number Five- It`s doubtful the police considered Short`s murderer to be a suspect but the media and the public certainly thought it was a possibility. The problem with this theory was that Spangler`s body was never recovered. Short`s killer made certain she would be discovered; it was a point of pride with him, a “see what I did` type of mentality. Hiding Spangler`s body would make no sense since this killer wanted his unspeakable crimes made known.
It would appear this investigation wasn`t merely a botched
abortion but perhaps a botched police investigation. That the killer was never found, or at least a person who knew something about Spangler, suggests police might not have been digging too hard. Spangler`s wild ways and the type of crowd she ran with could have convinced police that the odds of finding her abductor were slim to nil. The press played up the story for several months, after which time the case went cold and was shelved. “The Jean Spangler case is a cautionary tale for all of us,” Hamilton said. “And we’re drawn to the darkness like moths to a flame.”
Today her daughter Christine refuses to discuss her glamorous mother, as does Spangler“s ex-husband, Benner. Like many Hollywood glamour girls who never realized their potential, Spangler it would seem, became a distant memory best left forgotten.