The Mystery of Jean Spangler

The career of chorine/model/bit player Jean Spangler (b.1923) was modest; her life presumably short. But we don’t really know.

Spangler’s credits and vital stats can be summed up briefly. She had started out dancing at the Earl Carroll Theatre and Nils T. Granlund’s Florentine Gardens. At 19 she married a rich manufacturer named Dexter Benner. Their baby Christine was born in 1944, but the pair split up and were divorced by 1946. The custody battle afforded her some of her first publicity:

Whereupon she put her statuesque good looks back to work as a dancer, extra and bit player in movies, including The Miracle of the Bells (1948), When My Baby Smiles at Me (1948), Chicken Every Sunday (1949), Young Man With a Horn (1950), Wabash Avenue (1950), Champagne for Ceasar (1950), and The Petty Girl (1950). As it happens, half of these films were likely posthumous as far as Spangler was concerned. But we don’t really know. She vanished without a trace.

By fall of 1949, Spangler was living with her mother, brother, sister-in-law and five year old daughter in Los Angeles. On the evening of October 7, she left her daughter in the charge of her sister-in-law, saying she was going to meet her ex-husband to discuss child support, and then would be out for several hours for a late night shoot. She was seen hanging around a local supermarket that evening as though she were expecting someone, and she phoned home to say that she would probably be out all night. But she was never seen or heard from again. And it was soon learned that none of the movie studios had been shooting that evening.

Two days later, her purse was found in nearby Griffith Park. Inside was an unfinished note that read “Kirk: Can’t wait any longer, Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away.” At the time, Spangler’s mother was visiting family in Kentucky.

This clue seems to point to the only known Kirk in her life, Kirk Douglas, star of Young Man With a Horn, which she had appeared in. The cryptic content of the note seems to refer to an abortion. The tabloid press quickly picked it up, and Douglas was just as quick to phone police and make a statement to the press that, while he had chatted the pretty girl up on the set, there had been no relationship. As there are similar rumors to the effect that Douglas raped and beat up teenaged Natalie Wood out there in the whisper-sphere, the theory that Douglas was involved in Spangler’s disappearance somehow has remained alive ever since. Douglas was known to be an aggressive character, and to have had many affairs, but it must be pointed out that this is all that is really KNOWN, and anything more is an enormous, not to say libelous leap.

The abortion inference also leads in another direction. The Black Dahlia murder had been in 1947, and Spangler’s disappearance became one of several potential contemporary crimes attributed to the murderer, whom several have charged to have been a doctor named George Hodel, who had a reputation as a back-alley Hollywood abortionist. The note refers to a “Dr. Scott”, but the police never found a doctor in the area by that name who seemed a likely suspect. On the other hand, during the period when she was married to Benner, she had had an adulterous relationship with an abusive man named “Scotty”, whose identity was never discovered.

Yet another popular theory, more far-fetched, is a mob connection. Two days after Spangler’s disappearance, gangster Davy Ogul, then under indictment for conspiracy, also vanished. Some testified to having seen the pair together, both before and after their disappearances. Ogul was an associate of Mickey Cohen’s and the conjecture is that she would have met such characters while dancing at the Florentine Gardens. But these stories have the whiff of “Elvis is still alive” about them.

The most obvious theory — the traditional “it’s the husband!” — was dismissed early on in the investigation. Benner had an alibi for the night in question.

The other obvious one — a random robbery (and/or rape or murder or what have you) — remains possible, though the contents of Spangler’s purse were undisturbed. The fact that the straps were broken does suggest that it was yanked off her shoulder and that she was manhandled in some way on or about that spot in Griffith Park. At any rate, the case has been cold for over half a century.

I’d link you to more, but honestly, there are too many online articles about her, ranging from the reputable to the cockamamie for me to pick one or even half a dozen to link to. So surf away! It’s Spangler’s birthday as I post this, but I urge you mull over the news from Texas as to another reason why this story is timely. Women should never have to sneak off to see seedy doctors in dangerous circumstances in the dead of night to abort an unwanted pregnancy.