Story by by Arthur Lyons
Photography courtesy Brandon James
Like so many other talented hopefuls in Hollywood in the 1940s, Jean Spangler wanted to be a star. Sultry and big-eyed, the statuesque 27-year-old brunette had eked out a precarious living as a dancer and a bit player in movies and on TV while she waited for that one big break, that one part that would get her noticed and launch her screen career.
On October 7, 1949, Jean got the part that would make her famous, but it was not in any movie.
A divorcee, Jean lived in a house in the Wilshire District of Los Angeles with her mother, her brother, her sister-in-law, Sophie, and her five-year-old daughter Christine. At five p.m., Jean kissed Christine goodbye and told her sister-in-law that she was going to meet her ex-husband, plastics manufacturer Dexter Benner, to talk about an increase in child support payments. After that, she was going to work on a night shoot for a new film. "Wish me luck," she said, winking and left.
When Jean failed to come home the following day, a distressed Sophie went down to the Wilshire Division of the LAPD and filed a missing persons report. The police took down the details, but knew that the young starlet was probably just out on a fling and would probably show up in a day or two. They had not even put her name on the police teletype as a missing person. The following day, an alarmed employee at Griffith Park reported finding Jean Spangler’s purse near the Fern Dell entrance to the park.
Investigators converged on the scene and what they found sparked one of the biggest manhunts in LAPD history. The purse’s double handles had been ripped off at one end, intimating the possibility of violence but it was the note inside the purse, written in Jean’s hand, that intrigued the detectives even more. It read: "Kirk – Can’t wait any longer. Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work out best this way while mother is away…"
The unsigned note ended with a comma, indicating that Jean had not had time to finish her thoughts.
After a 60-man search of Griffith Park turned up no additional clues, investigators went to work reconstructing Jean’s last hours before her disappearance. Dexter Benner denied having seen Jean for weeks, a story backed up by Benner’s new wife. A check of the studios determined that no movies had been in production that night of the seventh. Jean had last been seen at a local market where the clerk said she appeared to be "waiting for someone."
Robert Cummings, star of Pretty Girl, the last film Jean had been working on, threw some light on who the "someone" might have been when he told police two weeks before her disappearance he had been sitting on his dressing room steps at Columbia Studios when the pretty starlet had walked by whistling. "You sound happy," Cummings remembered telling her.
"I am," Jean replied. "I have a new romance."
"Is it serious?"
"Not really," Jean told the popular star. "But I’m having the time of my life."
The only clue the police had to the identity of Jean’s romantic interest was the name "Kirk." Hearing news reports about the case, actor Kirk Douglas phoned investigators from Palm Springs where he was vacationing, and volunteered that Jean may have worked as an extra in his last film, but claimed he barely remembered her. "I didn’t remember the girl until a friend recalled that it was she who worked as an extra in…one of my pictures," Douglas told the Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Thad Brown. "If she’s the one I’m thinking about, IO do recall talking to her that day. But I never saw her before or after that and have never been out with her." (Today, Mr. Douglas offers that "the incident was so long ago, (I) have very little recollection about it," but nonetheless "wishes me success" with this investigation.)
Jean’s mother wasn’t much more help. "I heard her talk about a ‘Kirk’ she knew around the sets," she said. "But she was at first one studio then another. I simply can’t remember."
The plot thickened when one of Jean’s girlfriends revealed that Jean had told her she was pregnant, adding a possibly ominous significance to the love affair and Jean’s urgency in seeing the mysterious "Dr. Scott." The reference about things working out better while her mother was way made sense in that context, too, in that Jean’s mother had been visiting relatives in Kentucky during the time Jean disappeared.
None of Jean’s relatives had any idea as to the identity of "Dr. Scott" and police questioning of every doctor in Los Angeles area with that last name turned up nothing. Canvassing the bars and nightclubs of the Sunset Strip Jean frequented, detectives learned of a shadowy ex-medical student known as "Doc," the allegedly profligate son of a wealthy Eastern family, who hung around the Strip and performed abortions for a fee. They were not able to locate him, however.
The detectives traveled to the desert to check out the Palm Springs watering holes Jean and other Hollywood stars and would-be’s frequented on weekends away from the klieg lights — the Chi Chi, the Dunes, the Doll House, the Saddle & Sirloin. Nothing.
The only "Scott" the investigators could come up with in Jean’s past was a handsome air corps lieutenant named "Scotty" with whom Jean had carried on an affair while her husband was in the army in the South Pacific. Jean’s former lawyer told police that "Scott" had beaten up Jean when she tried to break up with him and threatened to kill her if she left him. As far as the lawyer knew, however, Jean had never seen the lieutenant after her divorce in 1945.
After three weeks, the case seemed to be at a dead end. "The only thing we’ve been able to find out," one detective said tiredly, "is that this girl really got around." Among the many people she "got around" with — a wealthy nightclub owner, a rich playboy, a prominent educator, an assortment of actors and jet-setters, all of whom were linked to the actress at one time or another during the investigation — was David (Little Davy) Ogul, the henchman of notorious gang boss Mickey Cohen, who disappeared coincidentally two days after Jean Spangler, while under indictment for conspiracy charges. The detectives returned to Palm Springs when an informant told them that Jean had been seen with Ogul in the desert only days before her disappearance.
Mickey Cohen and his crowed had a long history of vacationing and partying in the Springs in those days. One of Cohen’s boys, in fact, had worked the door of the illegal gambling club, the Cove (now the Elks Club in Cathedral City), while he’d been a fugitive from justice. Cohen himself frequented Palm Springs, but kept a low profile. He tried to enter the Racquet Club once, but was asked to leave by manger Frank Bogert. "Mickey was around quite a bit, but usually stayed at people’s houses," Bogert recalls. "He wasn’t seen much in public."
But not so with his less well-photographed underlings, who liked the loose and laid-back attitude of Palm Springs in the ‘40s, where they could go out and not get harassed by the police. Although Jean had been seen in Ogul’s company in the Springs, as well as that of Mike Howard, another Cohen employee, nothing concrete materialized.
Four months later, the cast took yet another twist when it was reported that U.S. Customs agents in El Paso had shadowed a woman whom they thought was Jean Spangler in the company of Davy Ogul and Frank Niccoli, another Cohen associate who had also been under indictment for conspiracy and who had also vanished a month before Ogul. (The only trace police ever found of Niccoli, incidentally, was his car keys in a sewer on Santa Barbara Street in Los Angeles.)
An employee at the hotel where the trio stayed also identified Jean Spangler from her photograph. The Customs agents told the Los Angeles cops that they had reason to believe that Jean had left El Paso for Las Vegas. Eyewitness reports continued to pour in to police detectives. Jean Spangler had been seen in Northern California, Phoenix, the San Fernando Valley, Mexico City and several times in her old haunt, Palm Springs, but all leads led to naught.
Jean’s ex-husband Dexter Benner, got custody of Christine but two years after the dark-haired beauty’s disappearance, an attempt by Benner to have the child adopted by his new wife on the grounds of abandonment was blocked by the court, the judge ruling that there was no proof that Jean Spangler was alive or dead. Jean’s mother by that time had given up hope that her daughter was alive, however. "I’m sure she would have communicated with us if she was alive and free. And nobody can tell me should have left her baby unless she was forced to."
For years, police continued to circulate Jean Spangler’s picture. Louella Parsons went on television offering a $1,000 reward for any information about the missing starlet’s whereabouts, and, for years, on the anniversary of her disappearance the Los Angeles Times ran a story about the case, but no trace of Jean Spangler was ever uncovered.
That did not mean theories about the disappearance of the starlet did not abound: Jean was done in by the mysterious "Kirk" who killed her when she tried to blackmail him. Jean was killed in a mob hit on Davy Ogul and Frank Niccoli, who were going to testify against Mickey Cohen and the three share a grave in the desert near Palm Springs. Jean was killed by her ex-husband, who wanted custody of their child. Jean’s old lover Scotty resurfaced and murdered Jean in a fit of jealous rage. Jean abandoned her child and her aspirations of stardom to run off with Ogul and is still alive today.
Nearly 50 years later, the still-open case remains one of the mysteries linking the dark side of Hollywood to the night side of the desert.