It was 59 years ago today that brunette starlet Jean Spangler vanished, leaving behind a young daughter, gangster pals, movie star connections and a mystery that remains unsolved more than a half-century later.
On October 7, 1949, the beautiful 27-year-old divorcee, who lived in an apartment near Park La Brea, told her mother she was meeting her ex-husband, then heading off for a night movie shoot. Jean kissed her 5-year-old daughter Christina, waved goodbye to her mother and clip-clopped off in her high heels. She was never seen again.
Used with permission from Larry Harnisch's Daily Mirror blog.
When Jean failed to return the next morning, her mother began calling around. No one had seen her and the studios said she wasn’t on the list of movies shooting the previous night. The police were reluctant to investigate – most missing persons turn up alive and perhaps they figured pretty young Jean, an admitted party girl, had run off with a boyfriend. But Jean’s mother maintained that her daughter would never abandon her child. With the shadow of the unsolved Black Dahlia murder hanging over Los Angeles, she demanded answers.
When the LAPD began probing, they learned some interesting things. Jean’s estranged husband had threatened her in the past. And she'd been partying in Palm Springs nightclubs with two henchmen of gangster Mickey Cohen right before she disappeared. Those gangsters had also gone missing.
At the time, Mickey Cohen and Sicilian gangster Jack Dragna were in the middle of a gang war for control of the LA rackets. There had been shootouts on the Sunset Strip, bombs, assassinations. Could Jean had been at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong men?
Two days later, a city worker found Jean’s purse, its strap torn, in the Fern Dell part of Griffith Park. Inside was a note that said: "Kirk, Can't wait any longer. Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away."
Who was Kirk, the police wondered, and what kind of doctor was Jean going to see?
Could she have been pregnant by “Kirk” and gone off to have an illegal, back-alley abortion the night she disappeared? What if something went wrong and the abortionist disposed of her body?
Police learned that Jean didn’t have any boyfriends or pals named Kirk, but she'd worked as an extra on the movie “Young Man With A Horn,” which starred Kirk Douglas. When Douglas heard about the case, he called the police and explained that he knew the starlet casually from the set but that was as far as it went. Douglas was soon cleared of wrongdoing.
Jean’s ex-husband was also cleared. And police weren’t able to verify the abortion theory.
For years afterward, there were rumored sightings of Jean as far away as Mexico and Texas, but none of it led anywhere. No body ever turned up either, and as anyone who watches CSI knows, without a crime scene and body, it’s hard to do much except wonder.
Or maybe to spin these gripping, horrific, tantalizing facts into a novel, which is what I did in my latest book, “The Last Embrace.” Recently, I spoke to an LAPD cop, who told me the Spangler murder remains open, with a detective still assigned to the very cold case.
Without a deathbed confession or evidence, the case will probably never be solved. Only in fiction do we have that luxury. But today, scribbler and mother that I am, I can’t stop thinking of Jean and especially of her daughter.
After Jean’s disappearance, her ex-husband got custody of Christine and moved out of California and out of our collective narrative. Christine would be 64 and a senior citizen, if she’s even still alive. I wonder what happened to her. I’m saddened to think of her life, which must have been greatly shadowed by her mother’s disappearance and presumed murder.
The life of novelist James Ellroy has also been shadowed by a gruesome event – his mother was brutally murdered when he was 11. Yet somehow Ellroy was able to channel his anguish into writing, transforming himself into a fierce, uncompromising chronicler of humanity’s dark side.
Art can save us. But only if we find it in time.
I hope that Jean Spangler’s daughter, Christine, found a light in the darkness, a spark to warm her and keep her soul alive.