Once you read about the story of Jean Spangler, you’ll also be wondering, “Whatever happened to Jean Spangler?” The disappearance of Jean Spangler, the budding actress, model, and dancer, remains a mystery to this day. And her story reads like a classic film noir plot: Los Angeles, 1949, a young and beautiful actress on the edge of stardom. She suddenly disappears, leaving behind only a purse with a cryptic note. She was only 26 years old.
But this wasn’t a film plot – it was a real-life event, and it rattled the community. Not only did it create a lot of speculation, but it also left some fingers pointing in the direction of the legendary actor Kirk Douglas. Why? Because his name was in her note…
About 70 years and countless investigations later, the Spangler case doesn’t look very different today than it did at the time. Despite the several promising leads, police were stumped by the evidence – each piece contradicted the next. For anyone who enjoys a good thriller and mystery, this is one to read about. It’s not only a true story but a compelling one at that.
In the 1940s, Jean Elizabeth Spangler was an up-and-coming Hollywood socialite. She was born in Seattle, Washington, on September 2, 1923. By the time high school came around, Jean had moved to Los Angeles, setting her sights on the film industry. As soon as she graduated from Franklin High School, she started modeling professionally and was dancing at LA’s Florentine Gardens and the Earl Carroll Theatre.
Jean’s life looked promising and her future seemed bright, but the young Hollywood hopeful lived a tumultuous life from early on. Not long after graduating high school, Jean was already landing bit parts in Hollywood films, including When My Baby Smiles at Me, Chicken Every Sunday, and Young Man With a Horn.
In 1941, she already had 8 screen credits, although most roles were uncredited. She started her slow crawl up the ladder, working as a dancer and model, as well as a bit-part actress. She then met and fell in love with Dexter Benner, a plastics manufacturer who was two years older than her. Their marriage didn’t last long as Jean filed for divorce six months in, citing mental cruelty.
Despite the divorce, the couple’s rocky relationship continued, and soon their daughter Christine was born. Christine Louise Benner was born on April 22, 1944. But things got much worse after that. The couple did eventually divorce in 1946, and it involved an ugly custody battle over their daughter.
Benner went so far as to claim that Jean “preferred parties to priorities,” basically neglecting their daughter’s needs. He insisted that Jean was also unfaithful during their marriage and that her word shouldn’t be trusted. His tactic worked because the court granted Benner temporary custody of their daughter, who was two years old at the time. Only later did the truth come out.
Later on, it would be revealed that Jean wasn’t partying and neglecting her daughter – she was working, trying to support her daughter and family. But considering the era, for the sake of her career, Jean felt that she had to keep this information under wraps. When Benner won custody, Jean wasn’t done putting up a fight.
Benner denied Jean visitation rights, so she couldn’t even see her daughter. During this time, Jean understood that she needed to make some changes if she was going to make a case for herself and win her daughter back. She began to turn her life around, but despite her resolve and the changes she was making, Benner didn’t relent.
Her ex-husband only got more and more bitter and refused to even entertain the possibility of letting her see their daughter. After repeatedly denying her the right to see her daughter, Jean went back to court to make an appeal and fight for custody. As soon as Benner got word that custody could be back on the table, he made a big mistake.
He threatened Jean, telling her he would “make sure” she never saw her daughter again. It was an awful thing to hear, but it was the perfect thing to use in court. The judge then ruled that Jean’s initially questionable behavior was in the past, and now it was Benner’s behavior that was in question.
The judge revoked Benner’s custodial agreement and granted Jean custody of Christine, stating that the little girl’s place was with her mother after all. In 1948, a year before Jean’s disappearance, Jean and her daughter were finally together again. The two moved to a two-bedroom apartment in Park LaBrea to live with Jean’s mother, Florence, her brother, and her sister-in-law.
Jean knew that her family would ensure that Christine got the care she needed. Soon enough, Jean was back at it, landing more bit appearances in Hollywood films. One of her uncredited roles was in the 1948 film When My Baby Smiles at Me, starring Betty Grable and Dan Bailey as vaudeville performers.
Things were going well with her work and her home, which is why it came as a shock to everyone when, on October 7, 1949, Jean left her home at about 5:00 pm and never came back. It was mysterious for many reasons, but, for one, because on that particular day, Jean was quite busy. Her agenda was so full that she needed help taking care of her daughter.
Her mother was visiting family out of town at that time, so she asked her sister Sophie to watch over Christine for the evening. She told Sophie that she wouldn’t be home until late that night. And so, around five in the afternoon, Jean said goodbye to her daughter and walked out of the door only to vanish forever.
Jean had told Sophie that she was going to meet up with her ex-husband. Apparently, his court-ordered payments were late, and she wanted to discuss their arrangement before heading to work as an extra on set. After that gig, she needed to work at the studio. She was gone for an hour or two when she called home.
She told her sister on the phone that she was going to be home later than she originally anticipated and wouldn’t make it back that night at all. She wanted to say goodnight to her daughter. Nothing seemed unusual to Sophie, though. After all, she enjoyed taking care of her niece. But the next morning, she noticed that Jean hadn’t come home.
It wasn’t long before Sophie felt the need to call the police and file a missing person’s report. She couldn’t be sure, but with every passing minute without a word from Jean, her gut feeling was growing more and more dreadful. So, she picked up the phone and phoned the police.
The police immediately got in touch with both Benner and the studio where Jean was supposed to be working – a place that Sophie had also worked at. While the authorities had no problem getting in touch with these parties, they were left with anything but clear answers. What followed was one of the biggest manhunts in Los Angeles history.
6 pm: A witness saw Jean at a local farmer’s market, which was a short walk from her apartment. The cashier at the market recalled seeing Jean taking her time in the store as if she was waiting for someone.
7 pm: Jean called Sophie to tell her that she wouldn’t be home that evening. She may have made the phone call from the farmer’s market rather than the studio, but this hasn’t been confirmed.
1:30 am: Witnesses saw Jean at the Cheese Box restaurant on Sunset and Laurel Canyon Blvd. She was with a tall, dark man, and it seemed to those watching that they were arguing. She was still at that restaurant at 2:30 am.
When the police spoke with Benner, he told them that he hadn’t heard from Jean at all, despite her telling Sophie that she had plans to meet with him. Benner insisted that they never made any plans to meet. He reportedly sounded dumbfounded by the question. It was then that the authorities understood that they were dealing with a very different case than they had originally anticipated.
Of course, they didn’t know whether to trust Benner’s word. They also needed to get some more information from the studio. When the police arrived at the studio, they found that it wasn’t open. They made calls and finally got hold of the studio managers.
The police asked their list of questions and were stunned to hear the studio’s answer. The managers told them that the studio hadn’t been open for weeks, as it was off-season. They confirmed that they knew Jean well, but they said they hadn’t seen her in a while and most definitely not the night before.
The police then became aware that Jean wasn’t telling her family the truth. She never meant to see Benner and never planned on going to the studio. Her story was fabricated, but why?
Naturally, the police were skeptical of Benner’s story at first. After all, he wouldn’t be the first angry ex-husband to lie about a spat with his ex-wife. They just needed to speak to another source…
The police decided to investigate Benner’s new wife, Lynn, to see if her story coincided with her husband’s. Lynn assured them that he was with her during the evening in question – that he hadn’t made, left for, or canceled any plans with anyone, let alone his ex-wife. Both her story and Benner’s seemed genuine, leaving the police scratching their heads.
They had no leads and no one else to contact. Then, two days after her disappearance, on October 9, Jean’s purse was found by the Fern Dell entrance to Griffith Park in Los Angeles, less than six miles from Jean’s home. Griffith Park, with 4,310 acres of land, was one of the largest urban parks in North America.
While it holds an observatory, a zoo, museums, and an amphitheater, the park has a sinister side to it, too. Griffith Park was, unfortunately, a common dumping ground for bodies due to its size and rugged aesthetic. An employee at the park found Jean’s purse, with an obviously torn strap, in the dirt.
At first, the police figured it was a case of robbery, so they called Sophie. But Jean’s sister told them she didn’t have any money in her purse when she had left the house that day, ruling out their theory. If theft wasn’t the case, it meant the struggle could have led to something worse.
A search party was immediately sent out with 60 cops and 100 volunteers searching the massive park. The search turned up futile, however, with no body nor any clues. The only thing of use was what was inside Jean’s purse. Inside the purse was her identification and a handwritten note that read: “Kirk, can’t wait any longer. Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away.”
The note seemed to be unfinished, and they weren’t aware of any Kirk. So, the police wondered, who was this Kirk? But before LAPD Deputy Chief Thad Brown, who previously headed the notorious Black Dahlia case, could even start reconstructing Spangler’s last hours, actor Kirk Douglas phoned him.
The actor had been vacationing in Palm Springs at the time of Jean’s disappearance, but he told Brown that he heard news reports about the case. He said that although Jean had worked as an extra in his last movie, Young Man With a Horn, he barely knew the actress. Kirk’s phone call certainly raised some questions.
The police called Jean’s divorce lawyer to see if they knew of any possible romantic affairs. The lawyer recalled her infidelity to Benner with a man named “Scotty,” who was an Air Corps Lieutenant. But apparently, she hadn’t seen the man since 1945, after he reportedly beat her and threatened her life if she left him. Despite the threat, Jean did, indeed, leave him.
Could Scotty be the “Dr. Scott” from the note?
The police then spoke to Jean’s mother when she returned from her trip to Kentucky, where she was visiting family. According to Florence, Jean had been picked up by a man named Kirk a number of times, but she had never been introduced to him. At the studio, people made a connection between the actor and Jean.
He had recently worked alongside Jean in Young Man With a Horn. Kirk admitted to having played around on set one day, but according to him, that was the extent of their relationship. He said he didn’t even remember her name. After a week passed with no sign of Jean, someone else came forward to the police.
A friend and confidante of Jean’s, actor Robert Cummings, finally spoke up. He reported that Jean had told him of a casual affair she was having, but she had never shared the man’s name. He asked Jean if it was serious, to which she replied, “No. But I’m having the time of my life.” At this point in the investigation, the police turned to Jean’s circle of friends.
One friend told them that Jean was three months pregnant and that she expressed a desire to terminate it – a procedure that was illegal at the time. Asking around at the bars Jean frequented, the police learned about a former medical student known as “Doc.”
This Doc had a reputation for terminating unwanted pregnancies. The possibility that Jean had gone to this medical student and died due to surgical complications rose to the top of the list. Meanwhile, every doctor named Scott in Los Angeles was questioned by the authorities.
None of them, however, had Jean on record, and they couldn’t find the man himself. As quickly as the theory arose, it was nixed. It also didn’t add up with the apparent struggle and the purse. LAPD was running out of leads. But the investigation continued, and Jean’s picture was sent around the entire country in hopes of getting some answers. And some possible answers did come in…
Jean was reportedly spotted in Palm Springs with a well-known gangster at the time named Davy Ogul. He was facing indictment for conspiracy. It led the police to suspect that Ogul had fled to avoid prosecution, taking Jean with him. He was reported as missing only two days after Jean. The pair, however, was completely untraceable.
A few months later, police received the first new piece of news since the disappearance. A customs agent in El Paso, Texas, claimed that he saw Ogul and a woman who seemed to match Jean’s picture in a hotel. A clerk at the hotel identified Jean from a photo, confirming that she was in the hotel around the same time.
The thing is, though, that neither Ogul nor Jean were on the hotel’s registrar. In addition, Jean wasn’t sighted anywhere else in the area. This possible, and even promising, lead went nowhere. Years continued to pass. After tons of investigative work, a historian named Jon Lewis compiled a book called Hard-Boiled Hollywood: Crime and Punishment in Postwar Los Angeles.
In the book, he detailed Jean’s earlier work as a dancer at a gang-run nightclub called Florentine Gardens. This, of course, explained her connection to Ogul. It was also discovered that Ogul was a close colleague of Mickey Cohen’s, who was a close friend of Lynn’s – Benner’s wife. It all raised more questions, which frustratingly led to no official connections being made.
To complicate the investigation even further, the police discovered that it wasn’t just Ogul whom Jean was seen with – that another man named Frank Niccoli was with them, too. Niccoli, one of Mickey Cohen’s henchmen, along with Ogul, disappeared. Investigators then found out that Niccoli’s body was tossed into a lime pit in a Cucamonga vineyard before Jean had even vanished.
Ogul’s body wasn’t far behind. The two gangsters had been out on bail for a total of $75,000. Their disappearance meant that Cohen had to front the bail money, putting him out of business, according to mobster Jack Dragna, who ordered the hit. This account was given by Cohen’s attorney, Jack Dahlstrum, who wrote an unpublished book on the mobster.
When the gangster stories were being hushed out, Jean’s mother made a statement. “Jean was not the kind of girl to get mixed up with people like that,” Florence told the press. “I am sure she would have communicated with us if she is alive and free. And nobody can tell me that she would have left her baby unless she was forced to do so; she loved her too much.”
In the end, custody of Christine reverted to Benner. The poor girl became the victim of yet another messy court battle when Benner refused to let her see her own grandmother. He repeatedly defied a court order allowing Florence to visit. When he was forced to serve 15 days in jail for contempt, he fled the state with Christine.
Official and unofficial searches for Jean persisted, and the police continued to circulate her picture. For at least three years, The Los Angeles Times published their story about the missing actress on the anniversary of her disappearance. Louella Parsons, a Hollywood gossip columnist, and Florence Spangler each offered a $1,000 reward for information on her whereabouts.
As the years passed, reports would turn up here, and there of people claiming they has seen Jean in different parts of California, Phoenix, Arizona, and Mexico City. But none of those sightings were ever legally verified for the investigation. And no real evidence turned up ever since. To this day, Jean Spangler is still listed as a missing person.
What do you think happened?
Another famous missing person is Jimmy Hoffa. Stick around for his story, next…