Like countless other modern women of the war era, Jean Spangler had fantasies of fame. After graduating in 1941 from Franklin High School in Los Angeles, California, Jean focused her energies on a career in the entertainment industry. Statuesque and sultry, Jean worked as a nightclub dancer alongside many other hopefuls hungry for their big Hollywood break.
At just nineteen years old, she put her career on hold to marry a young soldier named Dexter Benner. The couple had only one child, and after six months, their marriage dissolved. The divorce marked the commencement of a lengthy and highly publicized custody dispute.
Jean had landed only small roles in a few movies and on early television programs, but still, the press pounced. Jean found herself at the heart of a gossip column blitz that struck her moral character and capacity to raise her daughter. The smear campaign, led by Jean's ex-husband, cited Jean's infidelity during her marriage and an alleged lack of interest in her child. The press frequently attached the phrase 'Glamour Girl" to Jean's photos, a derogatory slang term from the era. Nonetheless, Jean persevered through an arduous and publicly humiliating court battle.
Awarded custody in 1948, Jean began to enjoy life as a recently single young woman. Although the balancing act of motherhood, a busy social life, and a budding career wasn't easy, she did her best. After securing a home in the Wilshire district of Los Angeles, Jean then asked her mother, brother, and sister-in-law to move into the house to help with child care. It seemed a bright future was just within Jean's grasp, and she was on track for success.
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On October 7th, 1949, while her mother was out of town visiting family, Jean Spangler left her daughter with her sister-in-law, Sophie. According to Sophie, Jean explained that she was to meet with Dexter to discuss a new child support agreement and then work on a movie set. However, Jean did not return, and no one has ever seen nor heard from her since.
The next morning, Sophie filed a missing person's report with the LAPD. The police, zeroing in on Ms. Spangler's recent divorce, assumed the Sunset Strip parties and the possibility of a new boyfriend turned Jean's attention away from her family. Convinced Jean would return once her escapades were over, detectives did not begin their search or issue an all-points bulletin until the next day.
A local store clerk is the last person to have seen her and stated Jean appeared to be waiting on someone. When police checked the film studios where Jean worked, they found none had been open the night she disappeared. The officers then turned their attention to Jean's ex-husband. Dexter Benner claimed he had not seen Jean in several weeks and was unaware of any pending child support meeting. His new wife, Lynn, supported her husband's story adding that he was with her at the time.
A Griffith Park employee found Jean Spangler's handbag with it's handles torn on October 9th, 1949, two days after her disappearance. Sixty policemen and more than one hundred volunteers combed the 4,107-acre park, where the employee noticed Jean's purse. Inside her bag, detectives found a 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, by all accounts, was in Jean Spangler's handwriting.
Upon hearing about the missing actress, Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas phoned the police. He explained that he was in Palm Springs recovering from the flu and that he was not the "Kirk" mentioned in Jean's note. Douglas stated that Jean had recently finished filming a trivial part in the film "Young Man with a Horn," and he scarcely knew her.
After Jean's mother returned from Kentucky, police discovered that a secretive man named Kirk had picked Jean up at home several times. Mrs. Spangler never saw the man's face, asserting he didn't come in the house and instead waited in the car. Authorities combed California for the mysterious Kirk but never confirmed his identity.
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Detectives questioned every doctor in Los Angeles named Scott, and none admitted to knowing the missing woman. Jean's friends told police that she was three months pregnant and had spoken of having an abortion. After talking to a few people who frequented the same nightclubs as Jean, police learned of a former medical student rumored to perform abortions, which were illegal at the time. Although they never located the student or anyone who had ever met him, police speculated Jean might have died from complications related to a 'backdoor' abortion.
Tinseltown's rumor mill was busy. Many people claimed that Jean had ties to organized crime and was romantically involved with various men, including mobsters. David 'Little Davy' Ogul, an infamous Mickey Cohen associate indicted on conspiracy charges, disappeared two days after Jean on October 5th, 1949. Police now theorized Spangler and Ogul had manufactured their disappearances to avoid prosecution.
Detectives traveled to Palm Springs to investigate leads at hotspots such as the Saddle & Sirloin, the Chi-Chi, and the Dunes. The nightclubs were said to be frequented by mobsters, playboys, famous actors, and jet-setters, as well as Jean Spangler. Although none of the leads panned out, a detective told newspapers, "The only thing we've been able to find out is that this girl got around." It would seem both the press and the police openly condemned the young divorcee's lifestyle, reprimanding her for her disappearance, which was a typical attitude for the time.
In 1950, a customs agent and a hotel clerk in El Paso, Texas, both described seeing Davy Ogul in a hotel with a woman matching Jean's description. However, neither Davy nor Jean's names were on the hotel registry. For several years, the Los Angeles police department circulated Jean's picture nationwide, hoping to learn more. Still, no substantial clues have emerged.
After Jean's disappearance, the Los Angeles family courts granted Dexter Benner custody of their daughter. Benner petitioned the court to allow his new wife to adopt the child stating Jean had abandoned her. The judge denied the request as Jean's whereabouts and emotional state were unknown. Florence Spangler, Jean's mother, was initially allowed to visit with her granddaughter but was repeatedly denied visitation by Dexter and his new wife, Lynn.
Florence continued to pursue the matter until finally, a judge ordered Dexter to serve 15 days in jail for not following the court order. Upon his release, he took the child, left the state, and never returned. The Spangler family never saw Jean or her daughter again. Shortly after the Benners left California, reports began to surface that Lynn may have known more about Jean's departure than she said. Lynn Benner was formerly Lynn Lasky, the ex-wife of mobster Ely Lasky, a known accomplice of Mickey Cohen.
To this day, theories abound regarding the missing starlet. Did the mysterious Kirk murder Jean? Was she pregnant and died while having an abortion? Did Dexter Benner kill Jean to gain custody of their child, or is it more likely that Lynn Benner used her former husband's mob ties to take Jean out of the picture? According to Jean's friends and family, of all the theories, the one least possible is that she abandoned her child and dreams of stardom to run off with mobster Davy Ogul.
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Some have hypothesized that Jean's disappearance could be related to the murder of actress Elizabeth Short in 1947, more commonly known as the Black Dahlia Murder. Both Elizabeth and Jean knew Dr. George Hodel, an early suspect in the murder. The doctor first became a suspect in October 1949 when his fourteen-year-old daughter accused him of molestation. Three witnesses testified to seeing him engaged in the act of sex with his daughter, but Hodel was acquitted.
While under police surveillance between February and March of 1950, eighteen detectives monitored two bugs hidden in George Hodel's home. On the recordings, a woman screams just before Hodel exclaims, "Realize there was nothing I could do, put a pillow over her head and cover her with a blanket. Get a taxi, expired 12:59."
Later on the tape, George Hodel says, "Suppose I did kill the Black Dahlia. They couldn't prove it now. They can't talk to my secretary anymore because she's dead. They thought there was something fishy. Anyway, now they may have figured it out. Killed her, maybe I did kill my secretary." In the recording, the secretary mentioned was Ruth Spaulding, who died of a drug overdose while in George Hodel's presence.
After police discovered Hodel had burnt some of Ruth's belongings before making the report, he was under investigation. Documents found later indicated Ruth was planning to expose Hodel for his shady dealings and practices. George Hodel died in 1999, and many remain unsure of the role he may have played in Elizabeth Short and Jean Spangler's deaths.
Entertainment columnist and screenwriter Louella Parsons frequently went on television and radio programs offering a $1,000 reward for any knowledge of Jean Spangler's whereabouts. On the anniversary of her disappearance, for many years, the Los Angeles Times republished the case. Up until her death, Jean's mother, Florence, maintained that Dexter Benner murdered her daughter.
Florence Spangler told newspaper reporters, "I'm sure she would have communicated with us if she was alive and free. And nobody can tell me she would have left her baby unless she was forced to." Dexter Benner died in 2007, and his wife Lynn, of 63 years, passed in 2019. Seventy years later, Jean Spangler's disappearance is still an open missing person case and one of Hollywood's most tragic conundra.
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