It’s a classic film noir setup: Los Angeles, 1949: a young, beautiful actress on the brink of stardom suddenly disappears, leaving only a purse containing an unsigned, cryptic reading:
Kirk, Can’t wait any longer, Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away.
But sadly, this isn’t fiction. It’s the real-life story of Jean Elizabeth Spangler, a promising actress, model, and dancer, whose disappearance remains a mystery over a half-century later.
Spangler was born in Seattle, Washington, on Sept. 2, 1923.
By the age of 26, she’d already had a tumultuous life. Not long after graduating high school, she married Dexter Benner at 19, but filed for divorce only six months later, alleging cruelty. Despite the divorce filing, the two continued to see one another on and off for the next five years, and in 1944, the pair had a daughter, Christine Louise Benner.
After the divorce was finalized, courts granted Benner custody of the young Christine due to Spangler’s infidelity during the marriage. Benner also claimed that Spangler’s hard-partying lifestyle made her an unfit mother.
Spangler didn’t give up trying to gain custody of her daughter, though.
Following a long and arduous custody battle, she became Christine’s guardian in 1948—the year before her disappearance.
At approximately 5 p.m. on Oct. 7, 1949, Spangler left the Los Angeles home she shared with her mother and daughter.She left Christine with her sister-in-law, Sophie, telling Sophie that she was meeting with Benner regarding a late child support payment. After meeting Benner, Spangler would head over to a movie set. The actress’ mother was visiting family out of town.
On the way, Spangler stopped at a store near her home. The clerk in that store is the last person known to have seen her.
When Spangler didn’t return home, Sophie reported her missing to the police; they then checked with all of the studios she’d worked with. None of them reported any ongoing projects involving Spangler; in fact, none of the studios were even open on the evening in question.
When officers questioned Benner, he told them that he hadn’t seen her in weeks. Benner’s new wife, Lynn, claimed that she was with him during the time of Spangler’s disappearance.
On October 9, Spangler’s purse was found near the entrance to L.A.’s Griffith Park.
One strap was ripped and the cryptic, seemingly unfinished note was inside. Police initially suspected burglary, but nothing seemed to be missing from the purse. Sophie reported that Spangler wasn’t carrying any money when she left.
Five dozen police officers and over 100 volunteers scoured the 4,107-acre park for any sign of Spangler but found nothing.
Upon Spangler’s mother’s return to Los Angeles, she told police that someone named Kirk had picked up Jean from their home a few times but had always stayed in the car.
With nothing to go on but the mysterious note, police searched the L.A. area for anyone named Kirk who may have had any connection to Spangler and questioned every nearby doctor with the last name Scott.
None of the doctors reported dealing with a patient by the name of Spangler or Benner (Jean’s last name during her marriage).
Then, somehow, things got even weirder.
Investigators discovered that Spangler had cheated on Benner with a man she called “Scotty.” She’d allegedly ended the relationship when Scotty had physically assaulted her and threatened her life.
In another strange twist of events, actor Kirk Douglas phoned L.A. police while on vacation in Palm Springs, California, to inform them that Spangler had a small part in a movie on which he was currently working. However, he added that she was merely an extra and he didn’t know her personally.
A friend of Spangler’s then informed police that the missing woman had secretly been three months pregnant at the time of her disappearance. She’d mentioned seeking an abortion, which was then illegal.
After speaking with staff and patrons of bars and nightclubs Spangler frequented, police caught wind of a former medical student who went by the name “Doc,” and who performed illegal abortions. Investigators theorized that Spangler may have died due to complications resulting from the illicit abortion, but that didn’t explain the presence of her damaged purse in Griffith Park.
Police received reports saying Spangler was sighted in Palm Springs, California, with Davy Ogul, who disappeared only two days after Spangler. Ogul was involved with gangster Mickey Cohen, who was similarly connected to Eli Lasky. Lasky was the former husband of Lynn Benner, Dexter Benner’s new wife. Despite these connections, no coherent theory seems to explain their relation to Spangler’s disappearance.
L.A. police continued to search for Spangler for years, spreading photos of her around the nation in an attempt to track down any clues about her disappearance. Over the next few years, sightings were reported throughout California, Arizona, and Texas, and even Mexico, but none could be verified.
Now, nearly 70 years after she was last seen by friends or family, the LAPD still consider her a missing person, her case file is still open, and the disappearance of Jean Spangler remains an unsolved mystery.