Saturday, September 02, 2006

Gone Girl

I suppose it’s because of all the hoopla over the coming Brian De Palma film, The Black Dahlia, based on James Ellroy’s 1987 novel of the same name, but I’ve been particularly attuned lately to tales of historical Los Angeles crime. Which explains why I’ve been browsing the 1947 Project Web site (which actually recounts crimes from 1907 L.A.) and rewatching films such as Chinatown and Farewell, My Lovely. And why my curiosity was stirred this afternoon by the reference at another blog to a forthcoming second novel by film historian and author Megan Abbott (Die a Little, 2005).

Due out from Simon & Schuster in January 2007, the book’s called The Song Is You. It centers on the real-life L.A. mystery surrounding Jean Spangler, a Seattle-born dancer, model, and sometime actress who apparently disappeared on October 7, 1949, after leaving her young daughter at her sister-in-law’s house and heading off, she said, to confront her ex-husband, a plastics manufacturer, about his child-support payments.

Spangler was never seen again. However, her purse was found two days later, discarded near the entrance to Los Angeles’ mammoth Griffith Park, both of its straps torn as if it had been yanked indelicately from its owner’s arm. Inside, according to Wikipedia, was found “an unfinished note ... addressed to a ‘Kirk,’ which read, ‘Can’t wait any longer, Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away, .’ The note ended with a comma as if it hadn’t been finished.” At the time, Spangler’s mother was off visiting relatives in Kentucky. The only “Kirk” police could turn up was the actor Kirk Douglas, who was the star of a then-unfinished movie, Young Man with a Horn, in which Spangler had been an extra. Douglas, vacationing in Palm Springs at the time, called police to tell them that he knew nothing about the case, though he did recognize the vanished woman’s name. Spangler’s friends came forward to say that she was three months pregnant, so the “Dr. Scott” referred to in the note could have been an abortionist; but talk that she had died on the operating table in a then-illegal abortion clinic never amounted to much. Rumors that Spangler might have gone on the lam with Davy Ogul, a known associate of mobster Mickey Cohen who was under indictment for conspiracy--and just happened to drop out of sight two days after Spangler (with whom he had been spotted previously)--bore no more fruit. In 1950, a customs agent in El Paso, Texas, claimed to have seen Ogul and a woman resembling Spangler at a local hotel. But neither individual could be located in the area. Police subsequently fielded reports of her turning up in Northern California, Phoenix, and Mexico City, yet none of those leads panned out. Even today, the Los Angeles Police Department lists Jean Spangler as a missing person, and her case remains open.

Although I’m relatively familiar with the Black Dahlia case of 1947, I’d never heard of this other mystery from just two years later. But New York City novelist Abbott apparently had. On her Web site, she lays out the basic plot of The Song Is You thusly:
On October 7, 1949, dark-haired starlet Jean Spangler kissed her five-year-old daughter goodbye and left for a night shoot at a Hollywood studio. “Wish me luck,” she said to her sister-in-law as she crossed her fingers, winked and walked away. She was never seen again. The only clues left behind: a purse with a broken strap found in a nearby park, a cryptic note and rumors about mobster boyfriends and ill-fated romances with movie stars.

Drawing on this true-life missing person case, Megan Abbott’s
The Song Is You tells the story of Gil “Hop” Hopkins, a smooth-talking Hollywood publicist whose career, despite a complicated personal life, is on the rise. It is 1951, two years after Jean Spangler’s disappearance and Hop finds himself unwillingly drawn into the still-unsolved mystery by a friend of Jean’s who blames Hop for concealing details about Jean’s whereabouts the night she vanished. Driven by guilt and fears of blackmail, Hop delves into the case himself, feverishly trying to stay one step ahead of an intrepid female reporter also chasing the story. Hop thought he’d seen it all, but what he uncovers both tantalizes and horrifies him as he plunges deeper and deeper into Hollywood’s substratum in his attempt to uncover the truth.

The Song Is You conjures a heady brew of truth and speculation, of fact and pulp fiction, taking the reader on a dark tour of Tinseltown, from movie studios, gala premieres and posh nightclubs to gangsters, blackmailing B-girls and the darkest secrets that lie behind Hollywood’s luminous façade. At the center of it all is Hop, a man torn between cut-throat ambition and his own best intentions.
Sounds terrific. And The Song Is You will no doubt benefit from being preceded by De Palma’s The Black Dahlia. Why, though, the Dahlia case is infamous while Spangler’s disappearance has essentially been forgotten after almost half a century remains something of a mystery in itself. Is it simply because there was a body (albeit cut in half and mutilated) in the former killing, while the latter case presented less to shock the newspaper-reading public? I hope some bright interviewer will ask author Abbott about this comparison, as she submits over the next few months to being interrogated about the history and intent of her second novel.

TRIVIA TIME: Wikipedia observes that “Los Angeles Homicide Captain Thad Brown, who was in charge of the investigation of the Jean Spangler disappearance [and would become acting chief of the LAPD in 1966], was also in charge of the Black Dahlia murder investigation.” Other sources add that detectives investigating the Dahlia slaying examined “several key similarities” between that crime and Spangler’s disappearance, “but nothing concrete ever materialized to indicate a substantial connection.”

READ MORE:Jean Spangler: Megan Abbott’s Dahlia in The Song Is You,” by Diana Powell (The Venetian Vase).

1 comment:

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