Once I started writing The Song Is You, a fictional “what if” based on the disappearance of actress Jean Spangler in 1949 Los Angeles, the narrative took on this momentum for me that led in a specific direction and I just followed it. It wasn’t until long after finishing the book that I began to see things out of that framework and gain a more objective perspective.
Since the case has not received much attention, it is still open for much speculation. One of the few theories out there is Steve Hodel’s. In his 2003 book, Black Dahlia Avenger, he postulates that Spangler was a victim of the very same man who murdered Elizabeth Short (her body found in a vacant lot 60 years ago this week). If you’ve read the book, you know he believes that man to be his father, George Hodel. It’s a controversial work and a controversial theory, but pretty fascinating.
There are, of course, many other possibilities. Very recently, I found myself drawn back into the historical record, wanting a fresh look. Going through the Los Angeles newspapers of that time period, you can really piece together the beginnings of a narrative thread, most of it connected to L.A. underworld boss Mickey Cohen (made still more famous in James Ellroy’s “L.A. Quartet”) and his very complicated life overseeing a massive criminal domain. Press reports after Spangler’s disappearance assert over and over that she had dated Davy Ogul, one of Mickey Cohen’s most visible henchmen. Just a few days after Spangler’s disappearance, Ogul went missing too, along with another Cohen associate, Frank Niccoli. Both men were out on bond for conspiracy charges stemming from the beating of a radio repairman, a case that would garner much attention.
Apparently, it was Mickey Cohen himself who’d guaranteed the bond, and who reported Ogul missing. In the newspaper coverage, Cohen is quoted as saying things like, “I’ve been out hunting [Ogul]. I wish I knew the answers to these strange things that are going on” (“Another of Cohen’s Aides Disappears,” L.A. Times, October 13, 1949). Then, there are these articles about Cohen selling his haberdashery, with great fanfare (he was nothing if not a media-manipulator), to raise money to cover the bail bonds for Ogul. He says, “I’m the loser and I have to pay. I ain’t no welcher.” It starts to get very labyrinthine, with the ensuing trial and Cohen’s endless run-ins with the law. Eventually, in March 1950, there’s a report that Ogul, Niccoli, and Jean Spangler were spotted together in El Paso (“Jean Spangler Seen in El Paso Hotel?,” L.A. Times, March 23, 1950). The article, very poignant, quotes Spangler’s mother dismissing the sighting, saying, “I just don’t feel that she is alive anymore. Somehow I have lost the feeling that she is alive.” You can then continue to follow various threads: Cohen is picked up by a Texas sheriff, rumored to be tracking Ogul down. Later, witnesses say they see Ogul, alone, in Mexico.
If you keep going through the records, you can find pieces of the puzzle for years afterward in countless small articles. An investigative journalist could really make headway. The more I look at it, the more I feel the answer might lie down these paths.