Sunday, September 10, 2006

What Is the Secret of the Lost Girl?

[Editor’s note: Two Saturdays ago, I wrote a post about Megan Abbott’s forthcoming novel, The Song Is You. Her story fictionalizes and expands on the real-life 1949 disappearance from Los Angeles of Jean Spangler (shown here), a sometime actress of 26 years who, as Abbott’s Web site puts it, “kissed her five-year-old daughter goodbye and left for a night shoot at a Hollywood studio. ... She was never seen again.” In my post I wondered why it is that the still-open Spangler case, which boasts all sorts of sensational elements (not the least of which were a mysterious, seemingly unfinished note left behind in her purse, and supposed mob connections) has been forgotten over the last half-century, while the also-unsolved murder two years earlier of another fetching woman, Elizabeth Short, whom the L.A. newspapers nicknamed “the Black Dahlia,” has become infamous and the subject of numerous books and films, including Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, which opens in theaters later this week. Shortly after that post went up, Abbott contacted me, and I suggested she try to answer my question for readers of The Rap Sheet. Her thoughtful comments appear below.]

When I first came upon the Jean Spangler case about four years ago, I was riveted by the compelling details of the story and was more than a little surprised with how quickly it seemed to disappear into so much smoke in terms of media attention and public consciousness. The largely forgotten quality was one of the main reasons it interested me. There was something so poignant about it: a beautiful, struggling actress, living with her mother, young daughter, and sister-in-law, leaves her Park LaBrea apartment one night and is never seen again. There are so many charged clues (her purse found in Griffth Park with a cryptic note, rumors about her supposed relationships with both movie stars and gangsters), and yet the case basically disappeared from headlines, replaced by other dark tales, within a week or two. In the years that followed, periodic articles would appear suggesting she’d been spotted in El Paso, Palm Springs, and other locales, and her story has been told a few times since, on TV crime shows and in the occasional article, but that’s barely a ripple compared with the Black Dahlia phenomenon. There are many differences between the two tales, including the fact that Spangler lived with family, had a daughter, was older, had gotten much further in Hollywood, etc. But there are also many, many similiarites. So, as the Elizabeth Short case again makes headlines with the release of the Brian De Palma film, what marks the distinction?

I’m far from being a Black Dahlia expert, but I’ve certainly shared the public fascination with that long-ago mystery and have found my way to more than a few books, documentaries, etc. about the case over the years. As for my personal, gut feeling regarding the key factors that distinguish the Elizabeth Short case from the Jean Spangler one, they are:

The Body: As The Rap Sheet suggested, the body is in fact key. Elizabeth Short’s cultural resonance is forever linked to the state of her body as it was found--the extreme violence done to it, the horror of the bisection, the eerie meticulousness of the measures taken and the posing. The “extremeness” resonates, haunts. And one might even wonder if the case would endure so much without those endless photos (both the ones shown everywhere and the ones shown only in pulpier or grittier publications and documentaries). The power of the visual is clearly a major factor: the endless cycle of attraction and repulsion so many of us have towards such horrifying images. I still remember seeing those grainy pictures for the first time. And I remember finding it hard to believe that this was going on at the same time in the same city that was putting out Miracle on 34th Street and Mother Wore Tights.

Firstness: To a lesser degree, I think if the Dahlia case had come after Spangler or any of the other missing or murdered women in L.A. in the late ’40s, things might be different. The Dahlia case was the first and, from the cases I’ve read about, appears most hyperbolic in terms of violence to the body, both the excessiveness of the violence and what can be viewed as the violence’s peculiar symbolic qualities (the bisection, the slashes to the mouth).

1947: I’m not a historian, but I have been intrigued by various theories suggesting a particular significance to the historical moment of the Elizabeth Short murder, e.g., the transitional period of GIs coming home from World War II to face a changed culture, and many women having entered the workforce and developed independent lives. In addition, there was fear back then that the end of the war presaged a return to the Depression. On the gut level (and I have no historical evidence to back this up), there seems a keen cultural distinction between early 1947 and late 1949 (when Spangler disappeared), between a culture wrestling with transition to a culture deeply satisfied with itself. But this is the armchair historian in me.

So, in 1949, the Jean Spangler case isn’t such a shocking story, doesn’t stand out so much as a possible emblem for a culture in dark, painful transition. That said, the very things that distinguish the Spangler disappearance from the Dahlia maelstrom are precisely what fascinate me. I was drawn to Spangler for many reasons (the glamour of the period, her purported romances, the sadness of her story), but one reason is the fact that, to the public, she’s forgotten--she’s truly a “lost girl.” And she brought to life for me this thing I’d been searching for a way to explore: that fundamental phenomenon of the beautiful female victim who becomes the tabula rasa onto which we project all our fears, yearnings, desires. The emotions depend entirely on her absence, which means she becomes this empty vessel we fill with ourselves. Even as we don’t recognize it.

This dynamic is far from new. It seems to exist in different forms across the ages, in literature (gothic novels, courtly love [in which the knight never even speaks to the woman he desires from afar], much romantic poetry, etc.), but also in “real life” and fiction/film (especially noir; and note the blending of noir and “real life” in the dubbing of Elizabeth Short as the Black Dahlia; see also James Ellroy’s non-fiction pieces over the years about the connections certain cops feel toward female victims).

In this dynamic, the “gone girl” seems to disappear as a real person and re-emerge as ... ourselves--frequently, our hidden selves. Of course, with the case of an unsolved disappearance, this dynamic can go on indefinitely. There’s no body, no real suspects, and most of the clues stop within a few days. So it’s all us after that. The characters in my book, The Song Is You, then, are able to make my fictionalized version of Jean Spangler completely their own--they project all of their own personal disappointments and dreams onto her. In the process, Jean Spangler and her “lived life” gets lost, but those around her can’t help it--even my protagonist, who is no romantically haunted detective but a canny studio publicist, is not immune. It was something I wanted to explore because it still persists (in me, too) and its endurance captivates me. Is it all just a glamour trip, an ego trip, a way of indulging ourselves without looking at ourselves too deeply? Or are we trying to understand and/or save the “gone girl” as a way of trying to save something in our own pasts or in ourselves we feel we’ve lost? All this is a fancy way of asking, What is the secret of the gone girl, the lost girl?


Jen Jordan said...

Thanks for this. This makes the book an even richer reading experience.

Anonymous said...

This last bit you wrote is very telling, it is true, I think a lot of us are fascinated by stories such as these because it reflects something deep and hidden within us, something in the dark yearning to emerge...

Anonymous said...

I loved the book.
Miss Abbott's comments are thought-provoking. I agree with everything she says about why we focus on both cases, Spangler's and Short's.
Both cases haunt us equally. And I suppose Jean Spangler's case is especially haunting because we have no idea what happened to her. Yes, of course, we think she most probably died. But still--! We can't be certain.
She was there and then she was gone. What could be more haunting then that? And as the years passed, she came to be almost ghostlike or a sad dream. But then the book came out and Miss Abbott gave her life and a story about that life.
I won't give anything away as to the end--I will only say the book is like a song. The tune of which floats in the conscience long after the melody has played out.