The Real Lolita—The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World

By Sarah Weinman

Harper Collins | 2018

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

Photo of Sarah Weinman

When I read the review of Ms. Weinman’s book in the Los Angeles Times I wanted to read it because I hold the belief that often great art draws its inspiration from real-life events, or, as is the case with James Joyce’s Ulysses from mythology or other well-known stories; so, I wanted to see to what extent Vladimir Nabokov may have been influenced by the kidnapping of Sally Horner, a widely-published event of which he was aware.

First, I read The Real Lolita and then reread Nabokov’s Lolita.

In March of 1948 11-year old Sally Horner was accosted when she attempted to shoplift a five-cent composition notebook from a Woolworth’s in Camden, New Jersey, by a stranger who said he was an FBI agent but was in fact Frank LaSalle. Later, her mother, thinking he was the father of one of Sally’s friends, was persuaded to let her go on a trip to Atlantic City with him. She then was kidnapped and kept by LaSalle for the next two years. As Lolita had with Humbert Humbert, they traveled cross country together until finally, when they were living in a mobile park in San Jose, California, Sally told a neighbor by the name of Ruth Janisch of her plight, and Ruth alerted the authorities. After she was freed, LaSalle plead guilty to kidnapping and was sentenced to no less than thirty and no more than thirty-five years in prison.

As for Sally she was reunited with her family but tragically died in a car accident with a boyfriend on August 18, 1952, only two years after her release from LaSalle clutches. I couldn’t help but think she might have been spared the worst of the consequences she might have suffered as the result of her kidnapping.

Vladimir Nabokov published Lolita in 1955. He was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, into an aristocratic family in 1899 that fled Russia in the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, making their way to Paris, as did many families of “white” Russians. The family spoke three languages—Russian, French and English. He studies French and Russian literature at Trinity College, Cambridge, lived in Berlin and Paris, where he launched his literary career. In 1940 he moved to the United States, where he taught literature at Wellesley, Stanford, Cornell and Harvard. In 1961 he moved to Montreux, Switzerland, where he died in 1977. He dedicated his masterpiece, Lolita, to his devoted wife Vera. They had one son, Dmitri, who became a musician. Nabokov was passionate about lepidoptery; he and Vera took several trips across the United in pursuit of rare butterflies.

Nabokov was toying with the idea for Lolita, the self-told account of a pedophile, before he learned of Sally Horner’s case. He tended to deny the degree to which he mined information from it, maintaining that art supersedes influence.

There is no doubt in my mind that Nabokov was a literary genius, and Lolita is his masterpiece, deserving of its place in the circle of best-novels-ever-written, right up there with Madame Bovary and Moby Dick.

Who can forget its first paragraph:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of my tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” (Please notice its alliteration).
Nabokov dares to do what few writers dare—he plays with language, making up words along the way, inventing the names of people and places, either as a means of camouflage (or perhaps because his memory was faulty); he takes a playful delight in writing—there’s hardly a page that does not contain French phrase or two sprinkled in.

And then there the scandalous content of his story. As he tells of it—the 40-year-old Humbert Humbert receives a stroke of luck when Charlotte Haze, the woman he has married in order to be close to her eleven-year-old daughter Dolores (Lolita), accidently dies, leaving the field open for him, as her legal guardian, to take charge of the child. With Lolita he embarks on travels across the United States and back.

Lolita is supposed to be Humbert’s confession from prison, if you will.
It is sensational because he has dared to ignore an important societal convention requiring that adults not take advantage of children sexually, that they be protected from the vicissitudes of sex until they have matured sufficiently to handle them. He was broken this cardinal rule of adult conduct and has done so with impunity.
In his favor, I think it should be said that he truly loved Lolita; he showered her with presents and gave her all that a child of her age might require. Therefore, she seems less harmed by her experience than she might otherwise have been. And yet, it is a story of unrequited love, as she, of course, lacked the capacity to return his love or to share in any of the responsibilities of their cohabitation. Yet, this does not seem to bother Humbert in the least.

Nabokov describes Humbert, despite his rich capabilities and education, as sometimes having a slim grasp of reality; in fact, when his beloved Lolita disappears (she is rescued by the dentist friend named Clare Quilty) he falls into a state of despair and paranoia and swears his revenge.

When he finds Lolita again, she has married a rather good-natured but average sort of man and is pregnant. Nabokov kills her off by having her die giving child-birth. I guess it just wouldn’t do to write of her as a mother to her own children.

In the end he hunts down Quilty and kills him. He sent to prison not for kidnapping but for murder.

The question that arose in my mind as I reread Lolita was not the degree to which he may have been influenced by the Sally Horner case but how he could have consistently known how a child of her age would behave, her passion for things like paper dolls and such:

“Naked, except for one sock and her charm bracelet, spread-eagled on the bed where my philter had felled her—so I fore glimpsed her; a velvet hair ribbon was still clutched in her hand; her honey-brown body, with the white negative image of the rudimentary swimsuit patterned against her tan, presented to me its pale breast buds; in the rosy lamplight, a little public floss glistened on its plump hillock.”

With this attention to detail, and, of course, his marvelous use of language, Lolita would not be the masterpiece that it is.

Jane M McCabe is the Associate Editor of the Neworld Review

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