In her new book, “The Real Lolita,” true-crime writer Sarah Weinman recounts the story of the 1948 kidnapping of 11-year-old Sally Horner in New Jersey and makes a persuasive case that the crime saga helped inspire Vladimir Nabokov’s iconic 1955 literary masterpiece, “Lolita.”
Nabokov, who died in 1977, steadfastly downplayed and denied the connection, but in mounting a rebuttal to the legendary author, Weinman works to reclaim Sally’s story and motivate a reconsideration of Nabokov’s.
In the first half of the book Weinman pieces the history together, using a variety of newspaper clippings, court filings, and interviews with key surviving figures. Her account opens innocently enough. Sally Horner was 11 when she tried to steal a five-cent notebook from a Camden, N.J., shop to get in with the popular girls, only to be caught by Frank La Salle, a man in his 50s claiming to be an FBI agent. He told Sally that he wouldn’t turn her in if she agreed to be his secret informant from time to time.
La Salle was not an FBI agent. Instead, he was a mechanic who’d already been convicted of the statutory rape of five young girls. In a matter of months, he told Sally, who was on summer break, that she needed to go to Atlantic City with him.
La Salle introduced himself to Sally’s overworked single mother, Ella, as “Mr. Warner,” the father of two of Sally’s school friends. He shared his plans to take the kids on a brief trip to Atlantic City, and Ella initially agreed. Her suspicions grew as the trip kept extending, and three weeks later she went to the police after receiving a letter from Sally saying she would be leaving Atlantic City with “Warner.”
For nearly two years, La Salle went on the run with Sally, sexually assaulting her throughout, until she was able to sneak off to find a phone, call her sister’s household, and speak to her brother-in-law. He notified the FBI; Sally was rescued; and La Salle was caught.
However, there is no triumphant ending for Sally’s story, as Weinman reports that the girl was tragically killed in a car crash at age 15. Despite this, Weinman emphasizes that Sally was ultimately a survivor and the protagonist of her story.
It’s with this spirit that she goes about the latter half of the book, making the argument that the Horner case was the inspiration for “Lolita,” utilizing her thought-provoking research and the undeniable parallels between the two stories.
In “Lolita,” Nabokov’s novel, 12-year-old Dolores “Dolly” Haze is kidnapped by a man known only as Humbert Humbert. Humbert takes the girl, Dolly, whom he nicknames Lo and Lolita, and goes on the run for nearly two years, sexually violating her, telling himself that she seduced him and that they’re in love.
Dolly and Sally are both daughters of single, widowed mothers. They’re both threatened with being sent away to some form of juvenile detention. Sally is even mentioned in “Lolita,” when in one scene Humbert, distraught over his actions, asks himself: “Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank La Salle, a 50-year-old mechanic, had done to 11-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?” He quickly moves on, but Nabokov makes it clear that he was aware of the Horner case and its similarities to his own story.
Another critical piece of evidence highlighted by Weinman is a notecard of Nabokov’s, on which he transcribed an Associated Press report of Sally’s death in 1952, which Weinman calls “proof that the story captured his attention and that the real-life ordeal was inspiration for Dolores Haze’s fictional plight.”
Weinman notes that Nabokov once arrogantly asked whether people felt the need to prove that real life inspired successful writing “because we begin to respect ourselves more when we learn that the writer, just like ourselves, was not clever enough to make up a story himself?”
Weinman makes it clear, however, that her book is not intended as an attack on Nabokov or his work. Weinman’s greatest gripe with Nabokov was that he refused to acknowledge that Sally’s terrible story in any way influenced a literary masterpiece, despite the obvious evidence that it did.
“Knowing about Sally Horner does not diminish Lolita’s brilliance, or Nabokov’s audacious inventiveness,” Weinman writes, “but it does augment the horror he also captured in the novel.”
Telling Sally’s story reminds readers of how the techniques of fiction can allow people to objectify in ways that spill over into the real world. Lolita, like Sally, was victimized, but she’s still frequently characterized as a “seductress,” albeit by an unreliable narrator in a darkly comic novel about sexuality, obsession, and self-delusion. Sally’s story helps call into question the “promiscuous” label often attached to the term Lolita.
With “The Real Lolita,” Weinman achieves what she set out to do by reclaiming Sally’s story. Her greatest achievement, though, is reminding readers that Sally Horner was simply a little girl who deserved better, making it that much more difficult to read “Lolita” without considering the reality of her situation.
By Sarah Weinman
Ecco, 306 pp., illustrated. $27.99
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