Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 masterpiece “Lolita” — a staple of the American Library Association’s Banned and Challenged Books list — has only grown more infamous with age. Dazzling as it may be, “Lolita” is an especially hard sell in this age of trigger warnings and the #MeToo movement. After all, Humbert Humbert is not only the most unreliable narrator ever to slither his way through the pages of a novel, he’s also a middle-aged sexual predator who’s fantasizing about defiling 12-year-old Dolores Haze, a.k.a., “Lolita.” For those of us who admire Nabokov’s gifts, talking about “Lolita” can feel like being on a perpetual critical cartwheel of exaltation and apology: celebrating the novel’s artistry while decrying the corruption that artistry captures.
Sarah Weinman has just complicated the perception of this vexed classic in her superb new book, “The Real Lolita.” Weinman, who has edited two collections of largely underappreciated 20th-century female suspense writers (“Women Crime Writers” and “Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives”), has now become something of a literary detective herself, conducting an investigation into the case she says inspired “Lolita”: the 1948 abduction of 11-year-old Florence “Sally” Horner. Though Nabokov himself steadfastly denied that his magnum opus — some 20 years in the making — had roots in the foul rag-and-bone shop of true crime, Weinman assembles a substantial array of evidence that points to a horrific real-life story at the center of this novel, a life story that, she says, Nabokov “strip-mined to produce the bones of Lolita.”
Weinman begins her book with the clue that, like Poe’s purloined letter, Nabokov planted in plain sight. Toward the end of “Lolita,” Humbert asks himself in a quick aside, “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?” As Weinman poignantly describes it, Sally Horner’s ordeal began with a shoplifting stunt. A lonely junior high honor student in Camden, N.J., Sally was trying to get in with a clique of fifth-grade girls. The clique dared Sally to steal something from the local Woolworth’s and, so, she stuffed a 5-cent notebook into her bag. Before she could make it out the door, however, Sally was grabbed by a man who claimed to be an FBI agent. As Sally began crying, the “agent” relented. He told Sally that if she reported to him occasionally, he would release her.
The man was Frank La Salle, a predator who’d already served more than two years of jail time for the statutory rape of five adolescent girls. Months after he first grabbed Sally, La Salle told the girl that the government wanted her to go with him to Atlantic City. Sally (who’d guiltily kept her shoplifting attempt to herself) explained to her single mother that she’d been invited to go to the seashore with the family of some school friends. On June 14, 1948, Sally’s mother put her on a bus bound for Atlantic City. She wouldn’t see her daughter again for almost two years. During that time, La Salle took Sally on the road, living under the guise of being a widowed father and his daughter in a succession of boardinghouses and trailers, where Sally was sexually violated.
By combing through court documents and newspaper accounts and interviewing surviving friends and family members, Weinman has evocatively reconstructed Sally’s nightmare, as well as the sexual mores of mid-20th-century America. When Sally’s mother was told her daughter had been found alive in a California trailer park, she reacted by saying, “Whatever she has done, I can forgive her.” Upon her return to junior high in Camden, Sally was ostracized; the boys “looked at her as a total whore,” a friend told Weinman.
Simultaneous with Sally’s story, Weinman also traces Nabokov’s decades-long wrestling process with the novel that would make his reputation. While it remains unclear exactly when Nabokov first heard of Sally’s ordeal, a “Lolita index card” — one of many on which he scrawled notes for his novel-in-progress — attests to the fact that he knew of her death in the summer of 1952. For, in another twist of fate, Sally was killed in a car crash just two years after her deliverance from Frank La Salle.
In the wake of “Lolita’s” initial publication, a couple of reporters tried to draw connections to the Sally Horner case, but Nabokov — and his fiercely protective wife, Vera — denied it; Nabokov’s biographers have generally ignored the case. “Knowing about Sally Horner,” Weinman rightly says, “does not diminish ‘Lolita’s’ brilliance, or Nabokov’s audacious inventiveness, but it does augment the horror he also captured in the novel.” In “The Real Lolita,” Weinman has compassionately given Sally Horner pride of place once more in her own life, a life that was first brutally warped by Frank La Salle, and then appropriated by one of the most brilliant writers of the 20th century.
Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program, “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University. At 7 p.m. Sept. 12, Sarah Weinman will be in conversation with Laura Lippman at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.
By Sarah Weinman
Ecco. 306 pp. $27.99