“Would you be interested in publishing a timebomb that I have just finished putting together?” Vladimir Nabokov asked James Laughlin, the publisher of New Directions, in February 1954. He had finally completed Lolita, after five years of fitful writing amid other pesky obligations. (“I am sick of teaching, I am sick of teaching, I am sick of teaching,” he’d complained to Edmund Wilson a few months earlier.) Laughlin wasn’t interested. Neither was anyone at Viking or Farrar, Straus. Editors at Simon and Schuster called the manuscript “sheer pornography.” Katharine White, Nabokov’s editor at The New Yorker, said that reading Lolita made her “thoroughly miserable.”
The only imprint willing to take on Nabokov’s “pederosis” novel was the Paris-based Olympia Press—known primarily for such salacious lime-green paperbacks as White Thighs and The Carnal Days of Helen Seferis but whose catalog also included Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, Oscar Wilde, and English translations of Jean Genet—which published it in 1955. Last year marked the sixtieth anniversary of the US publication of the novel. Written as a first-person confession to a jury by a European émigré named Humbert Humbert, Lolita details his obsession and seduction of twelve-year-old Dolores Haze, and his mad dash across all forty-eight states with his “dolorous and hazy darling,” before killing the man who pried her from him. But 2018 also marked a much darker anniversary: seventy years earlier a mechanic named Frank La Salle abducted eleven-year-old Sally Horner in Camden, New Jersey, by pretending to be an FBI agent and set off with her by car on a twenty-one-month journey during which he repeatedly raped her. Two years after she was finally freed, Sally died in a car crash at the age of fifteen.
Two new books recount Sally Horner’s tragic life in different forms. One, Rust & Stardust by T. Greenwood, is a conventionally fictionalized novel. The other, The Real Lolita, by the reporter Sarah Weinman, is an intriguing hybrid—part true-crime, part literary biography—written as a quest to solve a single question: How much did the author of Lolita know about Sally Horner? Weaving together chapters that juxtapose Sally’s experiences with Nabokov’s writing of his masterpiece, Weinman exposes his ambivalence about plumbing real-life stories for his novels and the extent to which he relied on, but largely obfuscated, such stories in the crafting of his fiction.
The similarities that Weinman reveals between Sally Horner and Dolores Haze are striking. Both were “brunette daughters of widowed mothers, fated to be captives of much older predators for nearly two years.” La Salle’s cover story was that he was Sally’s father; Nabokov had Humbert Humbert marry Charlotte Haze to gain access to her daughter. La Salle is reported to have plied young Sally with clothes and sweets, while Humbert Humbert orders one “elaborate ice-cream concoction” after another and delights in an entire afternoon spent “buying beautiful things for Lo.” Both captors forced their pre-teen victims to comply by threatening to have them locked up: “He told me that if I went back home, or they sent for me, or I ran away, I’d go to prison,” Sally later told the sheriff of Santa Clara County, California, where she was found.
There are descriptions in Lolita that appear to be cribbed nearly verbatim from contemporaneous news reports about the Sally Horner case: a “bobby soxer” girl, a “hawk-faced” man (Vivian Darkbloom has a “hawk face”). There is also a direct reference to Sally in Lolita. Placed in parentheses, it represents Humbert Humbert’s tug of a moral conscience: “Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?” Earlier in the novel, too, Humbert Humbert seems to have the Sally Horner kidnapping in mind when he tells Dolores:
Only the other day we read in the newspapers some bunkum about a middle-aged morals offender who pleaded guilty to the violation of the Mann Act and to transporting a nine-year-old girl across state lines for immoral purposes, whatever these are.
The ages may be off, but Weinman, relying on the work of the Nabokov scholar Alexander Dolinin, argues that the reference to Sally Horner is unmistakable.
Clearly, then, Nabokov followed Horner’s ordeal. How could he not, Weinman argues, when her release from captivity in 1950 came just as he was bedridden with a mysterious ailment and ready to jettison his attempts at a manuscript about “a man who liked little girls” that, back then, was still called The Kingdom by the Sea? That he knew of the Horner case is one thing, but it is another to determine whether this knowledge influenced his novel in a significant way. Nabokov did not make this task easy. He hated the voyeuristic impulse in readers. “It is strange, the morbid inclination we have to derive satisfaction from the fact (generally false and always irrelevant) that a work of art is traceable to a ‘true story,’” he wrote in his 1944 biography of Nikolai Gogol. But Weinman manages to rise above mere conjecture and to show that Sally Horner was not as “irrelevant” to Lolita as Nabokov would have liked us to believe.
Florence Horner, nicknamed Sally, was born in 1937 in Camden. Her father committed suicide when she was six, and she lived with her mother, Ella, who worked long hours as a seamstress, and with her half-sister, Susan, who was eleven years older than her. The spring Sally turned eleven, a group of girls from school dared her to steal a notebook from a local Woolworth’s. She was caught by a man who presented himself as an FBI agent. She became distraught. The man agreed to let her go, but one afternoon a few months later, he returned. He stopped Sally as she was walking home from school and threatened that if she didn’t meet him at a bus station and accompany him to Atlantic City, he would report her “crime.”
Part of what’s so shocking about this tale, of which ultimately—frustratingly—too little is known despite Weinman’s tenacious digging, is that Sally wasn’t snatched off the street: La Salle made her come to him. That afternoon he instructed her to tell her mother that he was the father of two of her school friends and that she had been invited to join his family for a week’s holiday on the Jersey Shore. Ella was concerned, but relented: “It was a chance for Sally to get a little vacation,” she later explained. “I couldn’t afford to give her one.” Another chilling fact: Ella drove Sally to the bus station to meet her would-be abductor.
Over the next several weeks Sally occasionally phoned or wrote to her mother, always under the pretense that she was with friends and enjoying herself. Then she stopped calling. Ella grew suspicious and alerted the police, but by the time an eight-state search was underway Sally was nowhere to be found. La Salle and she moved from Atlantic City to Baltimore, where he rented an apartment for them and enrolled her in a local Catholic school. (“Would improvement be forthcoming with a fixed domicile and a routine schoolgirl’s day?” Humbert Humbert wonders when confronted with a sullen Lolita.) After eight months they moved again, this time to Dallas, and later to San Jose. They slept in trailer parks and ate in diners, paid for by odd jobs La Salle found fixing cars.
Intimations of what Sally endured remain vague. They were given voice only by her devastatingly polite, elliptic vocabulary: “The first time was in Baltimore right after we got there. And ever since, too” is how she later described being raped by La Salle to the police. And ever since, too. Four words to describe a world of torment and resignation. Unfortunately for Weinman, and for the reader, this outline of a life on the run doesn’t add up to very much. Sally’s portrait remains blurry. Almost nothing about her survived from this period apart from a photograph found in an Atlantic City boardinghouse after she and La Salle had left. It captures Sally seated on a swing. She is dressed in a white frock with a slight smile on her face. The generic childhood setting is perverted by the knowledge that her photographer was likely her abductor.
Weinman writes, “If she made friends, or had someone she felt she could trust, I couldn’t find them. If there are people still living who knew her at the time, I could not track them down. If she kept a journal during her captivity, it did not survive.” What was going through Sally’s mind? Did she expect to ever see her mother again? Deciphering a life as unknowable as Sally’s is a tall order, even for a reporter steeped in true-crime history like Weinman (who has also edited the two-volume book Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 1950s). Gaps in the story having to do with Sally’s thoughts throughout her captivity may be written around in a magazine article, where action is prized over interiority (The Real Lolita began as a piece in Hazlitt). But they remain glaringly exposed in book form. We are presented instead with a series of clichés, such as “Absence is as telling as substance.” An inherent problem with true-crime stories such as these, which are pieced together primarily from affidavits and legal motions, is that they often reveal more about the perpetrator’s state of mind than they do about the victim’s. La Salle is shown to have been arrogant, mendacious, and aggrieved, not to mention delusional. Even after pleading guilty to abducting Sally, he continued to refer to her as his “natural daughter,” falsely claiming that he provided for her while her own mother was busy socializing with men.
The elusiveness of Sally’s story makes it fertile ground for a novelist. T. Greenwood, in Rust & Stardust, has clearly done her research. She remains faithful to the details we know about Sally Horner and Frank La Salle, but it’s as though she is frightened to take liberties with them. What we get instead are sanitized characters. Here is the fictionalized Sally after La Salle has his way with her:
What are you doing? she wanted to scream. Mama! But there was no air left in her lungs. And he pressed his hand against her mouth.
And then there was nothing but pain. She shook her head, felt herself plummeting. Sinking. She was drowning.
The novel progresses in this manner, in clipped, fast-moving chapters and gravelly dialogue. It never comes alive. Lurking in the back of the reader’s mind is the question of ownership. Who controls Sally’s story? Is this a serious attempt to explore it from her point of view, or is the author merely exploiting her for a readymade and sordid plot?
Unlike Greenwood, Weinman makes the most of her findings. One can tell she is a crime writer from her alertness to unusual details. We learn, for example, how teenagers doctored IDs in 1950s Camden by bleaching out the date on their birth certificate and adjusting it with vegetable-based food dye. And we learn that La Salle sent a spray of flowers to Sally Horner’s family on the morning of her funeral. The Real Lolita benefits from interviews with Sally’s brother-in-law, niece (who was born while Sally was in captivity), and best friend.
Weinman also speaks with La Salle’s estranged daughter, whom she calls Madeline, though that conversation is curiously unprobed. Madeline was two years younger than Sally. Her mother divorced La Salle when she was three and named in the divorce filings five girls with whom he had committed adultery. All of them were younger than sixteen. He spent most of Madeline’s childhood in prison, first for the statutory rape of five girls and later for Sally’s kidnapping, for which he was given thirty to thirty-five years. In 1966, sixteen years into his sentence and what turned out to be the last year of his life, Madeline decided to renew contact with him and even brought her young children to visit him in prison. Asked about La Salle’s crimes, she said: “He was just Dad. Truth be told, I never thought about whether he was guilty or not.”
Really? Not ever? Weinman does not do more to press Madeline on her moral myopia, one of several missed opportunities in the book. Another occurs when Weinman interviews the daughter of Ruth Janisch, the woman who had a hand in Sally’s release. Janisch lived in a San Jose motor inn; her trailer was parked next to that of La Salle and the girl he claimed was his daughter. She had become friendly with both of them but noticed that La Salle seemed “abnormally possessive” of the girl. It took time for Sally to open up to her, but one morning, while La Salle was out looking for work, Sally confessed the truth: he was not her father, he had kidnapped her, and she wanted to go home. Janisch urged her to call her family. Sally, who was afraid of La Salle’s wrath, finally agreed.
Janisch was therefore instrumental in liberating Sally and bringing about La Salle’s subsequent arrest. And yet her image as a Good Samaritan is complicated in her daughter’s rendering of the events. The daughter, who is called Rachel in the book, tells Weinman that she and her siblings suffered throughout their own childhood from abuse by their mother’s many romantic partners and that their mother chose to take the men’s word over her children’s. But Janisch instantly believed Sally’s story of abduction and abuse. What was it that made her believe a near stranger but not her own children? That question—with its fictional echoes in a conveniently oblivious Charlotte Haze—is left unexamined.
How much real-life tragedy can a work of fiction incorporate without attribution? Is a novelist like Nabokov obliged to disclose his sources, especially if they involve living people who may recognize themselves or their loved ones in his work? Or is he free to pick away at reality, to fill the page with his unsuspecting prey? These questions become central to Weinman’s project, as we move away from the story of Sally Horner and toward the metaliterary concern animating her book. This is both to Weinman’s detriment and to her credit. While The Real Lolita is sure to disappoint true-crime enthusiasts, the result is something more tangled: an attempt to understand an elusive artist at work.
Relying heavily on Dolinin’s and on Bryan Boyd’s research, Weinman cites an index card from the Library of Congress archive, dated August 1952, on which Nabokov transcribed the text of a wire report of Sally Horner’s death. The card contains certain terms—“cross-country slave,” “middle-aged morals offender”—that he had struck out, only to include them in his final manuscript.
Still, the scholarship on Nabokov appears to be split on the “Sally effect,” when it is even recognized as such. Dolinin finds clues that point to Sally everywhere he looks in Lolita. References to Dolores’s “Florentine hands” and “Florentine breasts,” he suggests, “evoke not only Botticelli” but also Sally, née Florence. He treats the mention of Sally as a “deliberately planted” riddle and tells Weinman that the reality-averse Nabokov did not attempt to cover his tracks—quite the opposite. He filled Lolita with ways of commemorating Sally, including transposing La Salle’s description and profession onto minor characters, such as Dick Schiller, Dolores’s future husband, who is a mechanic. Even the parenthetical in which Sally’s name appears, Dolinin claims, is not meant to signal marginality but is the author’s preferred way of conveying importance.
Robert Roper, on the other hand, acknowledges the importance of the real girl in shaping the fictional one but seems to miss possible allusions to Sally’s story. He believes that “the self-sufficient rapist with pustules and a souped-up car” who lures Dolores away from Humbert Humbert was inspired by Vladimir and Véra’s son, the “auto-mad” Dmitri, rather than by the actual rapist—and mechanic—Frank La Salle.
Weinman believes, like Dolinin, that the Sally Horner ordeal was instrumental not only in Nabokov’s plotting of Lolita but in helping him finish it. She takes a skeptical view of his repeated and defensive denials that the novel had any connection to the real-life story. “It did not inspire the book,” Véra Nabokov told an inquisitive reporter snooping for parallels between Lolita and Sally Horner in 1963. She went on admonishingly: “My husband wonders what importance could possibly be attached to the existence in ‘real’ life of ‘actual rape abductions’ when explaining the existence of an ‘invented’ book.” Véra’s biographer, Stacy Schiff, tells Weinman that this chiding was thoroughly in keeping with the Nabokovs’ dismissal of anything scandalous or pedestrian, of any “mandarin influence on high art.”
This was perhaps also Nabokov’s way of distinguishing himself from the shadow of Dostoevsky, who famously scoured newspapers and courthouses to find inspiration for his novels and whom Nabokov considered to be a “third rate writer.” Nabokov viewed his literary task not as representing the world but as creating it from thin air, the weirder the better, “causing form to bulge and burst like a sponge-bag containing a small furious devil.” When critics praised Lolita as an American novel, he bristled: “I have invented in America my America and just as fantastic as any inventor’s America.” Yet surely one of the pleasures of reading Lolita lies in its unmatched evocation of existing places, its breathless sweep across recognizable landscapes: the “stern El Greco horizon, pregnant with inky rain, and a passing glimpse of some mummy-necked farmer, and all around alternating stripes of quick-silverish water and harsh green corn, the whole arrangement opening like a fan, somewhere in Kansas.”
Nabokov’s insistence on the fantastic seems at odds with his other professed desire, which was to have his novels seem as lifelike as possible. Boyd, in his definitive Nabokov: The American Years (1990), portrays Nabokov as a shoe-leather reporter: riding buses in order to catch snippets of schoolgirl conversations (“It’s a sketch,” “I have zillions”), saving newspaper clippings, even pretending to be a father enrolling a daughter in school so that he could meet with the principal—resulting, presumably, in his indelible portrait of headmistress Pratt. (“We are not so much concerned, Mr. Humbird, with having our students become bookworms or be able to reel off all the capitals of Europe which nobody knows anyway.”)
By the end of The Real Lolita, we may not learn as much as we wished about Sally Horner. But we do come closer to understanding the mad genius of Nabokov as fabricator—both a creator of life and a collector of its moments. (No wonder he became an authority on Lepidoptera.) When he learns of a kidnapping case in 1948, involving the transport of a young girl across state lines by a “middle-aged morals offender,” he slips it into the novel that has been tormenting him. As he put it in his Lectures on Russian Literature (1981): “To make his magic, fiction, look real the artist sometimes places it, as Tolstoy does, within a definite, specific historical frame, citing facts that can be checked in a library—that citadel of illusion.”