The Girl Behind Lolita

Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov; drawing by David Levine

“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…

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