The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World
This is an odd hybrid of a book. It’s half true crime story and half literary criticism and, overall, an honest attempt to unearth the origins of the iconic novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, now celebrating its 60th year since publication.
Weinman, a seasoned true crime writer, describes herself as being on a mission. “Several years ago I stumbled upon what happened to Sally Horner while looking for a new story to tell. It was my habit then, and remains so now, to plumb obscure corners of the Internet for ideas,” she writes.
The match that lit this fire was one line in Lolita where Humbert Humbert wonders if he’s done to Dolly what Frank Lasalle had done to Sally Horner? Most readers passed that line by but, to her credit, not Weinman. She dug in.
As Weinman demonstrates, Nabokov surely knew all the details of the real-life case of Sally Horner. She was only 11 when abducted by Frank Lasalle who was already a convicted predator. In that more innocent age, Lasalle had little trouble spiriting Sally away from her mother by posing as another parent and promising a trip to the beach. That was the last Sally’s mother would see of her daughter for nearly two years.
Lasalle eventually posed as Sally’s father and took her from New Jersey to California. They lived there uneasily but quietly until a nosy neighbor grilled the little girl and she admitted the tawdry truth. In hours, Lasalle was captured.
What frustrates Weinman is that Nabokov would never admit to basing his novel on this real-life girl. One reason, the author muses, may be that Nabokov was friends for a time with a Stanford professor who married a 14 year old girl when he was 30. It’s clear that societal scruples were different back in the mid-century and, in fact, one wonders if, in the current atmosphere, any publisher would have agreed to unleash Lolita on America.
One of the more surprising of Weinman’s revelations is that “at every stage of his literary career, Nabokov was preoccupied with the idea of the middle-aged man’s obsession with a young girl . . . Nabokov likely realized how often this theme persisted in his work. . . . there is no getting around the deep-seated compulsion that recurs again and again in Nabokov’s work.
“Nabokov’s initial exploration of an older man’s unnatural desire for a preteen girl was published in 1926, within the first year of his career as a prose writer.”
Despite that, Weinman says she never found any suggestion that Nabokov himself had ever pursued young girls himself. Does any of this matter? Weinman believes it does. She says that the refusal to acknowledge the “abuse of power” that is central to Lolita has allowed for “decades of readers” to misinterpret the novel.
“It allowed for a culture of teen-temptress vamping that did not account for the victimization at the novel’s core,” she writes. “Sixty years on, many readers still don’t see through Humbert Humbert’s vile perversions, and still blame Delores Haze for her behavior, as if she had the will to resist, and chose not to.”
It’s a provocative and timely thesis in the #MeToo age we live in and makes this a worthy hybrid, so long as you’re not looking for a typical true crime story. This is much more than that.