Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.
“Lolita, when published, was infamous, then famous, always controversial, always a topic of discussion. It has sold more than sixty million copies worldwide in its sixty-plus years of life. Sally Horner, however, was largely forgotten, except by her immediate family members and close friends.”
In 1948, eleven-year-old Sally Horner was kidnapped by recently released sex offender Frank La Salle, who coerced her into going with him after he caught her shoplifting a notebook from the five and dime in Camden, New Jersey. The kidnapping, however, was anything but simple. La Salle forced Horner to lie to her mother, Ella, saying that he was the father of school friends, and that she had been invited to join the family for their seashore holiday. Ella, a harried single mother, agreed, much to her later regret. Sally would not be seen again for nearly two years, during which time she would travel around the country with her abductor, who posed as her father in public, but had much more sinister intentions in private. If this story sounds somewhat familiar, perhaps you are thinking of Vladamir Nabokov’s famous novel, Lolita, in which the pedophile Humbert Humbert travels across America with his step-daughter Dolores Haze. Indeed, the Sally Horner case is referenced in the novel, but while Lolita has remained famous, Sally Horner has largely faded from popular memory. In The Real Lolita, Sarah Weinman builds her case for identifying Sally Horner as the true inspiration behind Nabokov’s novel, digging into archives, and conducting interviews, hoping to restore Sally to her rightful place in history.
The Real Lolita expands upon Weinman’s eponymous 2014 essay for Hazlitt magazine. Despite being a lengthy piece, Weinman felt she still was not done with Horner’s story, and in her book she attempts to further flesh out the case of the real girl who may have inspired Nabokov’s famous character. But although Weinman is a thorough and meticulous investigator, in some ways, there is no satisfaction to be had. Very often, the answers to her most burning questions were “we don’t know” or “the records are lost” or “we can only speculate.” And speculate she does, imagining what Sally’s days living with Frank La Salle must have been like, though no diary was kept, and Sally was never known to have spoken of it to her family after the fact. Because La Salle pled guilty in court, she never had to testify against him. Tragically, Sally died in a car accident only two years after her escape, never having seized control of her own story. Where she cannot find direct answers, Weinman tries to provide context, sharing available information, and drawing parallels to other cases of the time.
Although many answers were not forthcoming despite Weinman’s investigation, one of the strengths of The Real Lolita is the way in which it firmly centers Sally’s perspective and experience. Even when writing about the fictional Dolores Haze, Weinman refers to her as Dolores, only using the epithet Lolita when discussing Humbert’s point of view. Weinman never loses sight of the fact that Sally was a real girl who was the victim of a terrible crime. She is deeply sympathetic to what Sally suffered, both before and after her ordeal. Even after her escape, Sally was the victim of a double standard that meant that despite being a child, she was still regarded as tainted at best, and a slut at worst. Speaking to the press, Ella Horner said “whatever Sally has done, I can forgive her,” as if a child needs to be forgiven for being the victim of a crime. Sally’s time with La Salle would be the subject of gossip among her classmates for the rest of her short life, subjecting her to rude remarks, and entitled advances from male peers. As Weinman puts it, “Sally Horner was forever marked.”
I have to confess here that I have never read Lolita, and further admit that I’m not sure I ever will. The very thought of the plot churns my stomach, and even the desire to dig into Weinman’s assessment of Sally Horner’s influence on the plot couldn’t quite bring me to pick it up. Weinman herself notes that Nabokov had a long history of obsession with the theme of pedophilia, which turned up in many of his short works which predate Lolita, and even Sally Horner’s birth. Nabokov’s earliest work on the novel also predates the Sally Horner case, though it would not be published until five years after her escape. Biographers and scholars have found no evidence connecting Nabokov himself to children in that way, and in fact, quite the opposite; in his biography he recounts an episode of abuse in which he was fondled by his uncle, which may perhaps constitute the genesis of his obsession.
Given the above timelines, while the Sally Horner case may have shaped the final product, the concept for Lolita was certainly not inspired by her kidnapping. The Nabokovs, for their part, rigourously denied any connection as a matter of form; they believed in the primacy of art, and “if art was to prevail—and for the Nabokov’s it always did—then explicitly revealing what lay behind the curtain of fiction in the form of a real life case could shatter the illusion of total creative control.” It is up to Weinman, then, to gather circumstantial evidence about what Nabokov knew, and when, about the Sally Horner case. When she went missing, the story was not covered in his local newspapers. No clippings or documentation exist in his archives or papers. There are certainly parallels between to two stories to suggest that Sally’s more widely covered rescue may have helped crystalize Nabokov’s floundering obsession, but no conclusive proof. Yet Sally Horner’s story is worth remembering, whether or not she is the “real” Lolita.