A gripping true-crime investigation of the 1948 abduction of 11-year-old Sally Horner, which brings the forgotten girl--and the two years she was forced to pretend she was the daughter of her kidnapper and abuser--back to life. The real-life inspiration of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.
Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is one of the most beloved and notorious novels of all time, yet very few of its readers know that the subject of the novel was derived from a real-life case: the 1948 abduction of Sally Horner.
Weaving together suspenseful crime narrative, cultural and social history, and literary investigation, The Real Lolita tells Sally Horner's full story for the very first time. Drawing upon extensive investigations, legal documents, old news stories, public records, and interviews with remaining relatives, Sarah Weinman establishes with authority how much Nabokov knew of the Sally Horner case and the efforts he took to disguise that knowledge during the process of writing and publishing Lolita. As she walks us through Sally's story, Weinman takes us on an intimate and panoramic tour of mid-century America, from Sally's home in Camden, New Jersey, to her place of rescue in California, and back to the East Coast again.
The story of Sally Horner echoes the stories of countless girls and women who never had the chance to speak for themselves. By diving deeper in the publication history of Lolita and restoring Sally to her rightful place in the lore of the novel's creation, The Real Lolita casts a new light on the dark inspiration for a modern classic.
About the author
- Winner, Arthur Ellis Award
- Winner, Macavity Award - Best Nonfiction
- Short-listed, Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature
- Nominated, Anthony Award
SARAH WEINMAN is the editor of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s (Library of America) and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (Penguin). She is the author of an influential newsletter, The Crime Lady, has covered publishing for Publishers Marketplace, and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Republic, the Guardian, Buzzfeed, the National Post (where she was the "Crime Wave" columnist) the Globe and Mail, Maclean's and Hazlitt, where the story that inspired this book appeared. Her Hazlitt features have twice been nominated for National Magazine Awards. A native of Ottawa and a graduate of McGill University, as well as of John Jay College of Criminal Justice's forensic science graduate program, Weinman lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Excerpt: The Real Lolita: A Lost Girl, an Unthinkable Crime, and a Scandalous Masterpiece (by (author) Sarah Weinman)
I FIRST READ LOLITA at sixteen, as a high school junior whose intellectual curiosity far exceeded her emotional maturity. It was something of a self-imposed dare. Only a few months earlier I’d breezed through One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Some months later I’d reckon with Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. I thought I could handle what transpired between Dolores Haze and Humbert Humbert. I thought I could appreciate the language and not be affected by the story. I pretended I was ready for Lolita, but I was nowhere close.
Those iconic opening lines, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta,”sent a frisson down my adolescent spine. I didn’t like that feeling, but I wasn’t supposed to. I was soon in thrall to Humbert Humbert’s voice, the silken veneer barely concealing a loathsome predilection.
I kept reading, hoping there might be some salvation for Dolores, even though I should have known from the foreword, supplied by the fictional narrator John Ray, Jr., PhD, that it does not arrive for a long time. And when she finally escapes from Humbert’s clutches to embrace her own life, her freedom
I realized, though I could not properly articulate it, that Vladimir Nabokov had pulled off something remarkable. Lolita was my first encounter with an unreliable narrator, one who must be regarded with suspicion. The whole book relies upon the mounting tension between what Humbert Humbert wants the reader to know and what the reader can discern. It is all too easy to be seduced by his sophisticated narration, his panoramic descriptions of America, circa 1947, and his observations of the girl he nicknames Lolita. Those who love language and literature are rewarded richly, but also duped. If you’re not being careful, you lose sight of the fact that Humbert raped a twelve-year-old child repeatedly over the course of nearly two years, and got away with it.
It happened to the writer Mikita Brottman, who in The Maximum Security Book Club described her own cognitive dissonance discussing Lolita with the discussion group she led at a Maryland maximum-security prison. Brottman, reading the novel in advance, had “immediately fallen in love with the narrator,” so much so that Humbert Humbert’s “style, humor, and sophistication blind[ed] me to his faults.” Brottman knew she shouldn’t sympathize with a pedophile, but she couldn’t help
The prisoners in her book club were nowhere near so enchanted. An hour into the discussion, one of them looked up at Brottman and cried, “He’s just an old pedo!” A second prisoner added: “It’s all bullshit, all his long, fancy words. I can see through it. It’s all a cover-up. I know what he wants to do with her.” A third prisoner drove home the point that Lolita “isn’t a love story. Get rid of all the fancy language, bring it down to thelower [sic] common denominator, and it’s a grown man molesting
a little girl.”
Brottman, grappling with the prisoners’ blunt responses, realized her foolishness. She wasn’t the first, nor the last, to be seduced by style or manipulated by language. Millions of readers missed how Lolita folded in the story of a girl who experienced in real life what Dolores Haze suffered on the page. The appreciation of art can make a sucker out of those who forget the darkness of real life.
Knowing about Sally Horner does not diminish Lolita’s brilliance, or Nabokov’s audacious inventiveness, but it does augment the horror he also captured in the novel.
WRITING ABOUT VLADIMIR NABOKOV daunted me, and still does. Reading his work and researching in his archives was like coming up against an electrified fence designed to keep me away from the truth. Clues would present themselves and then evaporate. Letters and diary entries would hint at larger meanings without supporting evidence. My central quest with respect to Nabokov was to figure out what he knew about Sally Horner and when he knew it. Through a lifetime, and afterlife, of denials and omissions about the sources of his fiction, he made my pursuit as difficult as possible.
Nabokov loathed people scavenging for biographical details that would explain his work. “I hate tampering with the precious lives of great writers and I hate Tom-peeping over the fence of those lives,” he once declared in a lecture about Russian literature to his students at Cornell University, where he taught from 1948 through 1959. “I hate the vulgarity of ‘human interest,’ I hate the rustle of skirts and giggles in the corridors of time—and no biographer will ever catch a glimpse of my private life.”
He made his public distaste for the literal mapping of fiction to real life known as early as 1944, in his idiosyncratic, highly selective, and sharply critical biography of the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. “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,’ ” Nabokov chided. “Is it because we begin to respect ourselves more when we learn that the writer, just like ourselves, was not clever enough to make up a story himself?”
The Gogol biography was more a window into Nabokov’s own thinking than a treatise on the Russian master. With respect to his own work, Nabokov did not want critics, academics, students, and readers to look for literal meanings or real-life influences. Whatever source material he’d relied on was grist for his own literary mill, to be used as only he saw fit. His insistence on the utter command of his craft served Nabokov well as his reputation and fame grew after the American publication of Lolita in 1958. Scores of interviewers, whether they wrote him letters, interrogated him on television, or visited him at his house, abided by his rules of engagement. They handed over their questions in advance and accepted his answers, written at leisure, cobbling them together to mimic spontaneous conversation.
Nabokov erected roadblocks barring access to his private life for deeper, more complex reasons than to protect his inalienable right to tell stories. He kept family secrets, quotidian and gargantuan, that he did not wish anyone to air in public. And no wonder, when you consider what he lived through: the Russian Revolution, multiple emigrations, the rise of the Nazis, and the fruits of international bestselling success. After he immigrated to the United States in 1940, Nabokov also abandoned Russian, the language of the first half of his literary career, for English. He equated losing his mother tongue to losing a limb, even though, in terms of style and syntax, his English dazzled beyond the imagination of most native speakers.
Always by his side, aiding Nabokov with his lifelong quest to keep nosy people at bay, was his wife, Véra. She took on all of the tasks Nabokov wouldn’t or couldn’t do: assistant, chief letter writer, first reader, driver, subsidiary rights agent, and many other less-defined roles. She subsumed herself, willingly, for his art, and anyone who poked too deeply at her undying devotion looking for contrary feelings was rewarded with fierce denials, stonewalling, or outright untruths.
Yet this book exists in part because the Nabokovs’ roadblocks eventually crumbled. Other people did gain access to his private life. There were three increasingly tendentious biographies by Andrew Field, whose relationship with his subject began in harmony but curdled into acrimony well before Nabokov died in 1977. A two-part definitive study by Brian Boyd is still the biographical standard, a quarter century after its publication, with which any Nabokov scholar must reckon. And Stacy Schiff’s 1999 portrayal of Véra Nabokov illuminated so much about their partnership and teased out the fragments of Véra’s inner life.
We’ve also learned more about what made Nabokov tick since the Library of Congress lifted its fifty-year Restriction upon his papers in 2009, opening the entire collection to the public. The more substantive trove at the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection still has some restrictions, but I was able to immerse myself in Nabokov’s work, his notes, his manuscripts, and also the ephemera—newspaper clippings, letters, photographs, diaries.
A strange thing happened as I looked for clues in his published work and his archives: Nabokov grew less knowable. Such is the paradox of a writer whose work is so filled with metaphor and allusion, so dissected by literary scholars and ordinary readers. Even Boyd claimed, more than a decade and a half after writing his biography of Nabokov, that he still did not fully understand Lolita.
What helped me grapple with the book was to reread it, again and again. Sometimes like a potboiler, in a single gulp, and other times slowing down to cross-check each sentence. No one could get every reference and recursion on the first try; the novel rewards repeated reading. Nabokov himself believed the only novels worth reading are the ones that demand to be read on multiple occasions. Once you grasp it, the contradictions of Lolita’s narrative and plot structure reveal a logic true to itself.
During one Lolita reread, I was reminded of the narrator of an earlier Nabokov story, “Spring in Fialta”: “Personally, I never could understand the good of thinking up books, of penning things that had not really happened in some way or other . . . were I a writer, I should allow only my heart to have imagination, and for the rest to rely upon memory, that long-drawn sunset shadow of one’s personal truth.”
Nabokov himself never openly admitted to such an attitude himself. But the clues are all there in his work. Particularly so in Lolita, with its careful attention to popular culture, the habits of preadolescent girls, and the banalities of then-modern American life. Searching out these signs of real-life happenings was no easy task. I found myself probing absence as much as presence, relying on inference and informed speculation as much as fact.
Some cases drop all the direct evidence into your lap. Some cases are more circumstantial. The case for what Vladimir Nabokov knew of Sally Horner and when he knew it falls squarely into the latter category. Investigating it, and how he incorporated Sally’s story into Lolita, led me to uncover deeper ties between reality and fiction, and to the thematic compulsion Nabokov spent more than two decades exploring, in fits and starts, before finding full fruition in Lolita.
Lolita’s narrative, it turns out, depended more on a real-life crime than Nabokov would ever admit.
OVER THE FOUR OR SO YEARS I spent working on this book project, I spoke with a great many people about Lolita. For some it was their favorite novel, or one of their favorites. Others had never read the book but ventured an opinion nonetheless. Some loathed it, or the idea of it. No one was neutral. Considering the subject matter, this was not a surprise. Not a single person, when I quoted the passage about Sally Horner, remembered it.
I can’t say Nabokov designed the book to hide Sally from the reader. Given that the story moves so quickly, perhaps an homage to the highways Humbert and Dolores traverse over many thousands of miles in their cross-country odyssey, it’s easy to miss a lot as you go. But I would argue that even casual readers of Lolita, who number in the tens of millions, plus the many more millions with some awareness of the novel, the two film versions, or its place in the culture these past six decades, should pay attention to the story of Sally Horner because it is the story of so many girls and women, not just in America, but everywhere. So many of these stories seem like everyday injustices—young women denied opportunity to advance, tethered to marriage and motherhood. Others are more horrific, girls and women abused, brutalized, kidnapped, or worse.
Yet Sally Horner’s plight is also uniquely American, unfolding in the shadows of the Second World War, after victory had created a solid, prosperous middle class that could not compensate for terrible future decline. Her abduction is woven into the fabric of her hometown of Camden, New Jersey, which at the time believed itself to be at the apex of the American Dream. Wandering its streets today, as I did on several occasions, was a stark reminder of how Camden has changed for the worse. Sally should have been able to travel America of her own volition, a culmination of the Dream. Instead she was taken against her will, and the road trip became a nightmare. Sally’s life ended too soon. But her story helped inspire a novel people are still discussing and debating more than sixty years after its initial publication. Vladimir Nabokov, through his use of language and formal invention, gave fictional authority to a pedophile and charmed and revolted millions of readers in the process. By exploring the life of Sally Horner, I reveal the truth behind the curtain of fiction. What Humbert Humbert did to Dolores Haze is, in fact, what Frank La Salle did to Sally Horner in 1948.
With this book, Sally Horner takes precedence. Like the butterflies that Vladimir Nabokov so loved, she emerges from the cage of both fiction and fact, ready to fly free.
Winner of the 2019 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Nonfiction Crime Book
Shortlisted for the 2019 Vine Awards for for Canadian Jewish Literature in Non-Fiction
Nominated for the 2019 Anthony Award for Best Critical Non-Fiction
Winner of the 2019 Macavity Award for Best Non-Fiction
“A masterful work of non-fiction that challenges our understanding of authority, memory, and public narrative. . . . [S]hows us just how easy it is for a story like Sally Horner’s to be swept up and overtaken by a narrative on someone else’s terms.” —Ottawa Life Magazine
“A combination of true-crime narrative and literary exegesis. . . . Weinman builds a solid case.” —Quill & Quire
“Rather than exploit the sordid details of the crime, Weinman uses them to fuel a sophisticated re-evaluation of Nabokov’s controversial classic. . . . The Real Lolita deepens and challenges our reading of Nabokov’s classic novel.” —Literary Review of Canada
“The achievement of [Weinman's] impressive literary sleuthing is to bring to life a girl whose story had been lost.” —The New York Times
“[S]uperb. . . . Though Nabokov himself always denied that his great novel had roots in the foul rag-and-bone shop of true crime, Weinman assembles evidence to the contrary. She convincingly demonstrates how Nabokov strip-mined Sally Horner’s story to produce the bones of Lolita. . . . Weinman has evocatively reconstructed Sally’s nightmare.” —NPR
“A tantalizing, entertaining true-life detective and literary story whose roots were hidden deep in a novel that has perplexed and challenged readers for decades.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Works brilliantly as both detective narrative and cultural history. . . . [Weinman] gives us brilliant insight into a tragic story, but also a nuanced, empathetic look at the young girl at its center.” —NYLON
“Captivating, heart-rending . . . offers both nuanced and compassionate true-crime reportage and revelatory cultural and literary history. It will, quite simply, change the way you think about Lolita and ‘Lolitas’ forever.” —Megan Abbott, Edgar Award-winning author of You Will Know Me and other crime novels
“Compassionate and necessary, Sarah Weinman’s The Real Lolita is more than a true-crime achievement. It’s a literary rescue mission, bringing to life the tragic real-life case that forms the dark heart of Nabokov’s classic. You’ll never read Lolita the same way again.” —Robert Kolker, author of the upcoming Hidden Valley Road
“The Real Lolita is a tour de force of literary detective work. Not only does it shed new light on the terrifying true saga that influenced Nabokov’s masterpiece, it restores the forgotten victim to our consciousness.” —David Grann, bestselling author of Killers of the Flower Moon and The Lost City of Z
“The Real Lolita is the corrective we never knew we needed, a lively, engrossing work of scholarship that does not diminish Nabokov, but gently insists that we not indulge his trickster ways. Sally Horner matters and, thanks to Sarah Weinman, she and Dolores Haze will be forever linked. Groundbreaking work, a new genre unto itself.” —Laura Lippman, New York Times bestselling author of Sunburn