What Inspired ‘Lolita’?

True Crime

Uncovering the mysteries of Lolita.


Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” This disturbing sentence from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is often misremembered as the novel’s opening line. The 1955 book in fact begins with a mock foreword, written by one John Ray Jr., PhD, of the fictional Widworth, Massachusetts. Ray has ostensibly been commissioned by the lawyer of the now deceased Humbert Humbert, the pedophile narrator of Nabokov’s tale, to edit his client’s manuscript. Ray assures us that “save for the correction of obvious solecisms and a careful suppression of a few tenacious details,” the manuscript is “preserved intact,” before going on to deride those “old fashioned readers” who try to deduce from such a narrative the “‘real’ people beyond the ‘true’ story.”

A creation of Nabokov, Ray unsurprisingly follows his maker’s dictum that words like “reality” should come in quotation marks. For Nabokov, what was real and true was always up for debate—a matter of subjectivity as well as objectivity. He saw in the natural world as much deception as in the pages of a novel. “Reality,” he insisted in a 1962 interview with the BBC, “is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable.”

That is why the very title of Sarah Weinman’s new book, The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World, should alert readers that her project is a defiant one. There are none of the quotation marks around “real” that Nabokov or his creation, John Ray Jr., PhD, would have insisted on. In this literary work of true-crime reporting, Weinman is less interested in abiding by Nabokov’s rule book than in challenging what she sees as the ethical limits of his aestheticism.

Weinman argues that Nabokov downplayed the extent to which Sally Horner’s case inspired his novel, a move she says was meant to preserve the “carefully constructed myth of Nabokov, the sui genesis artist.” In telling Horner’s story, Weinman hopes to right a narrative wrong, reining in the excesses of fiction writers like Nabokov and returning Horner to her rightful place at the center of his famous novel. It is an admirable, if at times unsuccessful, mission. While Weinman’s refusal to read Lolita on Nabokov’s terms is refreshing, her book can also feel hostile to the very nature of literary fiction—which is always attempting to draw both from the world and beyond it—and uninterested in the political capacities of stories that aren’t true.

Weinman knows crime. She runs a popular newsletter called Crime Lady and writes a regular column for the website CrimeReads. (Articles have explored the mysterious drowning death of spy novelist Holly Roth and Nabokov’s obsession—though he denied it—with true-crime stories.) Weinman traces her fascination with the darkest corners of the human psyche back to, of all places, a childhood interest in baseball. When she was 8, she was reading a book on the subject and suddenly found herself more curious about how some of the players in the book had been murdered. “I wanted to understand why extreme things happen,” she said.

In recent years, Weinman has devoted much of her energy and expertise to shining a light on the overlooked female writers of crime fiction. In 2015, she edited a collection for the Library of America. Two years before that, she edited a short-story collection called Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, which looked at noir tales of idyllic marriages and perfect families gone bad, a genre known as domestic suspense.

This constellation of crime and feminism is a central theme in The Real Lolita. The book’s main target is what Weinman describes as the erasure at the center of the text. She contends that Nabokov used but then hid in plain sight the story of Horner, who was 11 years old when she was kidnapped and raped in the summer of 1948 by a car mechanic named Frank La Salle. Much like Humbert Humbert, La Salle posed as his victim’s father and evaded capture by repeatedly crossing state lines.

Nabokov has Humbert refer to the case in passing: “Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?” But this is the only mention of Horner’s ordeal in the novel, and Weinman asserts that its parenthetical nature masks the extent to which Nabokov relied on news about the case when writing the novel. Such an elision, she insists, should raise serious ethical questions about literature and its responsibility to the real-life people who inspire particular works of fiction. Not mincing words, she describes Nabokov’s creative process as an act of narrative violence, in which he transformed the traumas of Horner’s life into mere “grist for his own literary mill” and “strip-mined” her story “to produce the bones of Lolita.”

Weinman crafts The Real Lolita like a detective story, tracking down clues that indicate when Nabokov discovered the Horner case, how much he knew about it, and “his efforts to disguise that knowledge.” Whether you find these parts of The Real Lolita convincing or not, the remainder of the book, which focuses on Horner, is compelling and forcefully narrated. Deeply researched and rich in detail, these sections provide a vivid glimpse into the way that crimes against women were reported on and investigated in postwar America. However, when Weinman shifts her attention to Nabokov, The Real Lolita wades into murkier waters, finding true crime in what arguably should be creative license.

In the spring of 1948, Sally Horner walked into a Woolworth’s department store in Camden, New Jersey, and was slipping a shoplifted notebook into her bag when someone grabbed her arm. The person was Frank La Salle, a 50-something drifter who had just gotten out of jail for the statutory rape of five girls. He told her he was an FBI agent, and Horner, just a child, believed him.

La Salle let Horner go, and for some months her life went on as before. But La Salle, still posing as law enforcement, tracked her down. Horner was terrified that her mother, a single working woman, would find out about the shoplifting incident and agreed to go with him to Atlantic City under the ruse of vacationing with a friend. It was here that Horner’s 21-month nightmare began.

Beyond these broad strokes—a pedophile abducting a young girl and transporting her across state lines while posing as her father—the alleged similarities between Lolita and the Horner case are largely unconvincing, if for no other reason than a few newspaper clippings that Nabokov may have read cannot produce the level of detail, characterization, subplots, and other basic elements that make up a compelling novel. And as Weinman herself notes, Nabokov drew on numerous other cases to create the crime at the heart of his novel.

In fact, the criminal mind of Humbert Humbert and the building blocks of Lolita had been forming in Nabokov’s mind for some time; as Weinman acknowledges, the novel’s themes appear across his earlier works going back nearly 20 years. The Enchanter, which was written before the Horner kidnapping, also concerned an older man obsessed with a 12-year-old girl. And many of Lolita’s plot points—for example, Humbert marrying Lolita’s widowed mother to get closer to the child—can also be found in The Gift (1938), in which one of the characters has an idea for a book: “An old dog—but still in his prime, fiery, thirsting for happiness—gets to know a widow, and she has a daughter, still quite a little girl.”

But for Weinman, Nabokov’s brief reference to Horner doesn’t acknowledge the way that her case was, as she puts it, “seeded” into the narrative of the novel. One of La Salle’s aliases, Fogg, is the name of a character in Nabokov’s screenplay for the film adaptation of Lolita, she notes, and she also points to the similarities in the names Camden and Ramsdale (the fictional New England town where Humbert first meets Lolita) and Linden and Lawn (the streets on which Horner and Lolita grew up)—though I’m not sure if, in either of these cases, there is much of a similarity.

One wonders why Weinman decided to frame the writing of Lolita and the issue of literary inspiration as a true-crime story at all. By making Nabokov the suspect under investigation, Weinman enacts a hostility toward what many would consider a standard feature of literary fiction: drawing inspiration, however loosely or tightly, from life. In one chapter, she finds a note in Nabokov’s papers that contains details of Horner’s kidnapping and La Salle’s arrest and describes it as if it were a smoking gun. “Here, in this notecard, is proof that Nabokov knew of the Sally Horner case,” Weinman writes. Yes, it is, but much more so is the direct mention of Horner and La Salle in the text of the novel. When it comes to these chapters on the writing of Lolita, one finds it hard not to feel that Weinman has perhaps overindulged the true-crime framework and found a transgression where most readers would not.

Weinman’s book grew out of an article she wrote for the Canadian magazine Hazlitt. In a strange turn of events, that piece, like those newspaper clippings about the Horner case, also sparked a novel, T. Greenwood’s Rust and Stardust (a reference to a line from Lolita), a fictionalized retelling of Horner’s life and abduction. One of Nabokov’s favorite themes was the double, so this concurrence—and the fact Weinman reviewed the novel for Vanity Fair—seems fitting.

For Weinman, Greenwood’s book provokes a set of questions similar to those raised by Lolita. What responsibility, she asks in her review, do artists have to the real people whose pain they fictionalize? What are the ethics of fiction when it comes to drawing from true-life stories of trauma and loss? Curiously, Weinman’s answer here is very different from the one found in her book. “When a novel is based on an actual crime, it should do much more than loosely fictionalize it. The novel must stand alone as a work of art that justifies using the story for its own purposes,” she concludes. I think it’s safe to say this is precisely the standard that Nabokov meets in Lolita. The book does stand on its own—and has for decades.

But if we accept Weinman’s thesis that fiction still needs to justify itself, then I would argue that Lolita—in demonstrating the way an elegantly crafted narrative can mask atrocity—does exactly that. Nabokov’s lifelong fascination with obfuscation, artifice, unreliable narrators, and, yes, denials of influence has been characterized (often derogatorily) as art for art’s sake, a kind of detached, apolitical aestheticism. Yet what lesson could be more politically urgent than understanding the potency of untruths and subverted realities? For this reason, I have always read Lolita—especially Humbert’s stylized narration—as a peek into the inner workings of self-delusion, which, regardless of Nabokov’s intent, is a useful lens through which to understand the darkest corners of the human mind.

There have been a few attempts to find the definitive source material for Lolita, including earlier efforts to trace the connections between Horner and the novel. One such attempt that Weinman profiles in her book is a 1963 article titled “Lolita Has a Secret—Shhh!” by the freelance journalist Peter Welding, which appeared in a men’s magazine called Nugget. When a reporter for the New York Post read it, he sent a letter to Nabokov asking for a response. The reporter got one, but from Véra Nabokov, the author’s wife. “At the time he was writing LOLITA,” she wrote, “he studied a considerable number of case histories (‘real’ stories) many of which have more affinities with the LOLITA plot than the one mentioned by Mr. Welding.”

Indeed, by means of the novel, Vladimir Nabokov was able to do what fiction lets a writer do: fold countless stories into a single narrative. Lolita tells stories about America and sex beyond the confines of a single case. Through them, we are shown a canvas of depravity and the kind of culture that allows it. Sally Horner’s story, told in such rich, researched detail by Weinman, no doubt brings us closer to a reckoning with that culture. But so too does Lolita.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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