“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, author of Killers of the Flower Moon
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is one of the most beloved and notorious novels of all time. And yet, very few of its readers know that the subject of the novel was inspired by a real-life case: the 1948 abduction of eleven-year-old 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, public records, and interviews with remaining relatives, Sarah Weinman uncovers 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.
Sally Horner’s story 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.
Journalist and editor Weinman (Women Crime Writers) combines literary theory and true crime in this speculative account of the 1948 kidnapping of Sally Horner, an 11-year-old New Jersey girl who Weinman posits was the real-life inspiration for Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel. Sally Horner, like Nabokov's Dolores Haze, was abducted and taken across state lines by a pedophile who passed himself off as her father in public and abused her in private. Weinman chronicles the details of what is known about Sally's life during the nearly two years she spent captive with her abductor, Frank La Salle, before recounting her harrowing rescue and La Salle's trial and conviction for kidnapping. Alongside Sally's narrative, Weinman looks at Nabokov's process writing Lolita, which he agonized over for years and twice nearly destroyed. The book includes a few odd digressions and a fair amount of conjecture ("Perhaps Sally wondered why they were going so far out of their way.... Maybe she asked why they had to leave Atlantic City so quickly. Most likely, she kept any complaints or questions to herself"). More poignantly, Weinman argues that Nabokov and his wife, V ra who served as her husband's spokesperson and flatly denied the use of Sally's story as inspiration for his novel allowed Sally to be eclipsed by her fictional counterpart: Sally's life had been "strip-mined to produce the bones of Lolita." Drawing from interviews with relatives of those involved, Nabokov's personal documents, and court reporting from La Salle's trial, Weinman tells Sally's tragic story as it has never been told before, with sensitivity and depth.