Author Sarah Weinman on Lolita, the heartbreaking case of Sally Horner, and fictionalizing pain
Arts & Culture

Author Sarah Weinman on Lolita, the heartbreaking case of Sally Horner, and fictionalizing pain

Fans of true crime will be fascinated and horrified by The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World. It tells the story of 11-year-old Florence Sally Horner [known as Sally], who was abducted by ex-con Frank La Salle in 1948. He drove around the U.S. with Sally, raping her for nearly two years. In this hybrid book, true crime meets analysis, arguing that Vladimir Nabokov’s famously controversial book was inspired by the Horner case. We talk to author Sarah Weinman, a crime journalist, editor, and fiction writer who was born and raised in Ottawa.

If you had read about Sally outside the context of Lolita, would you have put the two together?
I never knew Sally’s story outside that context. It’s a heartbreaking and compelling story on its own, but knowing her story got succumbed and sacrificed for great art, that’s a much deeper and much more complicated question than a straight true-crime story.

What do you mean by “succumbed and sacrificed for great art”?
In Lolita, there is the line late in the novel when Humbert Humbert [the protagonist] utters, “Had I done to Dolly, what Frank Lasalle [sic], a 50-year-old mechanic, had done to 11-year-old Sally in 1948?” That showed Nabokov knew about Sally’s story and incorporated it in more ways than anyone really reckoned with at the time. When I say succumbed and sacrificed, it’s about asking what responsibility does an artist have to reality, to fictionalizing people’s pain? 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. Emma Cline’s 2016 novel, The Girls, is based on the 1969 Manson murders, but what makes the book sing is its exploration of the insidious nature of patriarchy.

Author Sarah Weinman was born and raised in Ottawa. Photo by Jessica Deeks

You write at one point that Nabokov “strip-mined [Sally’s case] to produce the bones of Lolita.” How extensive was the influence?
Lolita would have existed if Nabokov had not known about Sally and her story. But the way in which Lolita existed would not. By that, I mean we know for sure that he knew about Sally’s death because there’s a notecard in his archives which recopies the piece in the New York Times on August 20 of 1952 about her death. Many of the details in that notecard are directly incorporated into Lolita. La Salle was sentenced to 30 to 35 years, which Humbert eventually will be sentenced to. There are physical similarities between the fictional Dolores and the real-life Sally. Their ages are comparable. Knowing Sally’s story gave him a way forward in terms of the plot — and he worked at a much more feverish rate between August of 1952 and December of 1953, when he finished his first draft.

That doesn’t necessarily mean he used the case as scaffolding or was greatly inspired by it.
It’s art: it’s about architecture and structure. The fact of having a parallel cross-country story helped flesh out the second half of the book. I never want to lose sight that Sally is this key component and that she deserves to be remembered. She deserves to have this place in permanent conversation with Lolita. So ultimately, I’m hoping people recognize that Sally — and anybody, regardless of gender or sex or creed, who has experienced the trauma of abuse — matters and that their stories matter.

I noted some of this circumstantial evidence: the similar hair colour, the towns starting with the letter C and on streets starting with the same letter, phones playing an important role in both. Aside from the note in the library and the reference in Lolita itself
to Sally, what else was there?
It comes down to this: if Nabokov didn’t want me researching Sally’s story, why would he have included it directly in the novel? Yes, it would have been wonderful to find a lot more direct evidence. With reconstruction of any kind, it’s also important to look at what’s missing. The fact was, there was information missing about Sally in his archives. Nabokov and his wife, Vera, destroyed much of the novel’s source material — including letters and notes — due, in part, to obscenity laws at that time. That’s why I think it isn’t there.


The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World


IN READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN, Azar Nafisi makes the excellent point that Dolores Haze is a double victim, because not only her life is taken from her, but also her life story: “The desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man but the consecration of one individual’s life by another.”

Without realizing it, Nafisi has made the exact parallel between Dolores Haze and Sally Horner. For Sally’s life, too, was forever marked by the 21 months she spent as Frank La Salle’s captive, his false daughter, his own realized fantasy. After she was rescued, she attempted to resume the life snatched away from her. And it seemed she did, on the surface.

But how could she, when her story had been front-page news all across the country, and when those in Camden knew exactly what had happened to her and judged her — blamed her — for it? Whether she’d lived two years or many decades, whether she might have had time to move forward, even if she could not move on, Sally Horner was forever marked.

Lolita’s end, dying in childbirth, is a tragedy. But Sally Horner’s demise by car accident is the bigger tragedy, because it was real, and robbed her of the chance to grow up and at least attempt to move forward. In fact, Sally Horner is a triple victim: snatched from her ordinary life by Frank La Salle, only for her life to be cut short by car accident, and then strip-mined to produce the bones of Lolita, the only acknowledgment a parenthetical reference hidden in plain sight, hardly noticed by many millions of readers.

Over the course of researching this book these last few years, I would ask faithful fans of Lolita if they’d caught the parenthetical reference to Sally Horner’s kidnapping. The unanimous answer was “no.” This was no real surprise. If no one caught the reference, how could they be expected to see how much of the novel’s structure rides on what happened to Sally in real life? But once seen, it is impossible to unsee.

There is no simple lock-and-key metaphor to equate the tragic story of Dolores Haze to the tragic story of Sally Horner. Vladimir Nabokov was too shrewd to create a life-meets-art dynamic. But Sally’s story is certainly one of those important keys that, once employed, unlocks a critical inspiration. There is no question Lolita would have existed without Sally Horner because Nabokov spent over twenty years dwelling on the theme, working it out in bits and pieces as he moved around Europe and America. But the narrative was also strengthened and sharpened by the inclusion of her story.

Sally Horner can’t be cast aside so easily. She must be remembered as more than a young girl forever changed by a middle-aged man’s crime of monstrous perversion. A girl who survived adversity, manipulation, and cross-country horror, only to be denied the chance to grow up. A girl immortalized, and forever trapped, in the pages of a classic novel of satire and sadness, like a butterfly with wings damaged before ever having the chance to fly.