Books

The Tragic Real-Life Events That Inspired Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita

News clippings of the account were even found in Nabokov’s journal.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was a short story-turned-novel, which was published for the first time in 1955. The controversial book has been deemed a classic until today, despite many other tomes that have been published since then. Bookworm or not, everyone is probably a little familiar with the plot: Humbert Humbert, the book’s protagonist, develops an obsession for coquettish 12-year-old Dolores Haze, fondly nicknamed “Lo” (whom he privately nicknamed “Lolita”). She was the reason he had accepted her romantically frustrated single mother’s invitation for him to lodge at their home. Humbert eventually becomes her stepfather. After a series of flirtatious interactions, they got involved in a sexual relationship, and things get more complicated from there. 

Despite the book’s acclaimed reputation, it is little known that it was actually inspired by a real and tragic account that had happened before the book was published. In 1948, a young American girl named Sally Horner was manipulated by a man named Frank La Salle. He held her captive for two years before she was rescued. Here, her untold story: 

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Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

A dime-store notebook theft started it all.

According to Medium, Sally visited a Woolworth’s store in Camden, New Jersey, where she was told to steal a five-cent notebook to be accepted in her school’s popular crowd. Afraid and inexperienced, she got caught and fell into the wrong hands. Frank La Salle posed as an FBI agent and told her he would report her to the authorities if she wouldn’t obey him. He let her go, and she was relieved; however, the next day, La Salle had gotten hold of the 11-year-old girl again after school.

The manipulation ensued yet again, and he explained that if she didn’t come with him, she would be sent to reform school. Frightened by that thought, Horner agreed to accompany La Salle, and she told her mother she would be away on a beach trip with schoolmates. La Salle even called Horner’s mother, Ella, and said he was “a schoolmate’s father” with “plenty of room” in their beachside apartment. Once it was settled, they ventured off to Atlantic City.

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Her struggling family; his troubling past. 

Sally Horner’s family was hardpressed at that time. Her older sister was pregnant, while their mother worked as a seamstress. Their father had committed suicide when Horner was only six years old.

Frank La Salle, at that time, was 50 years old and he worked as a mechanic. He had been convicted of rape, “arrested for bigamy, and enticing minors.” He was imprisoned for statutory rape among other crimes he had committed. Before his encounter with Horner, he had been married to a young woman named Dorothy Dare, but little did she know that he was more than twice her age. She was 17 years old. He was arrested but was eventually released after he had produced a fake marriage certificate.

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The photo found in the abandoned Atlantic City home
Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

Baltimore
Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

A frantic mother’s search efforts began when it was too late. Horner and La Salle had already hit the road.

In Atlantic City, the pair started presenting themselves as father and daughter. They stayed in a boardinghouse not far from the beach for six weeks. During that period Horner had been corresponding with her mother by writing letters; however, come July, Horner suddenly informed her mother she did “not want to write anymore.” The two then fled to Baltimore. Perhaps on mother’s instinct, a worried Ella called the police.

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Eventually, the police paid a visit to the return address found on the letters, but the two were nowhere to be found. What remained were many of their belongings, including a chilling photo of Horner that the mother had never seen before: A smiling Horner on a seesaw in a frilly dress, socks, and patent leather shoes. Unbeknownst to Horner’s family and the police, the two were already settled in a three-story brick house. According to The New York Post, La Salle got a job and enrolled Horner (under the name Madeleine LaPlante) in a Catholic grammar school.

While that was happening, the photo of Horner circulated around Camden, and La Salle was indicted, in absentia, for kidnapping. The prison term was 30 to 35 years. The news most likely reached the ears of La Salle, who immediately decided that they relocate once again. They moved to Dallas under the names “Planette” (La Salle) and “Florence” (Horner). She was enrolled in another Catholic school.

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Frank La Salle was locked up in Trenton State Prison where he remained until his death in 1966. He was 70 years old. 
Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

A neighbor intercepted and came to Horner’s rescue.

Despite the family image they had been projecting quite cunningly, their strange behavior did not escape the vigilant mind of their neighbor, Ruth Janisch, who was living with her family. She and her family sooner relocated to San Jose, California, where she wrote to La Salle about the job opportunities there. Horner and La Salle followed and moved to the same trailer park.

Janisch was still concerned and wanted to know the truth. One day, when La Salle left for work, she took the opportunity to invite Horner to her trailer. Finally, Horner opened up and shared her abduction story, leaving out the sexual abuse. She called her sister, “I’m with a lady friend in California. Send the FBI after me, please!” Things moved swiftly, and before La Salle got home, the authorities had already placed Horner under the custody of a children’s shelter while other officers waited for him to return. Upon his arrival, he surrendered to them without as much as a blink.

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The aftermath

When mother and daughter finally reunited, it had been two years since that fateful day at the dime-store. The investigations began, and 13-year-old Horner was initially hesitant about revealing their intimate relations but eventually bared it all. Meanwhile, La Salle was stuck to the father-daughter lie, even during the hearings. Medium notes that she was forced to make a statement: “My real daddy died when I was six and I remember what he looks like. I never saw this man before that day at the dime store.” On April 3, 1950, in New Jersey, Frank La Salle pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 to 35 years imprisonment.

Although justice had been served, the traumatic experience naturally continued to affect Sally Horner. This was a time when mental health and psychiatrical assistance were uncommon, and so she battled the aftermath alone. Schoolmates were not pleasant to her, and even the newspapers had blamed her for her misfortunes. Sarah Weinman, the author of The Real Lolita, elaborates on the victim-blaming on Hazlitt: “The papers often described Sally as “plump” or “husky,” despite 110 pounds on a five-foot frame being nowhere close to fat...Not only did the press repeatedly publish her name, a practice now frowned upon, but they wrote that Sally had been “sexually interfered with” at La Salle’s hands, and printed when and where she had sex with him.”

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Vladimir Nabokov, author of 'Lolita'
Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

The strange parallels between the incident and Nabokov’s story-in-the-making

“Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank La Salle, a 50-year-old mechanic, had done to 11-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?” Humbert says in the book.

As if that explicit reference weren’t enough, numerous sources prove that Nabokov had been following Horner’s story. Prior to her account though, he already had a novel titled The Kingdom by The Sea, the predecessor of what we now know as Lolita. The project turned out to be a frustrating one, for he had been working on it for over a decade. But he pressed on and continued to jot down notes on index cards. His wife, Vera, would type the content into the book’s manuscript to save his work before he would burn the notes.

The plot, therefore, practically coincided with Horner’s story. In 1952, years after news of her abduction had dimmed, the 15-year-old girl met a young man named Ed Baker who became smitten with her. She accepted his invitation to drive her in his car, which tragically led to the accident that caused her death.

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Apparently, the renewed coverage of Sally Horner’s story incited Nabokov to continue his work. He finally completed the work, now titled Lolita, in 1953.

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