The ‘Lolita’ Story Nabokov Kept Hidden
Sarah Weinman probably reads more than you do.
According to tallies she has shared on Twitter (where she has more than 400,000 followers), she read 462 books in 2008, 400 books in 2010, 340 books in 2011 and 380 books in 2013. She started reading at two and a half years of age, she explained in a 2009 interview with The Los Angeles Times, but she didn’t fully appreciate her knack for speed-reading until around age 9, when she “burned through eight ‘Sweet Valley High’ books in one evening,” she said. These days, she reads about a book a day. “I read in bed, I read while I walk, I read on the subway,” she told the Forward recently. “I read on planes [and] trains.”
But Weinman isn’t known simply for her remarkable reading stats. She’s known for the focus of what she reads the most — crime stories of all kinds, from mystery novels, to thrillers, to true crime books and magazine stories — and for her analysis of these texts. In the past decade and a half, Weinman has established herself as one of the country’s leading curators, critics and producers of crime stories. She has written about crime, or crime stories, for BuzzFeed, The New Republic, The New York Times, Slate, The Nation, and the New York Post, among other publications. She has edited an anthology of crime stories for Penguin (the 2013 work “Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories From the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense”) and a boxed set for the Library of America (in 2015, “Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s”). In 2015 she launched a newsletter offering interviews with authors as well as book recommendations. It’s called, simply, “The Crime Lady.” It’s likely she’ll reach an even bigger audience with her new book, “The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World.”
The book is a provocative, deeply researched tale of a girl named Sally Horner who was kidnapped near her home in Camden, New Jersey, in 1948 at the age of 11 and sexually abused for years before authorities caught up with her tormentor, Frank La Salle, in a trailer park across the country in San Jose, California. But it’s more than just a true crime tale; it’s also a work of literary sleuthing in which Weinman goes beyond the work of previous scholars and journalists to present a convincing case that Horner’s story provided crucial “scaffolding” for Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, “Lolita, which she calls “one of the most important works of literature in the 20th century.”
“‘Lolita’’s narrative, it turns out,” she writes at one point, “depended more on a real-life crime than Nabokov would ever admit.”
Weinman grew up in a Modern Orthodox household in Ottawa, Ontario, the daughter of two employees of Canada’s federal government. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in biology from McGill University, in Montreal, she moved to New York City in 2001 to pursue a master’s in forensic science at Manhattan’s John Jay College. But before long, she realized that she wasn’t cut out for lab work. Forensic science is about the careful execution of repetitive scientific tasks and interpreting data, she explained to the Forward, whereas she found herself more interested in reading about cases, and pondering larger questions like, “Why do people behave the way they do?” “Why do people kill?” and “How do people become victims?”
For years up to that point, crime stories had already been an obsession for Weinman. She had spent time discussing crime in early-Internet chat forums and attending various crime-related conventions. In graduate school she worked one day a week at Greenwich Village’s famed bookstore, Partners & Crime. Then, in 2003, during her final year of grad school, she started a blog called “Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind,” which focused mostly on crime fiction. Before long, crime-publishing insiders, including authors and booksellers, began treating the blog and its comment section like a “kind of virtual water cooler,” she says. By February 2004 she was assigned a book review by The Washington Post. By year’s end, she had a crime fiction column in The Baltimore Sun.
In the 15 years or so since, she has produced an extraordinary body of work. She has written for BuzzFeed about one of the country’s first modern mass shootings, when a man opened fire on a crowd at an outdoor concert in 1903, in Winfield, Kansas, killing nine people for no apparent reason. She has profiled a convicted-murder-turned-published-crime-novelist for The New York Times Magazine. She has written for The New Republic about O.J. Simpson, Arthur Conan Doyle and about Norman Mailer’s friendship with a convicted murderer. She also penned piece for the magazine, titled “The Case of the Disappearing Black Detective Novel.”
This past February she interviewed David Mamet for New York magazine about his new crime novel, “Chicago,” set in the 1920s. (Mamet: “As my rabbi says, all knowledge is culturally based. You see what the culture is committed to or has trained you to see.”)
Speaking to Weinman, you get a sense of just how much insight crime stories can offer about society. Crimes teach us about the criminal justice system and its flaws, she says. They teach us about history. They tell us how people behave in both mundane and extreme situations. “Much as we want to believe in serial killers being mythic and Hannibal Lecter-like, the vast majority are kind of boring and banal,” she said. “And that to me is more interesting than creating some larger-than-life character, because that feels more human.”
Weinman says that, in some ways, the current true crime boom is reminiscent of the surge in noir films and books after World War II, when there were strong currents of anxiety burbling beneath the surface of American life. True crime, for all its horror, can be a way for people to deal with their worst fears. Women, who have long made up a majority of true crime viewers and readers, feel this even more acutely, she says, because they’re so well acquainted with fear. “You just… never know. Is some guy going to leap out and kill you? Is your loved one going to kill you?” she said. If you’re in this state of anxiety, where it’s so bad that you don’t even notice it anymore, crime stories can provide catharsis.
But doesn’t consuming these stories of violence and death every day take its toll?
Quite the opposite, Weinman says. Many of the people who read crime stories are also the happiest people she knows. “I think just by staring at the abyss so long that it strips a lot of the bullshit away,” she said. “I don’t get as caught up with things that I don’t necessarily need to.”
“English, Nabokov said many times, was the first language he remembered learning, and the lure of America had sustained him as he fled the Russian Revolution for Germany, and then from the Nazis to Paris — a necessary step when married to a woman who was proud and unafraid to be Jewish.”
So reads an excerpt from Chapter 3 of “The Real Lolita” in which Weinman mentions Vera Nabokov, who plays a critical role in the book. Vera occasionally takes the steering wheel during the Nabokovs’ car trips crisscrossing the United States; these trips offered key research (and butterfly-hunting) opportunities for the novelist. She sometimes lectures for her husband during his literature classes at Cornell. At one point, late in the book, Weinman reprints a letter from 1963 in which Vera, speaking on behalf of her husband, forcefully pushes back against a reporter inquiring about connections between the Horner case and “Lolita.” Of this incident, Weinman writes that the letter reveals Vera as a “consummate brand manager for Vladimir” who played many roles: “defender of her husband, curator of a singular line of vision about Nabokov’s work that put his creative genius above everything else, and master obfuscator when presented with anything that dented the Nabokov myth.”
The book presents two interwoven stories. On one level, it is the tale of an 11-year-old girl named Sally Horner who was abducted by a man named Frank La Salle who falsely claimed to be an FBI agent. La Salle sexually abused her over a two-year period as they shuttled from New Jersey to Maryland to Texas to California. Weinman depicts the “cruel parody of a father-daughter relationship” between La Salle and Sally, along with the eight-state police investigation that ended, eventually, with La Salle’s arrest and conviction. In a devastating turn of events, Sally’s post-rescue return to relative normalcy lasted just two years: She died in a car accident on a New Jersey highway in August 1952. “Sally Horner did not have the chance to tell her story to the world,” Weinman writes.
The other layer of “The Real Lolita” is the story of the towering professor and novelist Nabokov, whose pre-“ ‘Lolita’ work,” as Weinman points out, had a recurring theme of prepubescent girls. “The Real Lolita” shows Nabokov as he takes notes on index cards during road trips, tries to destroy the manuscript at least twice, and eventually watches his creation hit the literary world with what Weinman calls “hurricane-level” force. Though Nabokov strenuously denied any connection between his novel and real events, Weinman builds a powerful case suggesting otherwise. At one point, she writes, “What Humbert Humbert did to Dolores Haze is, in fact, what Frank La Salle did to Sally Horner in 1948.”
But time and again, the book returns its focus to Sally. The main aim of the book, Weinman says, is to introduce Sally to the public consciousness and give her a place alongside the girl in Nabokov’s novel. At one point Weinman describes the girl as “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.’” Of Sally’s connection to the book, she writes, “[O]nce seen, it is impossible to unsee.”
So, are there any Jewish crime stories in Weinman’s future?
“I’d like to [write about] some great Jewish unsolved murder, but I haven’t figured out which one that will be,” she said during a recent chat at a coffee shop near her Brooklyn home. For now, though, she’s spending time introducing us to the real girl behind one of American fiction’s most recognizable characters. “Both Sally Horner and Nabokov’s fictional creation Dolores Haze were brunette daughters of widowed mothers, fated to be captives of much older predators for nearly two years,” Weinman writes.
“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,” she adds elsewhere. “The appreciation of art can make a sucker out of those who forget the darkness of real life.”
Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island.