Poor Little Butterfly: Art, Crime, and the Real Lolita

By Paula Uruburu

“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” Humbert Humbert, Lolita

It is at least a decade since I assigned Nabokov’s shocking and provocative novel Lolita -- the          last time was for an undergraduate course called Crime and Punishment in Fiction and Film. Going over the syllabus on the first day of class, I asked if anyone had ever read Lolita or if they knew what the title meant. Several students confidently offered variations of the same answer:   “It means a hot sexy girl who tries to kill her boyfriend’s wife.”

What? Wait. Oh. Okay.

In hindsight I might have anticipated such a response, since my university is located in the heart of Nassau County on Long Island, NY where in 1992 the sordid ‘Lethal Lolita” case soaked the headlines in salacious ink for months and months.

Thanks to non-stop media coverage at the time and a catchy alliterative approach to the seemingly bizarre but ultimately banal events surrounding the now infamous Buttafuoco case, this was what my students had stored in their memory banks.
But I was still surprised by the way fact and fiction once again blithely altered recent history as it entered into the collective consciousness and am reminded of that line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” 

I mention this by way of considering another real crime case, one which is by turns banal and shocking but far more tragic in the end -- and it happens to be the subject of The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman.        

In her 2018 book, Weinman, an editor and true crime writer, seeks to illuminate, contextualize, and deconstruct the story of the girl she sees as the real Lolita – not some murderous hyper-sexualized nymphet but an impressionable 11-year-old schoolgirl. Weinman does this by crossing the narrative streams of true crime with speculation as to whether the girl of the title was the source of Nabokov’s fictional creation. And therein lies the rub, of sorts.

As for the actual crime, the facts are indisputable.

Occurring amid the immediate afterglow of post-war America, the events that ultimately unfolded in the case are both chilling and infuriating in what is described as a less cynical 

(and apparently) less vigilant age regarding children and misplaced trust in authority figures -- even if the presence of evil is timeless.

Sally Horner was a fifth-grade honor student in New Jersey and something of a precursor to contemporary latch-key kids. One fateful day Sally stole a 5-cent notebook from a local five and dime on a dare by some girls in her class.  As she was leaving the store, a silver-haired man in a slouchy fedora grabbed her arm, told her he was an FBI agent and threatened her with reform school. In the first strange twist of this tale, he let her go. But months later, in June 1948, the man, whose alias at the time was Frank La Salle, reappeared. He intercepted Sally on her walk home from school and convinced her that the government insisted she go with him to Atlantic City. He instructed the girl to tell her mother that he was the father of two school friends who had invited her on a family vacation. Remarkably, Sally’s mother Ella Horner gave her consent with no further inquiry into this man and his circumstances. The next time Sally saw her family was nearly two years later, in March 1950, shortly before her 13th birthday.

Moving back and forth between the circumstances of the girl’s abduction, subsequent sexual ordeal and eventual rescue, and her account of Nabokov's process in writing Lolita, Weinman makes a good case that the two tales are inextricably bound. But not, I think, in the way she intended.

Yes, as Weinman indicates in a number of places, “the single-minded Nabokovian belief that art supersedes influence, and so influence must be brushed off” seems evident. And yes, Nabokov, a Russian emigré and amateur lepidopterist, happiest when engaged in pursuit of rare butterflies and the perfect sentence, tells the story of a pedophile preoccupied with prepubescent girls who pursues and eventually kidnaps his favorite “nymphet” from under her clueless mother’s nose. He even goes so far as to have his narrator ask himself in one stark sentence in the book -- “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 an investigation into his earlier work reveals Nabokov’s long preoccupation with this subject matter, including The Gift, Laughter in the Dark, and several early poems dating back to the late 20’s. There is also the timeline -- Nabokov had begun working on the novel several years before anyone ever heard of Sally Horner -- and he finished Lolita in 1953, three years after Sally's rescue. 

Then there is also the fact that Nabokov always denied that Sally Horner’s story influenced his novel, which he insisted was all his -- and all artfully arranged artifice. Indeed, as a tour de force of literary inventiveness, a dark allusive and linguistically remarkable satire (written in Nabokov’s fourth language behind Russian, German and French), Lolita’s fictional world exists in an imaginative realm that bears little resemblance to the prosaic setting of Camden, NJ and its environs where Sally lived. Nor could the novel’s narrator Humbert Humbert, an overly-educated aesthete ex-patriate college professor, stand in more stark contrast than to Sally Horner’s kidnapper/molester, a serial rapist and part time car mechanic who preyed on young girls, adopting new identities, aliases and residences with the practiced habit of such offenders. 

But the most intriguing aspect of Weinman’s book is not really whether Sally Horner is the Ur-Lolita, but whether the questions it raises about art and truth can ever be answered satisfactorily. What is at the heart of fictionalizing history or pure literary inspiration versus writing about something we call true? Where is the line for the true crime writer, who must consider that fact and fiction can both fuse and compete in the arduous process of telling a tale? How (as Weinman contends) does a writer convey, explain and interpret reality when placed in the position of appropriating “a real girl’s plight”?  After all, it was Nabokov who famously said “reality is a word that should always have quotation marks around it.” 

For those familiar with the novel -- spoiler alert -- we are told by Humbert Humbert (who is himself doomed by heart failure at the start of the book) that the young girl whose fate readers follow throughout one of the most infamous road trips in literature, dies at the age of 17 (in childbirth).  In a sad and strange parallel, readers also follow Sally Horner throughout her awful road trip until her rescue, only to be informed that she died two short years later at age 15 in a car accident.

In the end, the only thing we know for sure is this – the tale we are told in Weinman’s book is not about “a sexy girl who tried to kill her boyfriend’s wife.” Nor is it about a fictional girl, dead before her story starts, whose musical name resonates today for all the wrong reasons. But it is about a girl like so many other nameless victims who was all too real. 
Copyright 2019 by Paula Uruburu. All Rights Reserved.

Paula Uruburu is an author and is the a Professor of English and Film Studies at Hofstra University. Dr. Uruburu has acted as a consultant to A&E, PBS, the History Channel, and the Smithsonian Channel.

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