Vladimir Nabokov published his masterpiece “Lolita” in 1955, after many refusals due to the delicate topic he was handling, that is pedophilia. Even though violence to children was way more concealed than nowadays, the author was certainly not talking about a new subject. On the contrary Nabokov, besides drawing inspiration from literature (as he mentioned in an interview “A creative writer must study thoroughly his rivals works, included the Almighty”), he researched on newspapers of the time, specifically on accidents, sexual assaults and homicides, getting to the point of writing down a novel which became a timeless masterpiece despite the taboo topic.
Nabokov was highly inspired by a kidnapping case occurred in 1948, the one of the true Lolita: Florence Sally Horner.
The girl, 11 at the time, allowed her classmate to convince her to steal a notebook (5 cents worth) in a shop of his city, Camden, New York. The chain of events which developed from it is devastating.
A middle-aged man approached Sally who had along with her the stolen notebook; the man posed as a FBI agent and pretended he had caught her red-handed. In reality he was Frank La Salle, serial raper who had been previously condemned for sexual assaults. The man scared the girl by talking of severe laws and possible prison sentences.
La Salle did not take advantage of the girl straight away but he let her go back home. Sally, relieved for the avoided risk did not breathe a word with her widowed mother and older pregnant sister.
The criminal had a plan though: the following day he waited for Sally outside of school and told her she had to follow him to Atlantic City by order of the government. He told her, threatening her with the arrest excuse, to introduce him to her mother as one of her friends’ father who had invited her to go spending a holiday together.
Frank La Salle
Sally’s mother was not aware though that her daughter was going “on holiday at the seaside” with a 50 years old unemployed mechanic, who had left the prison only 6 months prior and condemned for raping and grooming.
This is the inception of the tragic ordeal in any way fictional of Sally Horner, which lasted 21 months. La Salle travelled throughout the US with the girl, registering her to schools of different cities pretending to be her father. Only in San José, California, a neighbour noticed that something was not quite right. On the 22nd of March 1950, while La Salle was out looking for a job, Sally talked to the only person who had noticed the fishiness of the situation, who then contacted her sister asking to send the real FBI over. When the kidnapper came back he found the police with the girl who testified about having being victim of several sexual abuses throughout the months of imprisonment. During the trial, the man kept on making the case that he was Sally’s father, but she demonstrated to remember who her real father was, even though dead for some years. La Salle was sentenced to 30 to 35 years of prison to serve in the Trenton Prison, New Jersey.
Sally Horner after being released
The second part of Nabokov novel was highly affected by the real events of the La Salle – Horner case: the girl held captive for almost 2 years, the long wandering around the US, the many stays in motels, the stop in Beardsley where Lolita went to school, the lie about his fatherhood. Furthermore Lolita managed to run away from her jailer, to fall into the arms of another one, thanks to a mysterious call. In a paragraph, almost as a way to self absolve, Humbert asks himself:
“Have I done to Dolly what Frank La Salle, 50 years old mechanic, had done to the 11 years old Sally Horner in 1948?”
In the sad story of Sally Horner, Nabokov found the psychological key which explained the acceptation of Lolita to turn into the sex slave of the narrator/main character, i.e. the threat of the arrest. Humbert, like La Salle, held the girl with the fear of sending her to a correctional institution, a reform school or a juvenile detention centre in case she had pressed charge against him.
Sally Horner’s life, as well as the one of her fictional alter ego have different endings: whilst Lolita escapes from Humbert, ends up with another pedophile and then gets married with a mechanic, the chubby brunette from Camden had a rather sadder destiny. She died at her 15 years old in a car accident on the 20th of August 1952. Sally’s stolen childhood as well as her premature death contributed to the birth of Nabokov’s Lolita, true heroine of the novel. This way the sad existence of the girl would have been transformed into “something precious and eternal” so that it wouldn’t have been forever buried in the “trash of life”.
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov is available on Amazon.