A True Story Of Kidnap And Rape In 'The Real Lolita' NPR's Scott Simon speaks with author Sarah Weinman about her new book The Real Lolita. It tells the story of the true events that inspired Vladimir Nabokov's classic novel.
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A True Story Of Kidnap And Rape In 'The Real Lolita'

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A True Story Of Kidnap And Rape In 'The Real Lolita'

A True Story Of Kidnap And Rape In 'The Real Lolita'

A True Story Of Kidnap And Rape In 'The Real Lolita'

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NPR's Scott Simon speaks with author Sarah Weinman about her new book The Real Lolita. It tells the story of the true events that inspired Vladimir Nabokov's classic novel.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" is considered a masterpiece and these days, more than 60 years after it was published in the United States, a masterpiece to make people squirm. It is the narrative of middle-aged man Professor Humbert Humbert who is obsessed with Dolores Haze, a 12-year-old girl called Lolita. And he preys upon her.

Sarah Weinman, the distinguished crime writer, has finally put together the true-life story of the real little girl who was kidnapped and raped - it's important not to resort to euphemisms here - and whose story was demonstrably in Nabokov's imagination when he wrote "Lolita." Her book is "The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping Of Sally Horner And The Novel That Scandalized The World." Sarah Weinman joins us from WHYY in Philadelphia. Thanks so much for being with us.

SARAH WEINMAN: Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: There's no question - is there? - that Nabokov knew about Sally Horner and the case and even had a line in "Lolita" about it.

WEINMAN: That he did. And the line - it's very late in the novel - and the line goes, had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank LaSalle, a 50-year-old mechanic, did to 11-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?

SIMON: Sally Horner was 11 then 12 years old when she was kidnapped by a man who claimed he was an FBI agent who'd let her off from a shoplifting charge. He said his name was Frank La Salle. And it turned out he'd already termed for statutory rape. What did he have in mind? What was his scheme?

WEINMAN: Well, when he chanced upon Sally Horner - and she was at a Woolworths in Camden, N.J., essentially playing out a dare in order to join a girls club at school - he was two months removed from a prison sentence for the statutory rape of five girls between the ages of 12 and 14. So he caught her out. He said that she had to go away with him and tell her mother that he was the father of school friends, and they would go to the Jersey Shore for a week. So her mother Ella did agree. And she saw Sally off on the Camden bus. And Sally and La Salle went to Atlantic City and from there, commenced a 21-month cross-country nightmare that took her from Atlantic City to Baltimore to Dallas and, eventually, to San Jose, where in March, 1950, thanks to the enterprising machinations of a neighbor, she was ultimately rescued.

SIMON: What made you eager to tell Sally Horner's real story alongside Nabokov's creation of "Lolita?"

WEINMAN: I first read "Lolita" when I was 16, which I think is a little bit young. But it was a thrilling and disturbing read because it was the first time I really sensed that you could have an unreliable narrator, that you didn't have to sort of tell the truth in a narrative, that there could be something deeper and richer and more complicated going on. And so "Lolita" really thrilled and disturbed me. And so to understand that there was a real girl who was an inspiration for "Lolita," it made me ask the question, what did we know about Sally Horner? Had anyone reported it out? Were there relatives, family members, other people who might still be alive who knew her? I knew there was so much more that I could discover about the connections between what really happened to Sally Horner and the narrative of "Lolita" and also how Nabokov wrote about it and what he knew and when he knew about Sally Horner.

SIMON: Vera Nabokov always said that she thought it was important for readers to recognize the strength and the decency of young Lolita, Dolores, because she overcame the terrible thing that happened to her. And at the end of the novel, we glimpse her having a normal and loving life.

WEINMAN: Exactly. And just like Sally, Dolores didn't have very long to live, but she did escape both Humbert Humbert's clutches and the clutches of Clare Quilty and attempted to build some kind of, quote, "normal," unquote, life for herself. And that's a real victory. And so in the corresponding reality that Sally had, she did come home. She didn't have terribly long to live, but she tried to make as good a life for herself. And the fact that I could speak with her best friend, Carol Starts, later Carol Taylor, who told me how much of a formative influence Sally had in the mere year that they knew each other.

SIMON: We should note that Sally Horner, just two years after she was freed, died in a traffic accident, didn't she?

WEINMAN: Yes, she did. She was only 15 years old.

SIMON: You're reminded how much we have changed and not changed in some ways when, in the book, you recount what Sally's mother said when the case was getting a lot of publicity around the country but particularly locally. Well, let me get you to recount what her mother said - that she loved her, but...

WEINMAN: Yeah, but she said whatever Sally has done, I can forgive her. And I still remember reading that line for the first time. And every time I read that line, it's like a shiver goes up and down my spine because I can absolutely understand why she would have said that in the context of late 1940s, early 1950s and the fact that people just didn't recognize the effects of that kind of trauma. They didn't necessarily view girls like Sally in that situation as victims. The fact that after Sally came home and reintegrated back into life in Camden and instead of people viewing her with some degree of sympathy, they slut-shamed her. They claim - they said that because she wasn't a virgin anymore that she was essentially worthless, that she had a real hard time making friends. She wanted to have a boyfriend, and that was incredibly difficult. And so hearing from Carol recount this and also sticking up for her friend, it just sort of took my breath away because things have changed, but they haven't changed enough.

SIMON: I find myself closing the book, and while still recognizing "Lolita's" brilliance as a novel, regretting that it took all this long for me to learn about Sally Horner.

WEINMAN: I think that's a worthy regret to have. And if my book can do anything, it's to make Sally Horner's name deeper in culture and for us to remember that she matters. And girls and women just like her, before and after, also matter so much.

SIMON: Sarah Weinman - her book, "The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping Of Sally Horner And The Novel That Scandalized The World" - thanks so much for being with us.

WEINMAN: Thank you so much, Scott.

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