What Happened to Sally Horner?:
A Real-Life Source of Nabokov's Lolita
by Alexander Dolinin

In his preface to The Annotated Lolita Alfred Appel writes: “Lolita is surely the most allusive and linguistically playful novel in English since Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939)” (xi).1 Ever since Lolita was published fifty years ago, critics have spent much effort trying to explicate hundreds of allusions, identify concealed quotations and parodic echoes, and pinpoint possible sources for Nabokov’s novel. This exciting and productive paper-chase very rarely, however, goes beyond literature to the real world, which Nabokov explored no less attentively than fiction and poetry. In an interview he once said:
A creative writer must study carefully the works of his rivals, including the Almighty. He must possess the unborn capacity not only of recombining but of re-creating the given world. In order to do this adequately, avoiding duplication of labor, the artist should know the given world. Imagination without knowledge leads no farther than the back yard of primitive art… (Strong Opinions, 32).
Working on Lolita, Nabokov, as his biographer Brian Boyd writes, “undertook research of all kinds” and, in particular,
noted newspaper reports of accidents, sex crimes and killings: “a middle-aged morals offender” who abducted fifteen-year-old Sally Horner from New Jersey and kept her for twenty-one months as his “cross-country slave,” until she was found in a southern California motel; G. Edward Grammar’s ineptly staged murder of his wife in a poorly faked motor accident… (American Years, 211).

But what Boyd seems to overlook is that Nabokov not only noted these newspaper reports in search of details but implanted them into Lolita in a most peculiar way.

Humbert Humbert actually refers to the two cases mentioned by Boyd in the same chapter in which he describes his visit to Ramsdale after having met pregnant Dolly Schiller. First, near Charlotte’s grave, he makes reference to G. Edward Grammar,

a thirty-five year old New York office manager who had just been arrayed [sic!] on a charge of murdering his thirty-three-year-old wife, Dorothy. Bidding for the perfect crime, Ed had bludgeoned his wife and put her into a car. The case came to light when two county policemen on patrol saw Mrs. Grammar’s new big blue Chrysler, an anniversary present from her husband, speeding crazily down a hill, just inside their jurisdiction (God bless our good cops!). The car sideswiped a pole, ran up an embankment covered with beard grass, wild strawberry and cinquefoil, and overturned. The wheels were still gently spinning in the mellow sunlight when the officers removed Mrs. G’s body. It appeared to be a routine highway accident at first. Alas, the woman’s battered body did not match up with only minor damage suffered by the car. I did better (287—288).

This reproduces, with the changes and additions given in boldface, an Associated Press report published in The New York Times on September 2, 1952, under the headline “Charge Is Due Today in ‘Perfect Murder’.” In using the plain newspaper account of a real crime as the basis for his own paragraph, Nabokov, to use a phrase of the Russian Formalists, is baring his devices. Humbert Humbert’s gleeful comments subjectify the narrative, while the added details (the color and make of Grammar’s car, the names of plants, etc.) suggest the interference of a superior authorial agency. Humbert’s slip—the substitution of “array” for “arraign”—obliquely reveals a design: the implied author (hidden under the mask of John Ray) actually arrays the story of the real murderer, that is, dresses it up and places it in the desired order.

The insertion of this real, albeit “arrayed” report into the text leads up to another, much more important allusion to an actual crime, in the same episode. Soon after his visit to the Ramsdale cemetery, Humbert encounters Mrs. Chatfield, an old acquaintance whose daughter Phyllis was Lolita’s class mate:
She attacked me with a fake smile, all aglow with evil curiosity. (Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?) (289).
The phrase in parentheses (where it is usual to find the most meaningful clues in Nabokov’s prose) is a deliberately planted riddle that invites the reader to do some research in old newspaper files. However, the necessary information is difficult to find, because major American media didn’t cover the La Salle case, which made the news at the end of March, 1950. A that time, Many local newspapers published unsigned reports from Associated Press and International News Service. Some examples of headlines will suffice:

Rescued after two-year captivity

Kidnapper held on Federal Charge; Girl Tells Story

Sex Criminal Held for New Jersey Court

Girl, 13, Held After Travels With Man, 52

13-Year Old Spent 2 Years With LaSalle

Girl Accuses Man of Ruse. Two-Year Tour Made by Pair

Headlines like these would have caught Nabokov’s extraordinarily keen eye. By that time, “beset with technical difficulties and doubts” (Strong Opinions, 105), he had almost halted work on his new novel and would not have missed an interesting prompt provided by the “given world.” The very consonance of the names of the kidnapped girl and her abductor—Sally and La Salle—sounded as if they had been invented by a bilingual punster playing upon the French adjective sale (dirty or sordid); their story reads as a rough outline for the second part of Lolita. Here are some of the reports Nabokov apparently knew:

SAN JOSE, Calif., March 22 (AP)—A hawk-faced New Jersey sex criminal was held for the FBI today, accused of forcing a 13-year-old schoolgirl to flee from her family, having sexual relations with him and travel across the country with him.
The girl—missing for nearly two years—said she did all these things because she feared the 52-year-old man would expose her theft of a five cent notebook. <…>
The girl was chubby brown haired Florence Sally Horner of Camden.
Sheriff Howard Hornbuckle said the girl told him La Salle compelled her to leave Camden on June 15, 1948.
The first week they were together, the sheriff said he was told, La Salle and the girl had sexual relations, that these relations continued until three weeks ago when a school chum in Dallas, Texas told Sally that what she was doing was wrong.

SAN JOSE, Calif., March 22—(AP)—A plump little girl of 13 told police today she accompanied a 52-year old man on a two-year tour of the country, in fear he would expose her as a shop-lifter.
The girl, Florence Sally Horner of Camden, N.J., was found here last night after she appealed to Eastern relatives “send the FBI for me, please?”
Her companion, Frank La Salle, an unemployed mechanic, was said by County Prosecutor Michael H. Cohen in Camden to be under indictment for her abduction.
Officers said the girl told them La Salle had forced her to submit to sexual relations.
The nice looking youngster, with light brown hair and blue-green eyes, attributed her troubles to a Club she joined in a Camden school. One of the requirements, she said, was that each member steal something from a ten-cent store.
She stole an article, she related, and La Salle happened to be watching her. She said he told her he was an FBI Agent; that “We have a place for girls like you.”
Sally said she went away with him, under his threat that unless she did, he would have her placed in a reform school.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — A 13 year-old girl’s telephoned plea “send the FBI for me, please!” has ended her 21-month trans-continental travels with a 52-year old man.
Sheriff’s deputies placed Florence (Sally) Horner in a juvenile detention home last night, after finding her in an auto court. They were awaiting word from her mother Mrs. Ella Horner of Camden, N.J. about sending Sally home.
And they jailed Frank La Salle, 52, an unemployed mechanic, pending word from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

SAN JOSE, Calif., March 23—(INS)—A 52-year-old mechanic with a long record of morals offenses faced a multiplicity of charges today for making a common law “child bride” of the bobby-soxer he is accused of abducting.
Frank La Salle was arraigned before U.S. Commissioner Marshall Hall yesterday on a Mann act charge of transporting a girl across state lines for immoral purposes. Bail was fixed at $10,000.
La Salle is accused of kidnapping 12-year-old Florence Horner from her Camden, N.J., home two years ago and forcing her to submit to sexual relations while traveling the continent. He allegedly bound the girl to him with threats to “turn her in” for a five-cent theft.
The chubby, mature looking teen-ager caused his arrest when she managed to telephone a sister that she wanted to go home so “please send the FBI.”
San Jose police, alerted by Camden authorities, found the girl in an auto court Tuesday night and a few hours later arrested La Salle when he returned to the trailer in which the two had been living.
La Salle protested he was Florence’s father but New Jersey authorities said the girl’s father had been dead for seven years. <…>

Less than two weeks after his arrest, Frank La Salle pleaded guilty to a charge of kidnapping and was sentenced to a jail term of 30 to 35 years.

From The Lima News
Thursday, March 23, 1950, p. 5

The second part of Lolita abounds with echoes of the story. Lolita’s captivity lasting nearly two years, the “extensive travels” of Humbert Humbert and his “child-bride” all over the United States, from New England to California, their soujourns in innumerable “motor courts,” a stay in Beardsley where Lolita goes to school, the hero’s constant claims that he is the girl’s father, “not very mechanically-minded [a hint at La Salle’s profession] but prudent papa Humbert” (208)—all these elements of the novel’s nightmarish plot seem both to derive from the real-life precedent and to refer back to it. The sequence and time-span of events are strikingly similar. Sally Horner lived with Frank La Salle for twenty-one months, went to school in Dallas where she confided her secret to a friend, resumed travels with the kidnapper and finally, three weeks later, made a crucial telephone call asking for help, escaping her captor. After twenty-one months with Lolita, when the pair stays in Beardsley, Humbert suddenly realizes that she has grown up and is slipping away from his power. He suspects that she has told everything to her schoolfriend Mona, and might be cherishing “the stealthy thought … that perhaps after all Mona was right, and she, orphan Lo, could expose [Humbert] without getting penalized herself” (204). They have a terrible row, but Lolita manages to escape and make a mysterious phone call, afterwards telling Humbert: “A great decision has been made” (207). They resume their travels and about a month later Lolita manages to escape. When in the final chapter of the novel Humbert states that he would have given himself “at least thirty-five years for rape, and dismissed the rest of the charges,” he mimics Frank La Salle’s sentence.

Several details transposed by Nabokov from newspaper reports seem to underscore an affinity (or, better, a “rhyme”) between Sally Horner and Dolly Haze. Both “nice looking youngsters” are daughters of widowed mothers; both have brown hair; Lolita’s “Florentine hands” and “Florentine breasts” evoke not only Boticcelli but also the first name of Florence Sally Horner. It was in the sad story of the New Jersey girl that Nabokov found a psychological explanation of Lolita’s acquiescence in her role of sex-slave. Copying La Salle, Humbert terrorizes his victim with threats that if he is arrested, she “will be given a choice of varying dwelling places, all more or less the same, the correctional school, the reformatory, the juvenile detention home…” (151). In fact, talking to Lolita about her situation, Humbert even alludes to the case of Frank La Salle:

Only the other day we read in the newspapers some bunkum about a middle-aged morals offender who pleaded guilty to the violation of the Mann Act and to transporting a nine-year-old girl across state lines for immoral purposes, whatever they are. Dolores darling! You are not nine but almost thirteen, and I would not advise you to consider yourself my cross-country slave <…> I am your father, and I am speaking English, and I love you (150).

Changing the age of the girl, Nabokov indicates that in the inner calendar of the novel the allusion to the case of Frank La Salle is an anachronism: Humbert is talking to Lolita in 1947, that is a year before the real abduction when Sally Horner was nine or ten years old. Yet the legal formulae used by the narrator as well as his implying that he, in contrast to La Salle, is really Lolita’s father, leave no doubt that the passage refers to the newspaper reports of 1950 quoted above.

What makes Humbert’s phrasing even more poignant is that it betrays his knowledge of the tragic finale of Sally Horner’s story. Fate showed no mercy to the molested bobby-soxer. As the Associated Press reported in August 1952, twenty nine months after La Salle’s arrest, Sally Horner was killed in a highway accident when the car in which she was riding plowed into the rear of a parked truck. In fact, Nabokov’s handwritten note concerning Sally Horner, in the Library of Congress archive (cited by Brian Boyd) is a shortened copy of a newspaper report on her death dated by August 20, 1952:
Woodbine, N.Y. — Sally Horner, 15-year-old Camden, N.J., girl who spent 21 months as the captive of a middle-aged morals offender a few years ago, was killed in a highway mishap early Monday. … Sally vanished from her Camden home in 1948 and wasn’t heard from again until 1950 when she told a harrowing story of spending 21 months as the cross-country slave of Frank LaSalle, 52.
LaSalle, a mechanic, was arrested in San Jose, Calif. … he pleaded guilty to charges of kidnapping and was sentenced to 30 to 35 years in prison. He was branded a “moral leper” by the sentencing judge.

At the end of August 1952, Nabokov was travelling by car from Wyoming to Ithaca, so it is impossible to identify which newspaper was the source of the note. (I have found a slightly different version of the same report in The Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, August 19, 1952. There La Salle is more bluntly called “a middle-aged sex offender” and Sally Horner, his “cross-country love slave.”) In his copy Nabokov crossed out the very euphemisms—“a middle-aged morals offender” and “a cross-country slave”—that Humbert Humbert uses in his conversation with Lolita. Above the text he scribbled: “in Ench<anted> H<unters> revisited? … In the newspaper?” He is referring to a scene (Chapter 26, Part II) in which Humbert revisits Briceland and in a library browses through a “coffin-black volume” with old files of the local Gazette for August 1947. Humbert is looking for a printed picture of himself “as a younger brute” on his “dark way to Lolita’s bed” in the Enchanted Hunters hotel, and Nabokov evidently thought of making him come across a report of Sally Horner’s death in what the narrator aptly calls the “book of doom” (262). Eventually Nabokov rejected the idea but dispersed bits and pieces of Sally Horner’s “harrowing story” throughout the second part of Lolita.

The story of Sally Horner haunts Humbert Humbert, who can’t help noticing its similarity to his own tale but would never concede that, in spite of his pretensions to poetic grandeur, verbal skills, and sensitivity, he is no better than La Salle, a common criminal and “moral leper.”2 This is why he gives La Salle’s profession and appearance to minor characters, both of whom he scorns: Dick Schiller, Lolita’s husband, is a mechanic, while Vivian Darkbloom (an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov), a friend and collaborator of his arch-enemy Clare Quilty, has a hawk face.

Humbert’s numerous references to the story of Sally Horner undermine not only his claims to originality but also the very status of the “Confession of a White Widowed Male.” According to the narrator and his fictitious editor, “suave John Ray,” Lolita was written in less than two months, from late September to November 16, 1952, when Humbert was in prison awaiting trial for the murder of Clare Quilty. Yet his use of old newspaper materials betrays careful preparation and contradicts his assurances that the text is an honest memoir. In a sense, the cunning humbug does to his readers what a barber in Kasbeam once did while giving him “a very mediocre haircut”—“he babbled of a baseball-playing son of his, … and every now and then … interrupted his tremulous scissor work to produce faded newspaper clippings, and so inattentive was I that it came as a shock to realize … that the mustached young ball player had been dead for the last thirty years” (213). Producing and editing his own “newspaper clippings,” Humbert Humbert conceals the fact of Sally Horner’s death, which might imply that he hides a similar secret concerning Dolly Haze’s fate. (Some critics have argued that Lolita does not run away with Clare Quilty, but dies in Elphinstone hospital when she is just fourteen years and six months old, and the parallels to Sally Horner’s story support this reading.)

For the implied author of Lolita, the “perfect dictator” in his imagined world, the short and unhappy life of a chubby brown-haired American teenager has a different meaning. In The Gift, Nabokov wrote that a most important source of creative imagination is

a piercing pity—for the tin box in a waste patch, for the cigarette card from the series National Costumes trampled in the mud, for the poor, stray word repeated by the kind-hearted, weak, loving creature who has just been scolded for nothing—for all the trash of life which by means of a momentary alchemic distillation … is turned into something valuable and eternal.

Trampled Sally Horner enmeshed in a terrible pattern of doom—a fatherless childhood, a strange, as if preordained, meeting with La Salle, a grotesque car ride across America with her abductor, the suffering and pain of the lone child turned into a sex slave, a successful rebellion against the abuser and a sudden untimely death, again on the road, again in a car—was a deserving object for Nabokov’s “piercing pity,” and for the transformation of her story, through art, “into something valuable and eternal.” Refering to her in the novel about an abused American girl somewhat like herself, Nabokov not only paid tribute to his “given world” source but, in a sense, redeemed the cruelty of Sally’s fate, which otherwise would have been forever buried in the “trash of life.” He wanted us to remember and pity the poor girl whose stolen childhood and untimely death helped to give birth to his (not Humbert Humbert’s) Lolita—the genuine heroine of the novel hidden behind the narrator’s self-indulgent verbosity.

In the Ramsdale scene, just before naming La Salle and Sally Horner, Humbert Humbert is passing by his old house and notices that “somebody had attached a found black velvet hair ribbon to the white FOR SALE [for Sally?] sign” (288). The attentive reader may remember a similar “velvet hair ribbon” (123, 125) that Lolita removed before going to bed in The Enchanted Hunters and evidently left there, together with her childhood and her freedom. Now it has been found by the invisible god-like author of the book and hung as a mourning wreath in memory of the “daisy-fresh girl” destroyed by Humbert and of her real-life prototype. Nearby, he suddenly sees “a golden-skinned, brown-haired nymphet of nine or ten”—a composite ghost of younger, still inviolate Sally Horner and Dolly Haze. The girl is looking at him with “wild fascination in her large blue-black eyes”:

I said something pleasant to her, meaning no harm, an old-world compliment, what nice eyes you have, but she retreated in haste and the music stopped abruptly, and a violent-looking dark man, glistening with sweat, came out and glared at me. I was on the point of identifying myself when, with a pang of dream-embarrassment, I became aware of my mud-caked dungarees, my filthy and torn sweater, my bristly chin, my bum’s bloodshot eyes (289).

This is a rare moment in the book when Humbert understands what he might really look like in the eyes of his eternal jury: children and their protectors.

(This is a slightly modified version, supplemented with references and an image, of an article originally published in the Times Literary Supplement [TLS], September 9, 2005, pp. 11-12. It is reprinted here by permission of the TLS.)


1. Henceforth all page numbers in brackets refer to Appel’s edition.

2. Nabokov used the same device in Despair, in which the insane narrator copycats real-life murders that have made headlines in German newspapers but vehemently denies any resemblance, saying: “They and I have nothing in common.”

Zembla depends on frames for navigation. If you have been referred to this page without the surrounding frame, click here.