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The Sunday Times September 11, 2005

1940s sex kidnap inspired Lolita

LOLITA, the novel by Vladimir Nabokov about a middle-aged man’s infatuation with an underage girl, was modelled on an abduction in 1940s America, according to new research.

The plot for the book, published in 1955, was based on the case of Sally Horner, a girl of 11 or 12 who was blackmailed into a sexual relationship by a 50-year-old car mechanic, an academic has found.

Both Lolita’s appearance, and much of the plot, in which the girl falls prey to Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged academic who takes her on a road trip across America, show close parallels with the Horner case.

The findings are likely to stir debate among Nabokov fans and scholars, who have suggested a range of candidates for the “real Lolita”.

“It was in the sad story of the New Jersey girl [Horner] that Nabokov found a psychological explanation of Lolita’s acquiescence in her role as sex slave,” said Alexander Dolinin, a lecturer in Slavic literature at the University of Wisconsin and author of several studies on Nabokov. He describes his findings on the sources of Lolita in last Friday’s edition of The Times Literary Supplement.

Dolinin reached his conclusions after researching local newspapers and newswire reports from the 1940s and 1950s — the Horner case was scarcely noticed by the national media in America.

In 1948 Florence Sally Horner was abducted and kept against her will by Frank La Salle, a mechanic. After catching her stealing a five-cent notebook in Camden, New Jersey, La Salle told her he was an FBI agent and that if she did not co-operate with him, “we have a place for girls like you”.

Horner spent 21 months living and travelling with La Salle before she confided her secret to a friend in Dallas, Texas, where she attended school.

She was found in California when she made a phone call after managing to slip away from her abductor.

La Salle was jailed for 30-35 years for kidnapping in 1950. It was widely believed he and Horner had had a sexual relationship and the judge branded him a “moral leper”.

In the book Humbert, an academic, stays at the house of Lolita’s mother and becomes infatuated with the daughter. He persuades Lolita to go away with him on a protracted road trip around America after her mother’s death.

At one point in the book Humbert refers to the Horner case by name when reflecting on his behaviour. The full significance of this reference has not previously been realised, Dolinin argues. “The second part of Lolita abounds with echoes of the Horner story,” said Dolinin.

In both the press reports of the Horner case and the novel, the girls are described as “nice-looking youngsters”, are daughters of widowed mothers and have brown hair. Lolita’s “Florentine hands” and “Florentine breasts” evoke Horner’s first name.

Both the reports and the novel refer to the girls as “child bride” and “cross-country slave”.

Other similarities include Humbert’s claims that he is Lolita’s father, and the similar duration of the pair’s sojourn together. Like Horner, Lolita’s time with the older man ends after a mysterious phone call.

The eventual fate of both girls was tragic. In the novel, Lolita marries and flees to Alaska with her new husband but dies in childbirth. Horner was killed in a car accident in 1952.

A number of real-life models have been offered up as possible Lolitas including Lita Grey, who as a 15-year-old actress had sex with Charlie Chaplin when he was 35.

Last year it was claimed Nabokov took the idea for the story, which was filmed by Hollywood in 1962 and 1997, from a 1916 novella written by Heinz von Eschwege, a German writer, in which the narrator is obsessed by a girl called Lolita.

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