Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0005174, Tue, 13 Jun 2000 13:16:47 -0700

The Grammar Case from LOLITA (fwd)
From Ryan Asmussen (rra@bu.edu):

At the beginning of LOLITA's Chapter 33, Humbert is in Ramsdale, revisiting his
past, walking alone through a cemetary:

"On some of the graves there were pale, transparent little national flags
slumped in the windless air under the evergreens. Gee, Ed, that was bad luck --
referring to G. Edward Grammar, a thirty-five-year-old New York office manager
who had just been arrayed 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."

I had the pleasure a month or so ago of meeting a relative by marriage of the
Grammer's, Paul Churchill, a Sherlockian (we were at the 60th anniversary dinner
of the Boston Speckled Band; I was a guest) and teacher of Latin at a Baltimore
high school. We began talking about VN at one point and he related to me his
interesting association. I asked him if he wouldn't mind writing the story up
for us and he graciously has done so, helped by personal research. I wasn't
sure if the Grammer, or as VN puts it "Grammar" (for, I believe, obvious
reasons), case had been mentioned before, but, yes, Alfred Appel, Jr. does so in
his marvellous "Annotated" ("an actual crime, notes Nabokov, drawn from a
newspaper"). What follows in quotes from Paul is more about the crime and
subsequent case. For me this information, when read in tandem with the above
quote from LOLITA, is a wonderful glimpse inside VN's artistic 'fact to fiction'
crucible (you'll notice VN's changes and additions). The passage itself, I
find, is another clever, half-hidden warning to the reader not to mistake the
surface for the essence.

PAUL: "I searched through the Baltimore Sun web archives and found that they
only go back to 1990. However they do have two editorials about the Grammer
case and one of them has ALL the lurid details listed. Here's what I found.
Aug 20, 1952, Dorothy May Grammer, age 33, wife for 13 years of a metals
company executive and mother of three girls, drove her Chrysler town car
down Taylor Avenue and it careened downhill toward Belair Road, zigzagged,
nearly hitting a police cruiser, bounced into a bank, went airborne, hit a
tree and flipped over onto its right side. Police investigated and Mrs
Grammer was pronounced dead on arrival at St Joseph's Hospital with a
fractured skull. A stone was found wedged under the accelerator. The
victim's blood was all on the driver's side of the car but the car was on
its right side and so the blood should have flowed to the passenger side.
The victim's husband, G Edward Grammer, was arrested by police and
confessed. At the trial Dr Russell S Fisher of the medical examiner's
office pronounced that the head injuries had been inflicted during a brutal
beating, not as a result of the crash, and said, "Someone killed that
woman, then cleverly tried to conceal it....Blood doesn't flow uphill."
The Judge was Herman Moser and he sat alone, unusual in such a case without
a jury. Andrew Sodaro, later a judge, was the chief assistant state's
attorney who prosecuted the case. The case was big news in Baltimore. The
courtroom was packed and a crowd of 700 gathered outside. A lady, Mathilda
Mizibrocky, age 28, a secretary with the Canadian United Nations mission,
testified that she and Mr Grammer had been having an affair. She was
Catholic so there was no prospect for marriage after a divorce. The trial
lasted nine days. Ed Grammer was found guilty and was sentenced to be
hanged. On June 11, 1954, not quite two years after the crime, Ed Grammer
died in one of Maryland's most miserably botched hangings. It took twenty
minutes for him to die and this event led directly to the introduction of
the gas chamber in Maryland. After the trial, Miss Mizibrocky quit her
job, moved to California, and changed her name.

"My wife, Jo Ann Grammer, had told me about the case when we were dating in
the 60's. She was related to the Grammers, a cousin perhaps, and
remembered the day her father came home "white as a sheet." That was the
day of the hanging. I have since heard that it was the last hanging in the
State of Maryland, and now that I have read the Sun editorials I am
inclined to believe that it is true."