Thursday, July 12, 2018

The "Real" Lolita and Humbert: Sally Horner and Frank La Salle

Sally Horner and Frank La Salle

In Lolita, Phyllis’ mother, Mrs. Chatfield, “with a fake smile, all aglow with evil curiosity”, "attacked" Humbert: 

Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank LaSalle [sic], a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948? (289) 

For some reason, in The Annotated Lolita, Appel didn’t annotate the rhetorical question. However, in Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, Boyd noted:

Nabokov undertook research of all kinds [in preparation for Lolita.] [...] He 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 [...]” (211).


But it was Alexander Dolinin who made the connection between the rhetorical question and Nabokov’s research. Dolinin wrote in “What Happened to Sally Horner?: A Real-Life Source of Nabokov's Lolita”:

The phrase [...] 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 [...].


By that time, [Nabokov] “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.” [...] their story reads as a rough outline for the second part of Lolita.

The second part of Lolita abounds with echoes of the story [...] 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.


Humbert made a previous reference to the Sally\La Salle case:


“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).”

Appel made an annotation here but not in reference to the Sally\La Salle case. However, Dolinin noted: 

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 [...]



Sarah Weinman’s post “The Real Lolita: The story of 11-year-old Sally Horner’s abduction changed the course of 20th-century literature. She just never got to tell it herself” provides the details about how La Salle seduced Sally. Here’s an abridgment: 

On June 13, 1948, 11-year-old Sally Horner was a student at Northeast School in Camden, New Jersey. Urged on by her middle-school classmates, Sally walked into the Woolworth’s on Broadway and Federal to steal a five-cent notebook. 

Once inside, she reached for the first notebook she could find [...]. She stuffed it into her bag and sprinted away, careful to look straight ahead to the exit door. Then, right before the getaway, came a hard tug on her arm.


“I am an FBI agent,” the man said to Sally. “And you are under arrest.” She cried. She cowered. 

He pointed across the way to City Hall, the tallest building in Camden, and said that girls like her would be dealt with there. If it went the way they normally handled thieving youths, he told her, Sally would be bound for the reformatory.

But his manner brightened. It was a lucky break he caught her and not some other FBI agent, the man said. If she agreed to report to him from time to time, he would let her go. Spare her the worst. Show some mercy.

Sally felt her own mood lift, too. He was going to let her go. 

On her way home from school the next day, though, the man sought her out again. Without warning, the rules had changed: Sally had to go with him to Atlantic City—the government insisted. She’d have to convince her mother he was the father of two school friends, inviting her to a seashore vacation. He would take care of the rest with a phone call and a convincing appearance at the Camden bus depot.

His name was Frank La Salle, and he was no FBI agent [...]

Sally and La Salle—he used the alias “Frank Warner” at that time—moved into a rooming house at 203 Pacific Street in Atlantic City. She called her mother on several occasions, always from a pay station, to say she was having a swell time. For six weeks, Ella Horner thought nothing was amiss—she believed her daughter was on summer vacation with friends.

After the first week, Sally said she’d be staying longer to see the Ice Follies. After two weeks, the excuses grew more vague. After three weeks, the phone calls stopped. Ella’s letters could no longer be delivered. Sally’s last missive was the most disturbing: she and “Warner” were leaving for Baltimore. Something woke up inside Ella’s mind: she’d been duped, her daughter snatched away not with violence, but with sweet-talking stealth. Ella received Sally’s final letter on July 31, 1948. She called the police later that day.

Cops in Atlantic City descended upon the Pacific Street lodging house, where they learned the man called Warner had posed as Sally’s father. They’d found enough evidence to arrest him, but it was too late: he and Sally had disappeared. Two suitcases full of clothes remained in their room, as did several unsent postcards from Sally to her mother and friends. There was also a photograph, never before seen by Ella or the police, of a honey-haired Sally, in a cream-colored dress, white socks and black patent shoes, sitting on a swing. Her smile was tentative, her eyes fathoms deep with sadness. She was still just 11 years old.


Sally Horner in Atlantic City in 1948

The man called Warner was really Frank La Salle, and only six months before he abducted Sally, he’d finished up a prison stint for the statutory rape of [...] five girls between the ages of 12 and 14. 


Having cleared out of Atlantic City, knowing the police were in pursuit, La Salle and Sally settled in Baltimore by September 1948. They kept up the father-daughter pose [..] —until April 1949. She attended Saint Ann’s Catholic School at 2200 Greenmount Drive [...]

They left Baltimore and headed southwest to Dallas, the timing of the move appearing to coincide with Camden County indicting La Salle a second time. Back in 1948, prosecutor Mitchell Cohen indicted La Salle for Sally’s abduction, which carried a maximum sentence of three to five years in prison. This second, more serious indictment, for kidnapping, handed down on March 17, 1949, carried a sentence of 30 to 35 years. If La Salle did get word of the new indictment—he told Sally they needed to leave Baltimore because the “FBI asked him to investigate something”—he didn’t want to be in striking distance of Camden, where police could find them.

Using the last name of LaPlante, they lived on Commerce Street, a quiet, well-kept trailer park in a more run-down part of Dallas, from April 1949 until March 1950. Their neighbors regarded Sally as a typical 12-year-old living with her widowed father, albeit one never let out of his sight except to go to school. But she seemed to enjoy taking care of her home. She would bake every once in a while. She had a dog. La Salle provided her with a generous allowance for clothes and sweets. She would go shopping, swimming, and to her neighbors’ trailers for dinner. And while La Salle, as LaPlante, set up shop again as a mechanic, Sally attended Catholic school once more, at Our Lady of Good Counsel. 

A copy of Sally’s report card from her time at Our Lady of Good Counsel between September 1949 and February 1950 indicates she was a good student [...].

[...] the consensus about Sally and her “father” was that they “both seemed happy and entirely devoted to each other.” Nelrose Pfeil, a neighbor, said, “Sally got everything she ever wanted. I always said I didn’t know who was more spoiled, Sally or her dog.” Maude Smilie, living at a nearby trailer on Commerce Street, seemed bewildered at the idea of Sally being a virtual prisoner: “[Sally] spent one day at the beauty parlor with me. I gave her a permanent and she never mentioned a thing. She should have known she could have confided in me.”

Ruth Janish was married to an itinerant farm worker. During a fallow period at the beginning of 1950, the Janishes lived in the West Dallas trailer park at the same time as Sally Horner and Frank La Salle. Soon after she met them, Ruth began to suspect that Frank was not, in fact, Sally’s father. 

Ruth tried to cajole Sally, still recovering from her appendectomy, to tell her the “true story” of her relationship with La Salle in Dallas.

The Janishes left for California in early March 1950, thinking they’d have better luck finding work there, but on arrival, Ruth hatched the beginning of a plan. First, she wrote La Salle, urging him and Sally to follow them to the San Jose trailer park, where they could be neighbors again. The Janishes had even reserved a spot in the park for them.

La Salle was in. He and Sally drove from Dallas to San Jose, the house-trailer attached to his car, and arrived in the park by Saturday, March 18, 1950.

Before leaving Dallas, Sally mustered up the courage to tell a friend at school of her ordeal at La Salle’s hands. The friend told Sally her behavior was “wrong” and that “she ought to stop,” as Sally later explained. As her friend’s admonishment sank in, Sally began refusing La Salle’s further advances. And on the morning of March 21, 1950, Ruth Janish’s determined concern and Sally’s burgeoning need for change collided in a San Jose trailer park.

With Frank La Salle safely away for several hours, Ruth invited Sally over to her trailer. Knowing this was her only chance, Janish gently coaxed more honesty out of the young girl. She wanted to go home. She wanted to talk to her mother and older sister. Janish then showed Sally how to operate the telephone in her trailer so the girl could make long-distance phone calls.

Sally called her mother first, but the line was disconnected;...Next, she tried her sister Susan, who lived with her husband, Al Panaro... “Al, this is Sally,” she said. He tried to contain his excitement. “Where are you at?” “I’m with a lady friend in California. Send the FBI after me, please!” Sally cried. “Tell mother I’m okay, and don’t worry. I want to come home. I’ve been afraid to call before.” Sally’s brother-in-law assured her he would do that if she would stay where she was.

After Sally hung up the phone, she turned to Ruth. “I thought she was going to collapse,” Mrs. Janish said. “She kept saying over and over, ‘What will Frank do when he finds out what I have done?’”

The next day, La Salle was charged with violating the Mann Act for transporting a female along state lines with the intent of corrupting her morals. 

Judge Rocco Palese sentenced him to 30 to 35 years at Trenton State Prison, with the shorter sentence for abduction to be served concurrently. 

La Salle never saw the outside world again. He died of arteriosclerosis in Trenton State Prison on March 22, 1966, 16 years into his sentence. He was just shy of 70 years old.

[15-year-old] Sally and the young man, 20-year-old Edward John Baker[...], set out as planned [from a resort in the shore town of Wildwood] in the early morning hours of August 18, 1952. Just after midnight [...] Baker drove his 1948 Ford sedan into the back of a parked truck on the road, knocking it into another parked truck. Baker emerged from the four-car collision with minor injuries[...] The crash killed Sally instantly.



If you haven’t read (The Annotated) Lolita for some time, Dolinin notes some pointed similarities between Sally\La Salle and Dolly\Humbert:

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 the Books section of the August 2018 issue of Vanity Fair, Sarah Weinman wrote about two new books about the Sally\La Salle case. In her piece, “Two new books go in search of the real Lolita”, Weinman mentioned her book with is hyperbolic title, The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World (out in September from Ecco) and T. Greenwood’s novel Rust & Stardust (out in August from St. Martin’s).