Summer Reading 2019: The Real-Life Lolita and Nabokov’s Novel

NJ Spotlight | August 27, 2019 | 2019 Summer Reading
Weinman’s gripping true-crime story of the 1948 kidnapping of a young girl also details how it influenced Nabokov’s shocking novel, ‘Lolita’

The Real Lolita
Regular readers of NJ Spotlight know that August is our time for kicking back and taking advantage of the lull in the news cycle. To tide you over during our summer hiatus, we’re posting excerpts from books by New Jersey authors or with Garden State hooks. We’ll be back tanned and ready on September 3.

When 11-year-old Sally Horner was abducted from her mother in Camden, it was the beginning of a nightmare for both of them. But the case also played a role in the novel being written by the brilliant Vladimir Nabokov.

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The Five-and-Dime

Sally Horner walked into the Woolworth’s on Broadway and Federal in Camden, New Jersey, to steal a five-cent notebook. She’d been dared to by the clique of girls she desperately wanted to join. Sally had never stolen anything in her life; usually she went to that particular five-and-dime for school supplies and her favorite candy. The clique told her it would be easy. Nobody would suspect a girl like Sally, a fifth-grade honor pupil and president of the Junior Red Cross Club at Northeast School, to be a thief. Despite her mounting dread at breaking the law, she believed them. She had no idea a simple act of shoplifting on a March afternoon in 1948 would
destroy her life.

Once inside Woolworths, Sally reached for the first notebook she spied on the gleaming white nickel counter. She stuffed it into her bag and walked away, careful to look straight
ahead to the exit door. Before she could cross the threshold to freedom, she felt a hand grab her arm.

Sally looked up. A slender, hawk-faced man loomed above her, iron-gray hair underneath a wide-brimmed fedora, eyes shifting between blue and gray. A scar sliced his cheek by the right side of his nose, while his shirt collar shrouded another mark on his throat. The hand gripping Sally’s arm bore the traces of an even older, half-moon stamp forged by fire. Any adult would have sized him up as middle-aged, but to ten-year-old Sally, he looked positively ancient.

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

Sally did what many young girls would have done in a similar situation: She cried. She cowered. She felt immediately ashamed.

The man’s low voice and steely gaze froze her in place. He pointed across the way to City Hall, the tallest building in Camden. That’s where girls like her would be dealt with, he said. Sally didn’t understand his meaning at first. Then he explained: to punish her for stealing, she would be sent to the reformatory.

Sally didn’t know that much about reform school, but what she knew was not good. She kept crying.

Then his stern manner brightened. It was a lucky break for a little girl like her, he said, that he was the one who caught her and not some other FBI agent. If she agreed to report to him from time to time, he would let her go. Spare her the worst. Show some mercy.

Sally stopped crying. He was going to let her go. She wouldn’t have to call her mother from jail — her poor, overworked mother, Ella, still struggling with the consequences of the suicide of her alcoholic husband, Sally’s father, five years earlier; still tethered to her seamstress job, which meant that Sally, too often, went home to an empty house after school.

But she couldn’t think about that. Not when she was about to escape real punishment. Any desire she felt about joining the girls’ club fell away, overcome by relief she wouldn’t face a much larger fear.

Sally did not know the reprieve had an expiration date. One that would come due at any time, without warning.

MONTHS PASSED WITHOUT further word from the FBI man. As the spring of 1948 inched its way to summer, Sally finished up fifth grade at Northeast School. She kept up her marks and remained on the honor roll. She also stuck with the Junior Red Cross and continued to volunteer at local hospitals. Her homeroom teacher, Sarah Hanlin, singled Sally out as “a perfectly lovely girl. [A] better than average pupil, intelligent and well behaved.” Sally had had a major escape. She must have been grateful for each successive day of freedom.

The Camden of Sally’s girlhood was far removed from the Camden of today. Emma DiRenzo, one of Sally’s classmates, remembered it as a “marvelous” place to grow up in. “Everything about Camden back then was wonderful,” she said. “When you tell people now, they look at you with big eyes.” There were pep rallies at City Hall and social events at the YMCA. Girls jumped rope on the sidewalks, near houses adorned with marble steps. Camden residents took pride in their neighborhoods and communities, whether they were among the Italians in South Camden, the Irish in the city’s North Side, the Germans in the East Side neighborhood of
Cramer Hill, or the Polish living along Mt. Ephraim Avenue, lining up to buy homemade kielbasa at Jaskolski’s or fresh bread at the Morton Bakery. They didn’t dream of suburban flight because there was no reason to leave.

Sally lived at 944 Linden Street, between Ninth and Tenth Streets. Cornelius Martin Park lay a few blocks east, and the city’s main downtown was within walking distance to the west, and the Ben Franklin Bridge connecting Camden to Philadelphia was minutes away. The neighborhood was quiet but within reach of Camden’s bustling core. Now it isn’t a neighborhood at all. The townhouse where Sally grew up was demolished decades ago. What houses remain across the street are decrepit, with boarded-up windows and doors.

Sally’s life in Camden was not idyllic. Despite outward appearances, she was lonely. Sally knew how to take care of herself but she wished she didn’t have to. She didn’t want to come home to an empty house after school because her mother was working late. Sally couldn’t help comparing her life with those of her classmates, who had both mother and father. She confided her frustrations to Hanlin, her teacher, who often walked home with her at the end of a school day.

It’s not clear if Sally had close friends her age. Perhaps her desire to be accepted by the popular girls stemmed from a lack of companionship. Her father, Russell, had died three weeks before Sally’s sixth birthday, and she’d hardly seen him much before then. Her mother, Ella, worked long hours, and was tired and distant when she was at home. Her sister, Susan, was pregnant with her first child. Sally looked forward to becoming an aunt, whatever being an aunt meant, but it made the eleven-year age gap between the sisters all the more unbridgeable. Sally was still a little girl. Susan was not only an adult, but about to be a mother.

SALLY HORNER WAS WALKING home from Northeast School by herself after the last bell on a mid-June day in 1948. The route from North Seventh and Vine to her house took ten minutes by foot. Somewhere along the way, Sally was intercepted by the man from Woolworth’s. Sally had dared to think he’d forgotten about her. Seeing him again was a shock.

Keep in mind that Sally had just turned eleven. She believed he was an FBI agent. She felt his power and feared it, even though it was false. She was convinced if she didn’t do what he said that she would be sent to the reformatory and be subject to its horrors, as well as worse ones conjured up in her imagination. No matter how he did it, the man convinced Sally that she must go with him to Atlantic City — the government insisted.

But how would she persuade her mother? This would be no easy task, despite Ella’s general state of apathy and exhaustion. The man had an answer for that, too. Sally was to tell her mother that he was the father of two school friends who had invited her to a seashore vacation after school ended for the year. He would take care of the rest with a phone call to her mother. Sally wasn’t to worry — he would never let on that she was in trouble with the law. He sent the girl on her way.

At home, Sally waited for her mother to return from work, then parroted the FBI man’s story. Ella was uneasy, and let it show. Sally sounded sincere in her desire to go to the Jersey Shore for a week’s vacation with friends, but who were these people? Ella had never heard Sally mention the names of these two girls before, nor that of their father, Frank Warner. Or if she had, Ella didn’t recall.

The telephone rang. The man on the other end of the line told Ella he was Mr. Warner, father to Sally’s school friends. His manner was affable, polite. He seemed courteous, even charming. Sally stayed by her mother as the conversation unfolded. “Warner” told Ella that he and his wife had “plenty of room” in their five-room apartment in Atlantic City to put Sally up for the week.

Under the force of his persuasion, Ella let her concerns slide. “It was a chance for Sally to get a little vacation,” she said weeks later. “I couldn’t afford to give her one.” She did wonder why Sally didn’t seem to be all that excited about the vacation. It was out of character. Normally her bright little girl loved to go places.

On June 14, 1948, Ella took Sally to the Camden bus depot. She kissed her daughter goodbye and watched her climb aboard an express bus to Atlantic City. She spied the outlines of a middle-aged man, the one she took to be “Warner,” next to Sally, but he did not come out to greet her. Ella also did not see anyone else with the man, neither wife nor children. Still, she tamped down her suspicions. She wanted so badly for her daughter to enjoy herself. And it seemed, from the first few letters Sally sent her from Atlantic City, that the girl was having a good time.

Ella Horner never dreamed that, within weeks, her girl would become a ghost. By sending Sally off on that bus to Atlantic City, she had consigned her daughter to the stuff of nightmares that would rip any mother apart.

Author photograph courtesy of Anna Ty Bergman

Excerpt from The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman. Copyright © 2018 by Sarah Weinman. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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