History remembers her as “the real Lolita,” because young Florence “Sally” Horner’s grim ordeal helped inspire Nabokov’s novel. But the author drew on multiple sources for his famous tale, so it’s not an exact retelling. And Sally’s real-life kidnapping was much worse than the fictional version.
Acting on a dare from some of her fifth-grade classmates in June 1948, Sally was clumsily shoplifting a notebook when a man who claimed to be an FBI agent caught her in the act. He was decades older than the 11-year-old, and he frightened her. But he let her go ... until the next day, when he appeared as she was leaving her New Jersey grade school. This time, the “FBI agent” had some odd new instructions for the girl:
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—rather, he was the sort G-men wanted to drive off the streets, though Sally didn’t learn that until it was far too late. It took 21 months to break free of him, after a cross-country journey from Camden, New Jersey, to San Jose, California.
LaSalle’s motives were depraved; he was already a convicted rapist, and he molested the girl, telling her that if she didn’t comply, he’d turn her in for stealing. Over two years, the pair traveled the country; when she attended school, he pretended she was his daughter. She was finally able to call her sister from San Jose, Calif. in March 1950, telling her “Send the FBI!”
LaSalle was arrested and charged under the Mann Act. Sally was 13 when she was freed, but her story took an even more tragic turn; two years later, in 1952, she was killed in a car accident. Sally was just 15 when she died, which also may have inspired Nabokov, since the fictional Lolita also dies as a teen. In both film versions of Nabokov’s story, the age of the title character is raised by a few years, a nod to the still-controversial nature of its themes—but hardly an accurate homage to the girl who lived through the real story.
Image of 13-year-old Florence “Sally” Horner after her rescue in 1950: AP Photo