Sally Horner, age 11, kissed her mother goodbye and climbed aboard a bus bound for Atlantic City. “It was a chance for Sally to get a little vacation,” Ella Horner would later recall — a seaside escape from steamy Camden, NJ, in the summer of 1948.
She entrusted her girl to a man she knew as Mr. Warner. Sally said he was the father of a school friend who had invited her to join their family at the Jersey Shore. He had been so charming when he called Ella on the phone to explain that he and his wife had “plenty of room” for Sally in their beachside apartment.
It was the last Ella would see of her daughter for nearly two years.
Sally’s beach trip became a cross-country odyssey as Frank La Salle, a convicted pedophile, took her on the lam, posing as her father in public and raping her repeatedly behind closed doors.
If the scenario sounds familiar, it should. It’s the basic plot of “Lolita,” Vladimir Nabokov’s enduring 1955 novel about a middle-aged man’s sexual fixation on a prepubescent girl.
Now, two books — the novel “Rust & Stardust” by T. Greenwood (St. Martin’s, out Tuesday) and the non-fiction “The Real Lolita” (Ecco, Sept. 11) by Sarah Weinman — look at how Sally’s kidnapping, exploitation and early death provided the raw materials for Nabokov to complete a novel that had bedeviled him for a decade.
Florence “Sally” Horner lived with her widowed mother and an older sister in Camden, where Ella supported them by working long hours as a seamstress.
In the spring of 1948, the bookish fifth-grader took a dare from a clique of popular girls in her class to shoplift an item from the local Woolworths. She sneaked a five-cent notebook into her bag and was quickly grabbed by a stern-looking older man.
“I am an FBI agent, and you are under arrest,” he said.
In fact, he was La Salle, 53, just out of state prison. He’d been convicted on five counts of statutory rape for “forced intimacies” with 12- to 14-year-old girls.
He told Sally that an FBI agent like him had a responsibility to send young thieves to the reformatory. The girl burst into tears, and he seemed to soften. He’d make her a deal: If she promised to obey him whenever he checked in on her, he said, he would let her go.