By Sarah Weinman
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.
Sally Horner walked into the Woolworth’s on Broadway and Federal to steal a five-cent notebook. She had to, if the girls’ club she desperately wanted to join were to accept her into its ranks. She’d never stolen anything in her life; usually she went to that particular five-and-dime for school supplies and her favorite candy. But with days to go before the end of fifth grade, Sally was looking for a ticket to the ruling class, far removed from the babies below her at Northeast School in Camden, New Jersey.
It would be easy, the girls told her. Nobody would suspect a girl like Sally as a thief. Despite her mounting dread at breaking the law, she believed them. On the afternoon of June 13, 1948, she had no idea a simple act of shoplifting would destroy her life.
Once inside, she reached for the first notebook she could find on the gleaming white nickel counter. 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.
Sally looked up. A slender, hawk-faced man loomed above her, iron-gray hair peeking out from underneath a wide-brimmed fedora. His eyes, set directly upon Sally’s, blazed a mix of steel blue and gray. A scar sliced across 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 well past 50, but he looked positively ancient to Sally, who had turned 11 just two months before. Sally’s initial nerves dissipated, replaced by the terror of being caught.
“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.
As the tears fell, the man froze her in place with his low voice. 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.
Sally didn’t know that much about reform school, but what she knew was not good. She kept crying.
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. She wouldn’t have to call her mother from jail—her poor, overworked mother, Ella, still grappling with the suicide of her alcoholic husband, Sally’s father, five years earlier; still tethered to her seamstress job, still unsure how she felt about her older daughter Susan’s pregnancy, which would make Ella a grandmother for the first time. Sally looked forward to becoming an aunt, whatever being an aunt meant. But she couldn’t think about that. The man 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—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. That five-cent notebook didn’t just alter Sally Horner’s own life, though: it reverberated throughout the culture, and in the process, irrevocably changed the course of 20th-century literature.
Rest of the story can be found at: http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/hazlitt/longreads/real-lolita
[Editor’s note: thank you to Ashlie for sending this my way.]
Q.: What do Santa Claus and a struggling writer have in common?
A.: Some people believe in them; other people don’t.