The postwar social, cultural, psychological, and moral landscape that Lolita was laid down upon was soiled by muddy boot prints from the get-go. Oh, yes, American readers in 1958 were all too familiar with the sexual charms of children and the hidden terrors of molestation by family members, Vickers says, but it was not a topic for discussion in any way, shape, or form, as Nabokov discovered himself in 1954. When Lolita threatened to pull back the mask of their shame – it was too late to ignore the book because it was already a scandalous international sensation – the collective American reaction was to accept and absorb the book culturally but turn it into a cruel joke, instead: Little girls who behave in a sexually provocative manner deserve whatever fate they may have coming to them. That’s how the culture ate it up and spit it back, with the name Lolita becoming a synonym for, to use the dialect of the times, “a fast little article”. Never mind the fact that the fictionalized life of Lolita in Nabokov’s novel purports otherwise. Vickers writes with justifiable venom:
In the brief future that lies before her (she will be dead at seventeen), Lolita will effectively be incarcerated for a year in the series of motels and automobiles that Humbert deploys to avoid staying in any one place where their strange relationship might be detected for what it is. She will fall in love with her odd hero, Clare Quilty, who will quickly dump her for not participating in his drug-fueled orgies. And she will marry and carry the child of a nice guy with no money and a severe hearing disability. Some fast little article.
Writing in a voice that is both tongue-in-cheek and righteously angry, Vickers recaptures Nabokov’s fictional creation for what she is – the victim of pedophile Humbert Humbert, “the European aesthete criminalized by his sexual appetites” – and viciously indicts pop culture for reinventing her as a temptress. The most fascinating aspect of Chasing Lolita, aside from the author’s exhaustive research and his honest ability to admit that on some points he may be stretching his credulity, is that Vickers is as emotionally involved in his narrative as Humbert was in Nabokov’s.
“Of course Lolita is a fictional character,” Vickers says in a rich and refined voice during a late-night phone call to his London home. “But one can treat her as if she is real because part of the wonder of Nabokov’s novel is that Lolita is such a beautifully-created character. She has taken on a life of her own and if Lolita has been made a symbol of something totally inappropriate by pop culture then she deserves consideration, she deserves a voice.”
Vickers underscores that Nabokov’s Lolita was a 12-year-old child – not a teenager – when she first succumbed to the middle-aged man who subsequently narrated the saga of his infatuation with her. She was not equipped in any sense to be the iconic temptress that popular culture would have her evolve into.
The novel’s descriptions of her stress her physical appeal but only in relation to Humbert’s appetites. That appeal owes nothing to any broadly recognizable popular image of a siren, past or present … In fact, there is no indication in Nabokov’s novel that Lolita looked in any way overly seductive, that she dressed to provoke, or that her sexual appetites were significantly different from those of her 1940s classmates. It was not until a publicity poster appeared for Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film of Lolita that we first encounter a color photograph of an entirely bogus Lolita wearing red heart-shaped sunglasses while licking a red lollipop – love and fellatio, get it?
The provocative poster for Kubrick’s film adaptation – with the equally provocative tag line ‘How did they ever make a film of Lolita?’ – marks “the first blatantly visual travesty of Nabokov’s grubby chestnut-haired 12-year-old and does not even resemble how Sue Lyon looks in the movie.”
Despite the critical accolades that Kubrick’s movie has received over the years, as an adaptation of the novel Vickers correctly refers to the James Mason/Peter Sellers vehicle as “a patchy misfire.” On her own role as Lolita, Lyon, who avoids interviews since retiring from acting in 1980, said at the time of the film’s release: “I feel sorry for her. She’s neurotic and pathetic and only interested in herself.” Lyon, of course, is referring to Kubrick’s own interpretation of Nabokov’s character, not the titular heroine of Nabokov’s novel. The two are distinct and polar opposites.
Nabokov’s own scenario, largely unused by the master filmmaker, was published as Lolita: A Screenplay by McGraw-Hill in 1974. In his foreword Nabokov wrote, “My first reaction to the picture was a mixture of aggravation, regret, and reluctant pleasure … I keenly regretted the waste of my time while admiring Kubrick’s fortitude in enduring for six months the evolution and infliction of a useless product.”
The life and career trajectory of Lyon would eventually take on dimensions as tragic and complicated as Lolita’s. Only 16 when the film premiered, Lyon was made into an overnight sensation and nabbed a Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer (Female). But she could never live down Lolita. Aside from a co-starring role alongside Richard Burton and Ava Gardner in John Huston’s Night of the Iguana (1964), Lyon was not offered any roles that would place her acting career in anything resembling a respectable arc.
Lyon, whose turbulent life led to a diagnosis and treatment for bi-polar disorder, married and divorced five times and was the star of American scandal sheets when she married African-American photographer and football coach Roland Harrison in the early ’70s (an eerie reflection of Nabokov’s observation that pedophilia and miscegenation are “utterly taboo” in American culture). Lyon and Harrison relocated to Spain to escape the tabloid press, but the marriage could not withstand the pressure.
In 1973, while living in a hotel in Denver and working as a cocktail waitress, the one-time starlet met Gary “Cotton” Adamson at the Colorado State Penitentiary, where he was serving a sentence for robbery and murder. She married Adamson in November 1973 and took up the social cause of conjugal rights and prison reform. In 1974, the recently-released Adamson committed another hold-up and Lyon soon filed for divorce.
“I defy any pretty girl who is rocketed to world stardom at 15 in a sex-nymphet role to stay on that level path thereafter,” press-shy Lyon said in a rare interview many years ago. (Nabokov described Lyon as “a demure nymphet of 14 or so” when he first saw photographs of the young actress at Kubrick’s Beverly Hills home in September 1960, during casting of the motion picture. Nabokov, of course, coined the word “nymphet” in Lolita and it has since passed into the lexicon.)
In Chasing Lolita, Vickers notes that when Adrian Lyne’s film of Nabokov’s novel was released in 1997, Lyon, it seems, could no longer even consider the dreaded name rationally. “I am appalled they should revive a film that caused my destruction as a person,” she told the Reuters news agency.
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: James Mason, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyon, Gary Cockrell, Jerry Stovin
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 1962
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Subtitle: A Screenplay
Publisher: Random House
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Subtitle: A Screenplay
Publisher: Random House
Lolita represented the implosion of Lyon’s life and created one of the darkest episodes in the history of popular culture, if not a permanent dent in the collective psyche. Vickers demonstrates that Lolita herself was “eventually to become an enduring object of interest to the commercial world for reasons that were rarely literary. Her notoriety would eventually seep into every facet of commerce and fashion, ranging from sex toys and movie promotions to paintings and photographic art.” Indeed, a Google search of the name Lolita uncovers a dizzying array of exploitation: Lolita fashion lines, Lolita bras and undergarments, Lolita martini glasses, a Lolita dildo, and multiple bars and clubs carrying the nickname of Nabokov’s Dolores Haze. In February 2008, a chain of retail stores in Britain were forced to withdraw the sale of beds named Lolita that had been designed and marketed for six-year-old girls after a furious public uproar.
In a chapter sardonically titled The Spirit of Free Enterprise, Vickers saves his most bitter bile for pornographers – particularly those who peddle in the international kiddie porn market on the Internet – for co-opting the name Lolita, particularly a profitable and much sought-after Dutch child porn magazine bearing the name.
“Of course,” Vickers writes in summarizing the chapter, “had Lolita’s name remained the fairly common Spanish diminutive it had been before Nabokov bestowed fantastic fame upon it, the pornographers would simply have found another generic label to identify their images of molested and beaten kids. But perhaps it is grimly fitting that those traders in abuse should have knocked off a name so mellifluous and rich in associations since the theft is appropriate to the practice it describes: the stealing of childhoods to realize dark adult fantasies. In her most shameful corruption, Dolores Haze, alias Lolita, was reduced to a logotype for salable images of child abuse in progress, images old and new, color and monochrome, digitized and cloned, and now available on a computer screen near you.”
Press and tabloid exploitation of Lolita’s name is also obscenely rampant, bowing to the art of pandering to the worst instincts of a prurient readership. How can we forget Amy Fisher, the so-called “Long Island Lolita” (Vickers refers to the Fisher incident as “a shabby scandal inflated by the tabloids”) or press epithets for Russian tennis star Maria Yurievna Sharapova as “the Lolita of women’s tennis … Lolita with a racket.”
Neither scholarly nor pedantic, Vickers’ Chasing Lolita is a necessary addition to any complete understanding of Lolita, both the book and the sickening pop culture icon she has morphed into. This thorough study of the pervasive corruption of Nabokov’s doomed heroine is the nearest thing that arts and letters have offered as a way of recovering her lost soul.
Nabokov, who claimed to despise books with a social message, makes a brief appearance in the foreword to Lolita under the guise of John Ray, Jr., Ph.D. He sums up Humbert’s startling memoir thus:
“As a case history, Lolita will become, no doubt, a classic in psychiatric circles. As a work of art, it transcends its expiatory aspects; and still more important to us than scientific significance and literary worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader; for in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson; the wayward child, the egoistic mother, the panting maniac – these are not only vivid characters in a unique story: they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils. Lolita should make all of us – parents, social workers, educators – apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.”