How ‘Lolita’ has Stayed Fresh and Youthful for 50 Years

Photo: Jerry Bauer/Courtesy of Vintage Books

(1) In 1953, Cornell University professor Vladimir Nabokov finishes his third English-language novel, about pedophile Humbert Humbert and his 12-year-old “nymphet.” No American publisher will touch it; it ends up with the outlaw Olympia Press, in Paris.

(2) Copies are twice seized by U.S. border officials. In London, Graham Greene praises Lolita in the Sunday Times; John Gordon, in the Sunday Express, calls it “the filthiest book I have ever read.” Sales soar, and in 1958, Putnam releases Lolita in the U.S. Amid uproar, it’s a best seller for six months. Adolf Eichmann, from his cell, calls it “very unwholesome.”

Photo: Everett Collection

(3) Nabokov delivers a screenplay—which director Stanley Kubrick heavily reworks for the 1962 film. But Kubrick’s mature Lolita (Sue Lyon, who was 15 during filming) and comedic tone draw tepid reviews. Nabokov takes the money and heads to Switzerland, dying there in 1977.

(4) Pop culture continues to embrace the nymphet. In 1980, the Police song “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” describes a teacher “Just like the old man in / That book by Nabokov.” And in 1992, Amy Fisher shoots the wife of her middle-aged lover, Joey Buttafuoco, and becomes known as the “Long Island Lolita.”

Photo: Michael Alexander/AP

(5) In 1997, Adrian Lyne remakes the film, with Jeremy Irons as Humbert and 15-year-old Dominique Swain as Lo (by law, Lyne must use body doubles for her nude scenes). U.S. distributors turn down the film; it airs on Showtime. Critics say this one lacks a sense of humor.

(6) In 1998, a U.S. house tries to publish Italian writer Pia Pera’s pro-Lo feminist riff, Lo’s Diary; Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, is not amused, and sues. They settle out of court, and the book is released to mediocre reviews. Dmitri goes easier on Azar Nafisi’s 2003 novel Reading Lolita in Tehran, about a samizdat book group.

(7) Lolita survives the endless debate and makes it to 50, with a mildly lascivious new cover on the Vintage edition and a celebration in the December Playboy, with essays by Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Theroux, Donna Tartt—and, of course, Dmitri Nabokov.

How ‘Lolita’ has Stayed Fresh and Youthful for 50 Years