Vladimir Nabokov’s Other Favorite Crime

While the Sally Horner case gave ‘Lolita’ its main character, the Edward Grammer case gave the book an almost perfect murder.

Sarah Weinman | Longreads | October 2018 | 12 minutes (3,096 words) 

In the summer of 1952, George Edward Grammer was living a compartmentalized life, like so many middle-class executives of his kind. His wife, Dorothy, a Sunday school teacher, was spending the summer in Parkville, on the outskirts of Baltimore, with the couple’s three daughters — Patricia, Dorothy, and Georgia Lee — caring for her bereaved mother, settling the estate of her recently deceased father. During the day, Grammer, who was known as Ed, commuted from his apartment in Parkchester, a planned community in the north end of the Bronx, into Manhattan for his job as an office manager for the Climax Molybdenum Company. Grammer had worked there for about a year, returning to a full-time position after a few years on his own as a sales representative, itself a change of pace from wartime military work he couldn’t discuss with others. Perhaps it prepared him for the split life he led, visiting his family on weekends, and his mistress on weeknights.

The Grammers had been married for 13 years. No one suspected anything amiss, even with Dorothy living elsewhere and Ed on his own in the big city. On a November night in 1951, while Grammer attended his weekly bowling league, a young woman mistook him for an employee at the bowling alley. Perhaps Grammer’s overall appearance, his stooped stance, receding hairline, and deep-set eyes, made him blend in among the other workers. Mistake cast aside, they got to talking, then to drinking, then to going out and staying in. He never told her he was married — he never wore his ring — and she never suspected. Not until it was too late and she was in too deep.

Matilda Mizibrocky, or Tillie, as he called her, had already lived an extraordinary life at just 28 years old. She worked as a communications officer at the United Nations. Originally from Dauphin, Manitoba, the small-town Canadian girl, dark-haired with an open-hearted face and gaze, joined the U.N. to see the world. She traveled to Korea, where she and two other female case officers had a hair-raising escape before the North declared war on the South. She decamped in Japan, then eventually reached New York City, living in a walk-up in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens.

Tillie had never met anyone she wanted to share her life with until Ed. She’d grown to love him, and believed fervently he shared her love in return. They spent so much time together, coffee dates and lunches and cocktails and dinner, and when things grew serious, nights at her place, never his. When they were apart, he wrote her feverish letters professing his love. She didn’t care about June weddings, but she hoped to be married by the end of 1953, before her 30th birthday. But they both knew there was a sticking point: She was Catholic and he was Methodist. Someone had to switch, she said. She hoped it would happen soon.

There is no such thing as a perfect murder, only one that eludes police investigation.

Grammer, naturally, was in a bind. Tillie wouldn’t marry him if she knew he was divorced, because then the Catholic Church wouldn’t consecrate their marriage. And Dorothy wouldn’t be willing to divorce him, or even think of annulment. She told her family so when the subject came up, gently on their part, a way of feeling out whether they were truly happy together, whether the summer separation might evolve into something more permanent.

But what if he were widowed?

So what if Dorothy, whom he married when he was 20 and she 18, was the mother of his daughters ranging in age from 4 to 11? So what if he kept up the pretense of being a loving husband, by letter and by phone, from home in New York, or away on business in Colorado, and Chicago? He didn’t love her anymore. Dorothy was no longer convenient. Grammer was desperate to change course and pursue a future with Tillie.

On the evening of August 19, 1952, Grammer was visiting Dorothy and the kids in Parkville, Maryland, and Tillie was in Canada visiting her parents, as she did every summer. She’d be back in Manhattan by Labor Day. And Grammer was determined to be a free man upon her return.

Instead, he was locked up and later executed by the State of Maryland for a crime so infamous it caught the attention of one of America’s foremost novelists, as Vladimir Nabokov picked up the New York Times, at his home in Ithaca, New York, September 2, 1952, and started to read the headlines.

***

This was not the first time Vladimir Nabokov would have his interest piqued by true crime. Two weeks earlier, on August 20, the morning papers Nabokov read included a wire story about the car-accident death, two days prior, of a 15-year-old girl named Sally Horner. Nabokov jotted down the report — which mentioned Sally’s 1948 kidnapping by a convicted child molester named Frank La Salle and her rescue 21 months later — on a note card, and eventually immortalized Sally’s plight in a single parenthetical in Lolita: “Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle [sic], a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?”

Unlike Sally’s story, whose blink-and-miss reference hid how deeply Nabokov had seeded the case throughout Lolita, the Grammer murder merited an entire paragraph at the beginning of Chapter 33. Humbert Humbert has returned to Ramsdale, five years after his initial arrival and his encounter with Dolores Haze, then nearly 12. Before making himself known in his former haunt, Humbert stops off at the local cemetery, where he wanders as he ruminates on his past.

On some of the graves there were pale, transparent little national flags slumped in the windless air under the evergreens. Gee, Ed, that was bad luck — referring to G. Edward Grammar, a 35-year-old New York office manager who had just been arrayed on a charge of murdering his 33-year old wife, Dorothy. Bidding for the perfect crime, Ed had bludgeoned his wife and put her into a car. The case came to light when two county policemen on patrol saw Mrs. Grammar’s new big blue Chrysler, an anniversary present from her husband, speeding crazily down a hill, just inside their jurisdiction (God bless our good cops!). The car sideswiped a pole, ran up an embankment covered with beard grass, wild strawberry and cinquefoil, and overturned. The wheels were still gently spinning in the mellow sunlight when the officers removed Mrs. G’s body. It appeared to be a routine highway accident at first. Alas, the woman’s battered body did not match up with only minor damage suffered by the car. I did better.

The Grammer case clearly echoed the untimely death of Charlotte Haze, whom Humbert marries in order to have direct access to Dolores and eventually act upon his illicit desire for her. Charlotte is struck by a car after running away from the argument with Humbert where she learns of his true designs on her daughter. Nabokov cleverly phrased the reference to the case so that the reader isn’t clear if Humbert actually stumbles across the Grammer’s grave or if he is merely thinking about the case as he looks at the graves.

It has to be the latter, because Ramsdale is supposed to be somewhere in New England, an area Nabokov knew well from the years he taught at Wellesley College in the 1940s. The G. Edward Grammer case happened in Baltimore, a city Nabokov did not know at all. (His cousin, the composer Nicolas Nabokov, taught at Peabody, the famed music school, but there’s no record of the two meeting up in the city.) Nabokov’s misspelling of Grammer’s last name seems deliberate, an opportunity for the noted literary prankster to sneak in another joke. It was also a sly reference to Humbert’s professed intention, earlier in Lolita, to teach French grammar to Ramsdale’s local children.

The text of Nabokov’s surviving note card about the G. Edward Grammer case, which is housed in the author’s earliest archive at the Library of Congress, is close to, but not exactly, the final version. It includes the phrases “Gee Ed, that was bad luck” as well as “god bless our good cops!” But another wry aside about “Mrs. Grammar’s new automobile” and Grammer’s murderous actions did not make it into the final text: “ought to have doctored it first, Ed!”

One could see how the Grammer case, in tandem with Sally Horner’s death, served as important inspiration for Nabokov. He had already written of would-be perfect murders gone awry in earlier novels such as Despair. But Lolita, with its unreliable narrator and stunning linguistic trickery, treats the kidnapping and sexual abuse of a prepubescent girl as a “perfect crime,” easily missed by masses of people, and of course, by readers of the novel.

Grammer’s staging of the murder of his wife as an accident may well have stayed undetected, and he would have been free to marry Matilda Mizibrocky. But there is no such thing as a perfect murder, only one that eludes police investigation. And Baltimore police, once they noticed details that did not add up, such as a pebble jammed underneath the car’s accelerator pedal, would not be fooled.

***

The crime happened much as Nabokov described it in Lolita. On the evening of August 19, 1952, Grammer was getting ready to go back to New York City after a weekend in Maryland with his wife and daughters. The routine was for Dorothy to drive Ed in their big blue Chrysler the seven or so miles from Parkville to Baltimore Penn Station, where he would give his wife some money for the week and catch the 11:28 p.m. train home. For the first few days after her death, Grammer insisted — in private to Dorothy’s siblings, and in public to the press — that his wife had dropped him off as usual, and that the last he’d seen her alive was at the train station.

But the facts didn’t add up. The witnesses who saw the Chrysler speeding down the hill in Parkville along Taylor Avenue sideswiping a telephone pole on the corner of Belair Road turned out to be two patrolmen. For the victim of a car accident, Dorothy was astonishingly little-bruised in the areas they expected to be bruised, whereas her head had clearly been bashed in. There was blood in the driver’s seat, but the spatter wasn’t substantial enough to suggest she had been killed on impact. More curious: Dorothy’s purse and glasses were missing.

Then police discovered the jammed pebble, which kept the pedal pushed forward. What had seemed an accident was now transformed into a suspected murder.

Grammer didn’t surface at his apartment in the Bronx until 8 a.m. on August 20. If he’d been on the 11:28 p.m. train, he should have been home by 4:30 a.m. at the latest. For 11 days he maintained the guise of grieving widower. He received a letter from an unsuspecting Tillie on August 24, still in Manitoba visiting her parents. She outlined her Canadian travel plans and how much she missed him, saying she “couldn’t think of you anymore if I tried,” and another one on the 26th, in which she revealed her relief that her parents seemed to be on board with “our romance.”

The Grammer case clearly echoed ‘Lolita’ in the untimely death of Charlotte Haze, whom Humbert marries in order to have direct access to Dolores and eventually act upon his illicit desire for her.

Baltimore police summoned Grammer to the station on Saturday, August 30. The questions were friendly at first, almost perfunctory, establishing the kind of life Ed Grammer led with his wife and children. Walking him through his version of his last weekend trip to Baltimore. The police called him back in on Sunday morning. He hadn’t slept at all. They offered Grammer a stale cheese sandwich to eat, which he refused. Then, two hours into the fresh round of interrogations, came the pivotal question: What were the last words your wife said?

A normal answer might have been “Goodbye” or “I love you.” But Edward Grammer did not supply a normal answer. Instead, he asked for time to think.

The police and prosecutor gave him time. Then they asked again, this time adding: “Why don’t you make a clean breast of it?”

Grammer requested even more time to think. Then he asked the interrogating officers to leave the room. He wanted a word with the guards, who did not have the power to arrest him. Five minutes later, he was ready to talk. To tell the truth of what happened the night of August 19. That he had, in fact, killed Dorothy, to benefit from the insurance policy and to free himself to marry Tillie.

Forty-three hours later, George Edward Grammer was in a Baltimore court, indicted for the murder of his wife.

***

Once the death of Dorothy Grammer shifted from accident to murder, media coverage intensified and never ceased. Life featured a six-page spread about the in its September 15, 1952, issue, reveling in the “almost-perfect crime” nature of the story and including photographs of the three Grammer daughters, the crime scene, and of Ed Grammer, lying in bed with his head in his hands in his Bronx apartment, the image taken in the time between staged murder and coaxed confession. More media coverage ensued when Grammer pleaded not guilty in Baltimore Criminal Court on September 16, with the trial beginning the following month.

Over the course of October 1952, the public and private lives of the Grammers, which included overly sentimental greeting cards, unabashed love letters, financial statements, and one especially curious letter from future president Dwight Eisenhower praising Grammer for “looking after him so well” in 1946, when Ed, working in counterintelligence, was stationed in Manila, were aired for all to see. Crowds lined up and down the block to get into the proceedings. Here was a national spectacle, happening right in the heart of Baltimore.

In one statement made to police, Grammar admitted he hit Dorothy with a pipe after she “said something about my job being more important to me than she was.”  But reporters soon sniffed out the motive for Dorothy’s murder — the prospect of a mistress, a detail certainly juicy enough to sell morning and evening newspapers.  But Matilda Mizibrocky’s name took time to appear in print. When she finally returned to New York and was compelled to be a material witness for the prosecution, Mizibrocky was given a pseudonym, “Mary Matthews,” lest her testimony be tainted by media scrutiny. Grammer’s defense lawyer felt that keeping Mizibrocky’s identity under wraps would hinder his ability to prepare his client’s case, but the presiding judge, sided with the prosecutor. Pseudonyms, however, have a way of being revealed. The prosecution kept Mizibrocky’s true identity a secret for as long as they could, but the Baltimore News-Post got wind and printed her name and picture before the trial opened, with other New York and Baltimore papers immediately following suit.

Mizibrocky would testify about her love for Eddie Grammer and how she had no idea of his marital status, let alone that he had committed murder to free himself for marriage. “I saw so much of him I could not believe there could have been any family,” Mizibrocky said in court. “I am sure I could not have been able to see him weekends [and holidays] if he had a family.” She would read his love letters to her, and her own to him. This sort of spectacle was not one she ever dreamed of. She thought Ed was a “wonderful guy” and told him so by letter. He was nothing of the sort, as the trial showed day by day, witness by witness.

Like the Sally Horner case and ‘Lolita,’ the Grammer case is another concrete example of Vladimir Nabokov drawing on real-life crimes to help him with his novel.

To the surprise of no one, Grammer was convicted of the murder of his wife on October 23, 1952. It took several more months for the for the death sentence to be handed down, delayed until the Maryland Court of Appeals denied Grammer’s motion for a new trial on the grounds that the media coverage caused irrevocable jury bias. (The court ruled that the facts of the case caused the outsize publicity.)

There were to be several more unsuccessful appeals, but all ended on June 11, 1954, when George Edward Grammer was hanged by the neck until he was dead. His execution didn’t quite work out so smoothly. It took 15 minutes for Grammer to die, at 12:19 a.m., because the state botched the hanging — so badly, that he was the last person to be executed by hanging in Maryland.

Matilda Mizibrocky was permanently mortified after her testimony. The defense had been reasonably kind in direct examination, but still the attorney had to ask whether she “kept company” with men. The prosecution was disinterested in decorum. After several rounds of badgering, through which Mizibrocky held her own, she was asked if she still loved Ed Grammer. “It is a difficult question to answer,” she replied. “I think you love people for what you think they were. Ed lied to me.” After the trial, Mizibrocky moved to California, breaking free of her earlier life and the shame she felt at being involved with another woman’s husband. She never spoke with her former lover again. She also adopted the “Matthews” pseudonym for good, dying under that name in 1997.

 ***

It isn’t clear if Vladimir Nabokov kept up with the George Edward Grammer case after his arrest. He had begun writing various chapters of what would later be published, in 1957, as Pnin, while beginning to collect rejection letters for Lolita from editors spooked by the possibility of obscenity-related litigation. Grammer’s Baltimore trial showcased further lurid details about his life and misdeeds, and the man’s execution by hanging became an added awful media spectacle, all of which may have interested Nabokov. But the main affair — husband murders wife, passes it off as car accident — was enough inspiration for Nabokov with respect to Lolita.

The Grammer case is another concrete example of Vladimir Nabokov drawing on real-life crimes to help him with his novel. As with Sally Horner’s kidnapping, a note card’s survival indicates that Nabokov attached enough importance to the case that he wanted future readers to be aware that he was always aware, too.

The final line of the Grammer paragraph in Lolita reads with additional chilling force as well. Grammer could not conceal his crime from the world after all. Humbert Humbert, systematically raping Dolores Haze for nearly two years on a cross-country odyssey, could, and did, couching his illicit desire for a 12-year-old girl as a love story, claiming some deeper emotional resonance with a girl he kept harming.

No wonder he concluded: “I did better.”

***

Sara Weinman is the author of The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World.

***

Editor: Michelle Legro
Fact checker: Ethan Chiel
Copy editor: Jacob Gross