The Showgirl Who Discovered Lolita

How Nabokov's Masterpiece Found Its American Publisher

By  Sarah Weinman

Sixty years ago today, on November 26, 1958, Vladimir and Vera Nabokov went out to dinner at Cafe Chambord on Third Avenue at 49th Street. The other dinner guests included Walter Minton, publisher of G.P. Putnam’s and Sons, and his wife, Polly, as well as Victor Schaller, Putnam’s head of finance, and his wife. The mood should have been celebratory in light of Lolita’s increasing success. The novel, published three months earlier, was atop bestseller lists, received reviews—rapturous or critical—from all corners, and foreshadowed the book’s permanent place as a controversial topic of conversation.

The mood, however, was anything but celebratory. As Vera later wrote in great detail in a diary chronicling Lolita’s path to and during publication, a melancholy air suffused the evening because the Mintons were unduly preoccupied with a Time Magazine article published the previous week.

The article, unbylined but written by staff writer and future Los Angeles Times gossip columnist Joyce Haber, was ostensibly about the public reception of Lolita. Haber opened with an account of Nabokov at a Putnam’s-sponsored reception for the novel, where he, according to Haber, “faced a formidable force of 1,000 literature-loving women.” After quickly dispensing with the positive and negative critical reception for Lolita, Haber let loose on an altogether different target: Rosemary Ridgewell, a Latin Quarter showgirl who had, much to her surprise and the public’s, helped bring about Lolita‘s publication in America after years of stops and starts.

Haber described Ridgewell as “a superannuated (27) nymphet… a tall (5 ft. 8 in.) slithery-blithery onetime Latin Quarter showgirl who wears a gold swizzle stick around her neck and a bubbly smile on her face. Well may she bubble.” Ridgewell merited Haber’s attention for tipping off Minton to Lolita’s existence after reading excerpts in the Anchor Review. But the cause of Haber’s ire was that she and Ridgewell were Walter Minton’s mistresses at the same time. No wonder she felt compelled to douse her rival in prose equivalent to hydrochloric acid.

Rosemary, like many young women of a certain social strata in 1950s Manhattan, came from somewhere else.

Vera Nabokov would learn some of these details at the Cafe Chambord dinner, where she sat next to Walter Minton’s wife, Polly. The younger woman—“a pretty girl, rather unhappy”—immediately began to unburden herself to Vera, whom she’d never met. The “frightened, bewildered” Polly looked upon Lolita as a source of pain and problems in her marriage to Walter. Where once the couple was happy, Polly confided, since the novel’s arrival in their lives her husband “began to see a lot of people and get mixed up.”

Polly let slip to Vera that she first learned of her husband’s involvement with Ridgewell through the “horrid” Time article. Vera was, apparently, unnerved by Polly’s confession, but had the wherewithal to observe in her diary: “Poor Polly, small-town little girl, craving for so many pounds of ‘culture’ gift-boxed and tied with a nice pink bow!” Vera did not know Rosemary, but based on what Polly told her and the Time article, she judged her as “a pretty awful, vulgar but flashy young female.”

Odd as this encounter was for Vera, the evening devolved further. After Victor Schaller and his wife bid the Nabokovs and the Mintons adieu, Dmitri turned up, driving his 1957 MG sports car. Polly, enthralled, requested a ride, and Dmitri obliged. Vladimir and Vera took a cab to their hotel, accompanied by Minton, who proceeded—within earshot of the driver, and perhaps unprompted—to admit his affairs with both Ridgewell and Haber.

“Between his two little harlots,” Vera wrote, “M[inton] ruined his family life.” Minton swore both affairs were over, that he had “made it up to Polly,” and presented Rosemary “in a very unsavory light, a little courtesan, almost a ‘call girl’, trying to collect as much money as she could from Walter and spouting nonsense about Lolita.”

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When the trio arrived at the hotel, Polly and Dmitri were still MIA. The Nabokovs and Minton “waited and waited,” Vera recording this phrase and then crossing it out. When the duo finally appeared in the hotel lobby, Dmitri informed his parents “with a sly smile” that he and Polly had driven to his apartment, and because she had wished to see it. The next day, Vera wrote, “Minton told V., ‘I hear Dmitri gave Polly a good time last night.’” Vera did not know what to make of Minton’s comment. “I wonder if this sort of thing is normal or typical of today’s America? A bad novel by some O’Hara or Cozens [sic] suddenly come to life.”

The dark comedy of the evening did indeed resemble a John O’Hara story or James Gould Cozzens’ By Love Possessed, which had been a bestseller the year before. What Vera Nabokov witnessed, and grew so disturbed by that she was compelled to write about it in her diary, seemed like a harbinger of all the ways in which American culture would corrupt Lolita and misunderstand Nabokov’s meaning. If those closest to the Nabokovs were behaving strangely, who else might this novel have the power to corrupt?

Walter Minton oversaw Putnam’s expansion and broadening of its commercial sensibility through the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. His formula, if you will, was the combination of literary merit and more than a hint of scandal. He published Norman Mailer when other houses thought he was a burnout; he saw potential in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and capitalized handsomely; and he took a chance on Lolita when so many shied away.

It remains unclear when Minton, who took over as president of G.P. Putnam’s Sons upon the 1956 death of his father, first heard of Lolita. Some scoff that he could have been ignorant of its notoriety until the summer of 1957, when he wrote Vladimir Nabokov to inquire if publishing rights were still available.

In a 1995 interview with Stacy Schiff, Minton said he had heard of Lolita, but only read it after running into Ridgewell at a party given by the New York Mirror’s Lee Mortimer, where Ridgewell happened to have a copy of Lolita on hand. She’d bought it and read it during a recent trip to Paris, intrigued by those Anchor Review excerpts, and declared it to be “the funniest book she had ever read.”

“You’re the prettiest girl here, and obviously social. I’ve often seen your picture.” “Thank you. My name is Rosemary Ridgewell. I took the night off. I’m a Latin Quarter showgirl. You saw my picture in your column.” (Earl Wilson column, March 1953)

Minton gave a different account in John de St. Jorre’s Venus Bound, a history of Olympia Press: “A man called Henry Exstein, who ran a remainder business, first recommended Lolita to me. He gave me one of the green Olympia Press copies, but I never did anything about it. A couple of weeks later, a young lady, Rosemary Ridgewell, a showgirl at the Copacabana in New York, sat me down one evening and said: ‘You’ve got to read this.’ I read it in her apartment that night in about three hours and knew that it was something extraordinary.”

Minton told Schiff that Ridgewell “sat with me… in her apartment on East 67th Street while I read it.” Whether that statement, made by a man with a city apartment and a wife and three children living in Ridgewood, New Jersey, should be taken at face value or as innuendo at its most obvious is up to the reader. But Ridgewell, by introducing Minton to Lolita and his deciding to publish, became an accidental literary scout, with a handsome finder’s fee for her efforts.

Putnam decreed that any individual who passed on a manuscript deemed worthy of publication would receive the equivalent of 10 percent of a book’s royalties in its first year on sale, plus 10 percent of Putnam’s share of subsidiary rights for the first two years on sale. Lolita’s climbing sales trajectory meant that Ridgewell was in line to net approximately $20,000, if her commission was fully paid out. No wonder Nabokov asked Minton to clarify the arrangement, “concerned primarily that Ridgewell’s fee not be deducted from his royalties.”

Minton and Ridgewell, in their public facade as publisher and scout and private roles as lovers, ventured to Paris together. There they met with Olympia Press publisher Maurice Girodias. Here things turned strange, as John Calder recounts in his 2001 memoir Pursuit:

Rosemary and Walter Minton went to Paris and Girodias invited them to lunch, a little discomfited when Rosemary insisted on going to the very expensive Tour d’Argent. He was nervously feeling in his pocket to see how much cash he had, when Rosemary insisted that Walter was paying. [Girodias] saw them again that night when it became very obvious they were not getting on, and when he took them, along with Iris Owens (who wrote novels for him as Harriet Daimler) to a lesbian night club the evening ended in a fracas with Minton hitting Rosemary and walking out. The next morning she turned up at Maurice’s flat with a bag of croissants, spent the day in bed with him, and returned to New York on her own the following day. Maurice’s private life was always colourful and he never had difficulties with ladies.

Schiff, in Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), reported a different version of Calder’s story, that “Rosemary bludgeoned Minton with a whiskey bottle.” Minton more or less confirmed this version to me in August 2017: “We got into an argument, she took a whack at me, and she left.”

Vera Nabokov likely wasn’t aware of either version of the story. But there was another possible reason that Rosemary Ridgewell provoked her ire during and after the Cafe Chambord dinner: she had gleaned, from Doubleday & Anchor editor Jason Epstein, that Ridgewell was, apparently, “gunning for Vladimir.”

Was Rosemary Ridgewell interested in Vladmir Nabokov more than merely the author of the book she helped bring to American readers? Perhaps. It’s equally possible Epstein was talking out of turn. Ridgewell was a bit player in Lolita‘s genesis, an amuse-bouche if you will. But the more I wondered about her, the more she stuck with me. Like the scent of a particularly aromatic perfume.

Rosemary, like many young women of a certain social strata in 1950s Manhattan, came from somewhere else. Minneapolis, to be exact, where she was born on February 16, 1931 to Ernest and Esther Ridgewell. Though there were Ridgewells all over Minnesota, Rosemary was her parents’ only child.

Esther’s death in 1943, when Rosemary was 12, and her father’s immediate remarriage to another woman, certainly acted as some sort of breach. The blue-eyed brunette fled Minneapolis for New York not long after graduating St. Louis Park High (the alma mater, a generation later, for the Coen Brothers.) By age 20, her name began to show up in the city gossip columns, and at 21 Ridgewell was crowned “Queen of the National Shoe Stores” by the Bronx borough president. Her brunette locks lightened to blonde.

Was Rosemary Ridgewell interested in Vladmir Nabokov more than merely the author of the book she helped bring to American readers? Perhaps.

Ridgewell dreamed of opera stardom. It dated to age 12, according to her father, and classes at the McPhail School of Music. In New York, Rosemary took lessons to enrich her coloratura soprano, ushered at Carnegie Hall concerts, haunted the Metropolitan Opera as an audience-goer whenever she could, once posed for a picture underneath a painting of Met star Fabrizia Bori, even got herself a job with the production crew.

But at a point she was supposed to carry a spear, Rosemary started singing with the chorus, and got fired. Next she was accepted for the company corps of Brigadoon, but backed out when she learned it was for the road, not Broadway. What point was going on tour to places like the one she left behind? 

So Rosemary fell in with a different crowd, and caught the attention of Lou Walters (Barbara’s father) who owned the Latin Quarter, a Midtown nightclub. For much of the 1950s, with a few extended breaks, Rosemary called the club home, appearing most evenings, at 8 pm and midnight, as a showgirl. She described her routine to the columnist Lee Mortimer in 1955: “The wardrobe mistress undressed me. Lou told me to keep my mouth shut. And that’s how I’ve been parading up and down like this twice a night for four years. I forgot to ask questions.” 

I suspect pictures didn’t do Rosemary full justice. Those show her as gorgeous, a smile equal parts welcoming, knowing, and boundary-setting. Like a more approachable Grace Kelly, a more down-to-earth Marilyn Monroe. A beauty like that would of course find herself in the company of older men. Being part of Cafe Society demanded that. Not all blonde showgirls, however, got written up by the Earl Wilsons and Walter Winchells of the world. To do that, one had to be smart—by yourself or through a publicist. Or, maybe in Rosemary’s case, a bit of both. 

Like now, being publicly linked with a man in a gossip column did not mean the relationship was real. A date could be a stunt, a building block for a lasting career, or a shot at marriage to a rich man. The names linked with Rosemary in her early appearances in the gossips—margarine heir Johnny Jelke, Boston society man Ted Doucette, stockbroker Michael Schocken, Yankees slugger Joe DiMaggio—hinted at the third option.

They were older, with money. Rosemary was far younger, with beauty. She built up her capital in the form of trips to Havana (“Lots of nice people here. My jewelry collection is showing progress”) mink coats she bought herself (“I figure as long as I was there I might as well buy one”) and baubles like the swizzle stick around her neck she was never seen without. She even “returned a diamond betrothal ring to a renowned novelist,” in a juicy Winchell blind item from March 1956.

But the frequency with which Ridgewell was linked to Bill O’Dwyer, the former mayor of New York City, suggests something was up with the two of them. They met in Mexico, apparently, where O’Dwyer served as ambassador in the next stage of his political life and Ridgewell was on a six-week vacation, ostensibly to study opera. They met in the summer of 1955, they became inseparable, they hung out at nightclubs and saw bullfights and then, when the idyll ended and Rosemary returned to Manhattan, they spent hours on the phone in conversation.

Whatever transpired between Ridgewell and O’Dwyer, it was by no means exclusive. There were still hints being dropped about the two of them by the time Ridgewell bought herself a copy of Lolita in Paris, and even after her dalliance with Minton. (Vera Nabokov referred to the man as “the gangster mayor of New York.”) The hints stopped as soon as Ridgewell’s accidental foray into literary scouting transformed her, as blared by a summer 1959 Tab headline, into “The Showgirl Who Uncovered Lolita.”

If Ridgewell thought she could parlay the publicity into something more, she was proved wrong. She quit the Latin Quarter show, presumably to take her opera aspirations more seriously, though they did not feel the same way about her. (Wilson, in one of his cattier comments, remarked that Ridgewell is “one of the great natural voices in New York, but is too talented in other directions to concentrate and develop it.”) She flew to London at least once to “scout for more books,” in the hopes there might be a further windfall a la Lolita.

The finder’s fee from Putnam took a while to materialize, though. Dorothy Kilgallen reported on October 28, 1959 that Ridgewell threatened litigation against Putnam for reneging on the deal. Earl Wilson, a week or so later, wrote that Ridgewell was “chorus-girling at the Las Vegas Tropicana” while waiting for what was owed to her, because she “received 5 and a half Gs and some literary types and Putnam’s think that’s enough.” Six months later, in June 1960, Kilgallen reported that Ridgewell “has collected $22,000 as her share of the Lolita royalties.” (If there was a settlement, there is no record; Minton denied any legal trouble with Ridgewell when I asked him about it.)

After that the columns didn’t mention Ridgewell very much. When they did, the notices were ominous. Winchell, August 1961: “Show-gal Rosemary Ridgewell’s loss of weight from 126 to 95 in a few weeks has chums worried. Won’t eat.” And almost four years later, in February 1965, Winchell noted Ridgewell was “seriously ill at NY Hospital.” Another six years passed until Ridgewell’s final mention in the gossips, a sympathetic August 1971 note from her old booster Earl Wilson announcing her forthcoming marriage to theater producer Raymond Dahdah.

The 1970s were quieter, but not necessarily kinder, to Rosemary. She and Dahdah married, but he declared bankruptcy in 1973. She, never photographed without a drink in her hand, began to up her booze intake, edging closer to alcoholism. One night in July 1979, she took a tumble outside her Upper East Side home and hit her head. Mount Sinai hospital diagnosed  her with a brain bleed and kept her overnight. But upon returning home, the massive headache persisted.

Rosemary Ridgewell died in her sleep on July 12, 1979, just 48 years old. Liz Smith noted Ridgewell’s death in her syndicated gossip column as “the girl who discovered Nabokov’s Lolita.” Well may she bubble; but this time, without malice, without bile, only admiration.

Sarah Weinman’s latest, The Real Lolita, is available now from Ecco.

Sarah Weinman
Sarah Weinman
Sarah Weinman, a CrimeReads contributing editor and columnist, is the editor of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s (Library of America) and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense. Her first nonfiction book, The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World, was published by Ecco in 2018.

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