Revisiting the Tragic Life of “Lolita” Star Sue Lyon

A haunting look at cinematic history

Sue Lyon And Peter Sellers
American actress Sue Lyon with co-star Peter Sellers at the premiere of the film 'Lolita.'
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As part of a culture-wide reckoning with predatory sexual behavior, there’s been an increasing amount of attention paid to Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita. Nonfiction titles like Sarah Weinman’s The Real Lolita and Alisson Wood’s Being Lolita have offered detailed explorations of the novel’s legacy and impact on popular culture. And in a new article for Air Mail, Weinman has explored another aspect of this — namely, the life of Sue Lyon, who played Dolores Haze in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Lolita.

Lyon was 14 when she was cast in the film, and spent several months in 1960 and 1961 on the film’s set in London. According to Lyon’s friend Michelle Phillips — yes, the musician — it was there that she began a relationship with Lolita producer James Harris. “If events happened as Phillips described them to me,” Weinman writes, “Lyon would have been 14 to Harris’s 32.” The age of consent in England was 16 then; in California, it was 18.

Lyon died in 2019. At the time, she had been retired from acting for nearly 40 years, and her life after her debut role was tumultuous, to say the least. Reading Weinman’s article, it isn’t hard to see why — Weinman notes that, while Harris dubbed the film a “bizarre love story,” the film’s production itself hewed closer to Nabokov’s novel, in which a young woman is traumatized by the abusive actions of an older man.

All told, Weinman’s article is a fascinating look at cinema history — and a tragic exploration of one man’s abuse of his power. It’s a harrowing but necessary read.

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