Dorothy Leuthold became an essential footnote to the history of modern literature through no effort of her own. She had no qualifications for it (Can somebody actually qualify to be a footnote? Oh, yes!), nor did she have the inclination to be anything of the kind. Leuthold is, nevertheless, a footnote appended to the great cultural text known as “Vladimir Nabokov.” And while this is a cultural text that expands daily, Leuthold remains the same miserly and mysterious footnote she was at the outset, and this—in our day and age, when the number of footnotes and their size often threaten to engulf the text—is a genuine rarity.
Dorothy G. (Gretchen) Leuthold was born on April 8, 1897, in the little town of Waseca, Minnesota. Her parents, Charles and Josephine Cincthold, were of German extraction as was, indeed, half of Waseca. Apparently she never married, so why Dorothy changed her name from Cincthold to Leuthold is not clear. Her entire life is a blank except for a single detail that has propelled her from total anonymity to the literary cocktail party whose guests are condemned to revel on forever. True, at the party Leuthold would be a wallflower, a see-through figure, a person few would ever notice, the woman in the corner who’d be taken for a maidservant and prompted with a gesture to fill the glasses for the guests. Yet her name is right there on the guest list. Chance may have put Leuthold on the list, but she was no party crasher.
Dorothy Leuthold arrived in New York from Waseca in 1930. She found an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and a job at one of the branches of the celebrated New York Public Library; apparently she also attended classes at Columbia University.
Andrew Field, an early biographer of Nabokov’s, was one of the first to write of Dorothy Leuthold. Having arrived in the United States in 1940, Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov, an impassioned lepidopterist, planned to spend the summer of 1941 collecting butterflies with his wife Véra and son Dmitri, although to do so would be a struggle. Véra had been suffering from back pain that whole winter and they weren’t sure she’d be able to undertake the trip, and besides they had no vehicle, no car of their own.
“They did go, and on their first trip across America the Nabokovs were fortunate enough to have a driver. Her name was Dorothy Leuthold, and she was the last of Nabokov’s private language pupils, an unmarried American woman who had worked for years in the New York Public Library system. Nabokov had met her quite by chance, and she had expressed a desire to supplement her knowledge of Russian, which was very limited but included, for reasons Nabokov could never fathom, all the swear words, the meanings of which she evidently did not properly grasp. Then, when the Nabokovs told her that they were going to California, she offered them her car, a brand-new Pontiac that she had just bought. But neither Nabokov nor his wife had any more occasion to know how to drive a car than to understand a bank statement—both were simple enough matters abstractly, but neither had obtruded upon their lives in the course of two decades. Their friend and pupil, when she learned that, said, ‘Oh, I’ll drive you.’ Not only did she drive them, she also planned their itinerary, which took a southerly course and included a particularly memorable stop in Arizona, for it was there, on the south rim of the Grand Canyon on a very cold day in June (they had departed on May 26), that Nabokov walked down a path into the gorge and captured a new butterfly, which he gallantly named after their chauffeur, who had made the trip just to follow her whim and improve her Russian and be kind to some newly arrived immigrants.”
Dorothy Leuthold would bring the Nabokovs to Palo Alto and then drive the car back to the East Coast. At Stanford that summer, Nabokov would offer a course on creative writing, called “The Art of Writing,” as well as a course on Russian literature.
Although Dorothy Leuthold is mentioned by many authors, notably Brian Boyd, another of Nabokov’s biographers, Nabokov himself, and Robert Michael Pyle in his article “Between Climb and Cloud: Nabokov among the Lepidopterists,” the itinerary they followed on their trip from the East Coast to the West Coast—which Leuthold planned and pursued with a martial rigor—has stirred more interest than has the actual person of Dorothy Leuthold. The trip, which began on May 26 and lasted precisely nineteen days, was, among other things, an excellent introduction to the America of motels that Nabokov would later describe in his masterpiece, Lolita. The very names suggest the Nabokovs stayed in cheap roadside lodgings (Motor Court Lee-Mead, Cumberland Motor Court, Wonderland Motor Courts, Motor Hotel), while other names of equally cheap lodgings tend to push the reader toward the symbolism of the “memorable experience” (the hotel, for instance, where they stayed at the Grand Canyon and where Nabokov made the big “find” of his butterfly was called Bright Angel Lodge!).