Holy Lolita! Hefner Hoovers Up First Serial Rights to Nabokov’s Last Novella

Hugh Hefner’s Playboy has acquired the first serial rights to The Original of Laura, the final, unfinished novella of the late Vladmir Nabokov.

For years, Nabokov’s son Dmitri indicated that, per his father’s dying wishes, Laura would never see the light of day. Then last spring he had a change of heart and entrusted the super-agent Andrew Wylie to find a publisher. Knopf secured the rights for an undisclosed sum, and a publication date was set for this coming fall. When Amy Grace Loyd, Playboy’s literary editor since 2005, heard the news, she began an intense courtship process. “I did it with orchids, mostly,” Ms. Loyd said.

It was an inspired method, the flowers serving as a reference to Nabokov’s 1969 novel Ada, or Ardor, which was excerpted in Playboy—thus a reminder for Mr. Wylie of the magazine’s long and treasured association with the author. “It was part of my pitch to Andrew that Nabokov really liked publishing with Playboy, and how devoted Hef is to Nabokov and his legacy,” Ms. Loyd said.

Mr. Wylie was initially unresponsive.

“I would get nice notes back from him, but he really wouldn’t give me anything,” said Ms. Loyd, who’d curated a special feature marking the 50th anniversary of Nabokov’s Lolita as part of her tryout for the job. “He said he wasn’t sure that Playboy was the place to launch the novel in the United States. But I was very persistent, as I often am, and I try forcibly to remind people of our literary history because it is very easy for people to dismiss us.”

At the end of May, Mr. Wylie wrote to Ms. Loyd offering her second serial—meaning another magazine would publish an excerpt of their choosing before the book’s publication, and Playboy could do something a few weeks later.

Ms. Loyd was disappointed, figuring the honor of first serial was more likely to go to a place like The New Yorker, which had its own long history with Nabokov, and had in fact just last summer published one of his newly translated short stories. Ms. Loyd’s worry was not unfounded: Mr. Wylie had indeed sent Laura to the The New Yorker months earlier. But as it happened, according to a source at the magazine, the fiction department was not interested. (Fiction editor Deborah Treisman had no comment.)

On the first of June, Mr. Wylie changed his tune and wrote to Ms. Loyd asking her what, hypothetically, Playboy would be willing to pay for an exclusive.

“I decided to pull out all the stops,” Ms. Loyd said, and arranged with Playboy editorial director Jimmy Jellinek to get a green light from Mr. Hefner.

There were a few sticking points in the negotiation, chiefly the fact that Mr. Wylie wanted Ms. Loyd to give an offer on the book without first reading a page of it. But “I knew because of Nabokov’s genius, even if the manuscript was even more messy than it actually is, I would probably still be content,” Ms. Loyd said.

Terms were finalized during the third week of June. “I’m happy to tell you we’ve never paid this much for a book excerpt before, ever,” Ms. Loyd said, adding: “There are parts of it that are much more cohesive than others. But I found it fascinating in that way.”

The plan right now is for a 5,000-word excerpt to run in Playboy’s December issue, which arrives on stands on Nov. 10—about a week before Knopf will ship the book to stores.

“I’m so glad all those orchids did not die in vain,” Ms. Loyd said. “I don’t imagine anybody’s taking good care of them over there.”

Mr. Wylie had no comment on the transaction.

  Holy Lolita! Hefner Hoovers Up First Serial Rights to Nabokov’s Last Novella