- The Magazine
- Current Issue
- Events & Shows
- Web Extras
- Yellow Pages
Fifty years ago Nevada struck gold with its innovative divorce law, and Easterners flocked west to get Reno-vated.
Photo: University of Nevada, Reno Special Collections
The Overland Limited grinds to a halt in Reno on a cool summer night. A well-dressed woman steps down from the train, hoping to be unnoticed. Other passengers walking up and down the platform wonder aloud if she is “one of them.” She feels as if she has a contagious disease. Anxious and a little embarrassed, she looks around and finally spots the handsome, suntanned cowboy who will whisk her away to a dude ranch. She will spend the next six weeks there trying to forget her marital woes while taking the cure.
The cure was divorce and the scene a familiar one in Reno during the 1930s. In March 1931, the Nevada Legislature shocked the nation when it not only legalized gambling in the state, but reduced the residency requirement for divorce from three months to six weeks. The combination of wide-open gambling, a short waiting period, and sympathetic judges was a powerful magnet. Men and women were drawn to Nevada from around the country, lured by the promise of quick and easy divorce.
Nevada began to realize the possibilities of establishing a divorce trade in 1906, when Mrs. William Ellis Corey, wife of the Pittsburgh steel millionaire, sued for divorce in Reno. When Mrs. Corey revealed that her husband’s attentions had been directed toward a young actress, the ensuing scandal attracted worldwide publicity. Actress Mary Pickford’s 1920 divorce from Owen Moore in Minden focused more attention upon the state. The Corey and Pickford decrees gave a fashionable tone to Nevada divorce.
Wealthy Easterners who made the trek found their domestic difficulties could be ended after establishing a residency of only six months. Nevada was the only state to offer such a quick relief.
The Silver State basked in the dubious limelight until 1927 when Mexico and France threatened to reduce their residency requirements, hoping to attract American divorcees. That year the legislature responded by passing a three-month residency bill, encouraged by financier George Wingfield, whose new and expensive Riverside Hotel was conveniently located just a few brisk paces from the Reno courthouse.
By 1931, however, Idaho and Arkansas had reduced their residency requirements to three months. Nevada had to act fast. On March 19, with little fanfare and virtually no opposition, Governor Frederick Balzar signed a six-weeks residency bill, and the rush was on to Reno and Las Vegas and easy divorce.
The America of 1931 remained staunchly conservative in its views, and the passage of the six-weeks bill was not without its opponents. The Reno Evening Gazette believed the action taken by the legislature would only degrade Nevada’s image in the eyes of her sister states. Business would surely suffer as short-term residents would not be inclined to purchase homes and automobiles or become permanent citizens. National magazines called Reno “a city of women who have failed,” a town made beautiful as bait for divorce-seekers. The International Society of Christian Endeavor declared that Reno was “a blot on civilization, a menace to the American home and national prestige.” By passing the six-weeks residency bill, Nevada had all but forsaken her rights in the American Commonwealth.
Many Nevadans bristled with indignation when they heard such remarks. Nevadans were proud of their state and resented the accusation that they thrived on other people’s marital problems. One Reno resident told a national reporter that Nevada might be making a profit on domestic affliction, but every hospital in the country was committing the same offense by accepting fees from patients.
While most of the nation expressed shock over Nevada’s seeming lack of respect for the institution of marriage, members of café society were extolling the virtues of a Reno divorce. Wealthy Easterners were mesmerized by the thoughts of days spent horseback riding and swimming at a local dude ranch, followed by glorious nights of gambling and dining in elegant casinos. Divorce seekers were also attracted by a “travel feature” which had been added to the six-weeks bill. Petitioners could travel freely around the state, for residency need not be established in one county. Just maintaining residence in Nevada was sufficient.
Obtaining a divorce was surprisingly simple. Extreme cruelty was the most common ground, and the term was stretched to mean just about anything, from a poor sense of humor to keeping too many Persian cats. One woman alleged that her husband threatened to go to the South Sea Islands if she did not leave him. Another wife complained that her husband caused her great embarrassment when he bounced a tennis ball off her head in the presence of their friends.
Women did not always have the last word. The grandson of a steel millionaire described how his wife, in a fit of anger, would pull his hair out by the roots. During one of her more excited moments, she had even driven a nail file into his ankle while the two were vacationing in Switzerland.
Reno judges gained a reputation for being sympathetic, if not downright accommodating. Uncontested divorces were heard on Monday and could be over in as little as 15 minutes. Frequently a teary-eyed female plaintiff would be seen leaving the Reno courthouse, clinging to her lawyer’s arm. Taking a few steps to the Truckee River Bridge, also known as the Bridge of Sighs, she would toss her wedding ring into the cold waters below. Some divorcees couldn’t resist getting a little revenge, like the woman who sent her divorce decree to her husband with a farewell gift of silk underwear in which she had concealed black widow spiders.
Reno’s attractions were many, and the divorce seeker was rarely at a loss for amusement. Two-thirds of Nevada divorces were granted to women, and the state worked hard to assure them that coming to Nevada would be a pleasant and safe experience. Dude ranches offered a desert haven for those wishing to escape journalists and photographers. The Flying ME at Franktown and the Pyramid Lake Ranch catered to an elite clientele who spent their days basking in the sun, swimming, and taking riding lessons. Nights were a whirlwind of dining and dancing at the posh Willows Inn and the French Room of the Reno Country Club. The Pyramid Lake Ranch became a favorite spot for women who brought their children for the six-week stay. It was well known as a place where kids would be looked after during that kind of vacation.
The dude ranches were a novelty to Easterners, who quickly learned that their couturier riding outfits were definitely out of place in the Nevada desert. It didn’t take them long to blend in, however, and most found their stay to be great fun.
A divorcee could expect to end her residency in love with at least two handsome cowboys. Once Reno-vated, she would return to her Park Avenue penthouse, the envy of her friends, disgustingly healthy and suntanned.
After receiving their divorces, the majority of men and women returned to their homes to pick up the pieces of their disrupted lives. Some fell in love with Nevada and stayed. Others quickly remarried while in the state, taking advantage of Nevada’s easy marriage laws, which required no waiting period.
In Nevada, 1931 was a banner year for divorce with more than 4,000 decrees granted. The state managed to stave off depression for nearly two years. When divorces dropped off around the country in 1932 and 1933, Reno suffered. In order to keep business going, the city catered to those whose pocketbooks preferred boarding houses to dude ranches. Reno was no longer fashionable, but many remembered how it was once the talk of London and Paris.
“The Six-Week Cure” was originally published in the November/December 1981 edition of Nevada Magazine. Two stories concerning divorce appeared in this issue, including the breakup that led to Clark Gable’s marriage to Carole Lombard.
NEVADA HISTORY BUFFS
If you enjoyed the preceding article, from the November/December 1981 edition of Nevada Magazine, you will want to add to your collection Nevada Magazine’s 75th-Anniversary Edition, available while supplies last. To experience 23 more stories from past issues of Nevada Highways and Parks and Nevada Magazine, click here or call 775-687-0603 to place your order.