The DIVORCE SEEKERS
A Nevada Dude & Divorce Ranch Memoir
by William and Sandra McGee
True stories. 500 images.
“Best book yet about Nevada’s famous dude-divorce ranch business.”
-Eric Moody, Nevada Historical Society, Reno
“Bill’s stories are like an old Hollywood movie coming to life.”
-Sandra V. McGee, co-author
A handsome cowboy hires on at the exclusive Flying M.E. divorce ranch for wealthy Easterners.
It was the heyday of the Reno six-week divorce era. Divorce seekers – as the media called them – came running to Reno by the thousands… the rich, the poor, the famous, and the working class. If they had the money and wanted their privacy from the prying eyes of the press, they stayed on a divorce ranch… and the Flying M.E. , twenty miles south of Reno, was the most exclusive of them all.
From 1947 to 1949, Bill McGee was the head dude wrangler on the Flying M.E. He entertained wealthy Eastern socialites with names like Astor and du Pont, and Hollywood movie stars Ava Gardner and Clark Gable.
Bill and his co-author/wife Sandra McGee recapture those years in The Divorce Seekers – A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler, a collection of true stories about the fascinating and changing cast of characters that came and went every six weeks on the famous Flying M.E. The hardcover book is richly illustrated with 500 b/w photographs, most never before published and from the scrapbooks of former Flying M.E. guests.
“The images – with their smoky, black-and-white, retro allure – are what brought the time and place alive for me so that I could bring my characters to life in my novel … This book is a treasure if only for the photos alone.”
-Deb Caletti, bestselling author of the Reno divorce ranch novel, The Secrets She Keeps
444 pp, 500 b/w photographs & illustrations
Notes, appendices, bibliography, index
Hardcover 8.5″ x 11″, $35.00
BMC Publications (2004)
Meet Bill McGee
As Bill liked to say, “At age twenty-two, being the only man on the Flying M.E. and surrounded by all those beautiful and wealthy women, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Those were some of the best years of my life.”
Backstory: Once Upon a Time in RENO
Today no one needs to get away to divorce – they just divorce. But “splittin’ blankets” was not always so easy
In most states, getting a divorce required a waiting period of one year or more and proof of adultery – a messy business.
In the depths of the Great Depression, Nevada Governor Fred B. Balzar signed two highly controversial bills: one to legalize gambling in the state; the other to reduce the residency requirement for a divorce in Nevada from three months to only six weeks.
On March 20, 1931, Nevada made it simple
And the Nevada State Journal headlines shouted out the big news in boldface type on page one…
Now, anyone seeking a “quickie” divorce (as it would be called) could reside anywhere in Nevada for six weeks, pick their reason for wanting a divorce from a list of 9 legal grounds that required little or no proof, and spend an average of six minutes in court before a judge to get the divorce decree.
9 legal grounds for a Nevada divorce
as of March 20, 1931
4. Conviction of a felony
5. Habitual drunkeness
6. Neglect to provide the common necessities of life
8. Living apart for three years
and the most popular…
9. Extreme cruelty entirely mental in nature
The motives behind the legalized gambling and six-week divorce measures were purely economic: to bring people and their money to the State. And, indeed, people came and people spent their money.
For decades to come, legalized gambling and easy divorce would set Nevada apart from the rest of the nation and, in some circles, taint the image of the State. However, it was legalized gambling and easy divorce that helped Nevada get through the bare and lean years of the Great Depression.
When word got out about Nevada’s six-week divorce, the floodgates opened
Divorce seekers (a term coined by the media) came running to Reno by the thousands. They came from all walks of life – the rich, the poor, Eastern socialites, and the working class. They were mostly women, but men came, too. (Las Vegas was still a speck on the map and wouldn’t get in the divorce business until years later.)
Reno, then a wild and wooly small town “out West”, soon became known nationwide – even worldwide – as the “Divorce Capital of the World” and Reno was the place to go.
Publicity about the Reno divorce generated its own Glossary of Divorce Jargon. “Getting Reno-vated” (a term coined by columnist Walter Winchell), “I’m Going to Reno!” and “Taking the Cure” were synonymous for getting a divorce in Reno. A “Divorcée Special” was a train bringing divorce seekers to Reno. The Washoe County Courthouse was “The Separator.” There was even a brassiere called “The Reno” because it both separated and supported.
Divorce ranches sprang up around Reno
To accommodate the influx of divorce seekers, hotels, boardinghouses and divorce ranches (a media term for a dude ranch that catered to divorce seekers) sprang up in and around Reno. For six weeks, divorce seekers spent their money on food and lodging, gambling, drinking, lawyers, personal necessities, Western wear, and more. Many divorce seekers fell in love during their six weeks in Reno – some with the West and others with someone they met. Many wealthy Easterners stayed in Nevada after their divorce, bringing with them their wealth and their culture. It was a unique period in the American West when ladies met cowboys, East met West, and they mixed it up.
The Reno divorce ranch era flourished throughout the 1930s and ’40s
Reno continued to retain its title as “Divorce Capital of the World” throughout the 1940s. However, in the 1950s, Las Vegas began to catch up and by the 1960s was granting half of Nevada’s divorces. By the 1970s, as other states were relaxing their divorce laws, the need to go to Reno for a divorce faded out.
Today no one needs to go to Reno for a divorce, they just divorce. But the story of how a small town in Nevada came to redefine divorce in America is a remarkable true story and a part of history few know about today.
That unique Nevada institution – the divorce ranch – has faded away, but Nevada as a place “to split” will always remain a legend of our time
Extra Material: Dive Deeper into the Reno Divorce Ranch Era