The Divorce Seekers 1947-1949

Cover of "The Divorce Seekers" by William and Sandra McGee
True Stories of the Reno Divorce Ranch Era

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

 

RENO, 1947

It was the heyday of the Reno six-week divorce era. Divorce seekers (a term coined by the media) came running to Reno by the thousands for a six-week “quickie” divorce – 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 (a media term for a dude ranch catering to divorce seekers) and the Flying M.E. (pronounced “em-ee” for Emmy Wood, the proprietor of the ranch), twenty miles south of Reno in Washoe Valley, 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.

“At the age of twenty-one and the only man on the ranch, 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.” – Bill McGee 

Bill McGee with a divorce seeker on the Flying M.E., 1948

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 Flying M.E. The 444-page hardcover coffee table book is richly illustrated with 500 b/w photographs, most never before published, and many from the scrapbooks of former Flying M.E. guests.

Authors Bill and Sandra McGee

Authors Bill and Sandra McGee

“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

Table of Contents

444 pp, 500 b/w photographs & illustrations
Notes, appendices, bibliography, index
Hardcover 8.5″ x 11″, $35.00
BMC Publications (2004)

Book Trailer

Meet Bill McGee

Backstory: Once Upon a Time in RENO

Cowboy meeting a lady at the Reno train depot. Illustration by B. Kliban

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.

On March 19, 1931, Nevada made it simple

Front page of Nevada State Journal, March 20, 1931

On March 19, 1931, In the depths of the Great Depression, Nevada Governor Fred B. Balzar signed two highly controversial bills: one, to legalize gambling; the other, to reduce the residency requirement for a divorce from three months to only six weeks. The Nevada State Journal headlines shouted out the big news in boldface type on page one.

Anyone seeking a “quickie” divorce (jargon for a Reno six-week divorce) 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 their divorce decree.

9 legal grounds for a Nevada divorce
as of March 19, 1931

1. Impotency
2. Adultery
3. Desertion
4. Conviction of a felony
5. Habitual drunkeness
6. Neglect to provide the common necessities of life
7. Insanity
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 economic: to bring people and their money to Nevada. And, indeed, people came and spent their money. Easy divorce 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

Reno divorce era motel sign reading "Restless Divorcees Welcome"

Hotel sign in Reno, circa 1940. (Photo Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Divorce seekers 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”. Reno was the place to go if you wanted a quick, simple exit from your matrimonial bonds.

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 a Reno divorce. 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 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 – 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.

Sign for the Flying M.E., circa late 1930s

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 liberalizing 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

Reno Divorce Glossary
Divorce Movies set in Reno
Reno Divorce Timeline
Interviews with Bill and Sandra 
Reviews for The Divorce Seekers