The Divorce Seekers 1947-1949

True Stories from the Reno Divorce Ranch Era of the 1940s

by former Nevada divorce ranch wrangler William McGee

 

Cover of "The Divorce Seekers" by William and Sandra McGee

Currently being developed as a series for cable or streaming.

“The ‘bible’ of Reno divorce lore.”
– Judd Pillot, writer/producer

“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

“Best book yet about Nevada’s famous dude-divorce ranch era.”
Eric Moody, Nevada Historical Society, Reno

Table of Contents

444 pp, 500 photographs & illustrations
Notes, Appendices, Bibliography, Index
Hardcover 8.5″ x 11″, $35.00
BMC Publications (2004)

Meet Wrangler/Writer Bill McGee

Once Upon a Time in RENO

Today no one needs to get away to divorce – they just divorce. But splittin’ blankets wasn’t always easy. From the 1920s to the 1960s, a woman or man seeking a divorce in America faced a long and uncertain court battle and potential humiliation – or they could go to Reno.

From 1947 to 1949, Montana cowboy Bill McGee was the head dude wrangler on the Flying M.E., Nevada’s most exclusive divorce ranch (a dude ranch catering to divorce seekers) twenty miles south of Reno.  He recaptures the era and the changing cast of Eastern socialites, movie stars, and titled Europeans who came and went every six weeks on the hideaway for the wealthy. The stories are true, only some names have been changed to protect The Divorce Seekers.

“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 

On March 19, 1931, Nevada made divorce simple

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. 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 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
9. The most popular: 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 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.

Someone called a dude ranch that catered to divorce seekers a divorce ranch and the name stuck.

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 Easterners fell in love during their six weeks – some with the West, some with someone they met, some with both. 

Reno continued to retain its title as “Divorce Capital of the World” throughout the 1950s. However, by the 1960s, Las Vegas began catching up, and by the 1970s, as other states liberalized their divorce laws, the need to go anywhere in Nevada for a divorce faded out.

That unique Nevada institution – the divorce ranch – has faded away, but
Nevada as a place “to split” will 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