Cowboys are the last real men in the world.
—Isabelle (Thelma Ritter) to Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe) in The Misfits (1961)
Excerpted from the Preface to The Divorce Seekers II: The Intimate Story of a Nevada Divorce Ranch Wrangler – Commemorative Edition Coming in Fall 2023
I’ve always had a love affair with the American cowboy. Owen Wister is said to have created the first romantic cowboy in 1902 with his bestselling novel, The Virginian. The hero was handsome, brave and honorable, tough but soft-spoken, and a man of few words. The “Virginian” was later portrayed on the big screen by Gary Cooper (1929) and Joel McCrea (1946), and later in a long-running television series by James Drury (1962–1971).
I met my “Virginian” in San Francisco in 1981. They say opposites attract. Bill McGee grew up during the hardscrabble years of the Great Depression in the cow town of Malta, Montana, with “a path to the bath.” I was raised a privileged Southern California Valley girl, a dudene (a female dude) with my own bedroom and bathroom. I was smitten with Bill from the beginning and I guess he was with me. Weeks later, we were what is known as a cowboy-and-lady couple. Bill donned his Western tux and escorted me to opening nights at the ballet. I bought expensive designer jeans, expensive Justin boots, and an expensive black Stetson hat.
In Sun and Saddle Leather, South Dakota cowboy poet Charles Badger Clark wrote, “Cowboys are the sternest critics of those who would represent the West. No hypocrisy, no bluff, no pose can evade them.” That was Bill. A straight shooter, a straight talker, and solid on qualities that mattered to me—trustworthiness, honesty, and dependability
Nevada historian Neal Cobb put it this way. “We were always a bit jealous of those divorce ranch wranglers. What was really going on at those ranches? And wouldn’t that be the job for a young fella like me? And then to meet a genuine Montana cowboy…someone who has got the heart to go with it. There is a lot to this gentleman.”
I never set out to be a writer and you could say Bill McGee “roped me in.” When we met, he was winding up his three-decade career in broadcast marketing and sales. He had one last sales guidebook to update and publish. I was a fast and accurate typist. And he asked me—sorta—to type his handwritten manuscript pages. Then he asked me—kinda—to learn how to use a computer, so I could re-type his manuscript in a word processing program and then insert digital printing codes into the manuscript for the printer. I became involved in the process and began suggesting an edit here or there.
One day, I stumbled across Bill’s cowboy scrapbook, a couple dozen old black-and-white snapshots—Bill on horseback, Bill drinking beer with a lady in Western wear, Bill sitting on a fence with another lady in Western wear, Bill loading luggage into a Woody wagon with yet another lady in Western wear. I asked Bill about the photos. His stories about wrangling these wealthy dudes—mostly women—on the Flying M E divorce ranch in 1940s Nevada were like an old black-and-white movie coming to life. At the time, my only knowledge of the Reno divorce ranch era was from the movies—The Women (1939), Charlie Chan in Reno (1939), and The Misfits (1961). I could just imagine those Eastern ladies mixing it up out West with good-looking cowboys, like Bill. “You have to write about those years,” I said to Bill, more than a few times. “And I want to help.”
The Divorce Seekers
Thus began our first writing collaboration, The Divorce Seekers. It was to be a 6” x 9” paperback with a few dozen photos, but as our research and photo collection grew by leaps and bounds, the book morphed into a four-pound hardcover coffee table book with 500 images, many from former guests on the ranch or their offspring. When published in 2004, Eric Moody, Curator of Manuscripts, Nevada Historical Society, said “The Divorce Seekers is the best book yet about Nevada’s famous dude-divorce ranch business.” The book became “the bible” for Nevada divorce ranch lore.
We lived and breathed The Divorce Seekers during four years of research and writing. Despite coming close to going to Reno ourselves for a divorce, we liked working together. Our talents and temperaments complemented one another. We went on to co-write eight more non-fiction books right up to Bill’s passing in 2019. As a husband-and-wife writing duo, I think we were a good team—except for the urge to edit each other’s copy.
On My Own
Fast forward twenty years. I’m now on my own running our small indie press. I’m writing content for websites, blogs, and social media sites. I know how to format a book for print or digital publication. I know how to market a book. I’ve had my stories published in magazines. I’m receiving inquiries from others who want my help with their marketing and indie publishing. And I’m dipping my toes into adapting The Divorce Seekers into a streaming series. Despite my reluctance to learn how to use a computer, I was made for word processing—my favorite keys being delete and backspace.
And the credit for all this goes to Bill McGee. I thank him every day for bringing me into his writer’s world.
Emmy Wood’s Dubonnet Cocktail
1 part gin
2 parts Dubonnet Rouge
Stir with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
New material has come my way since 2004 and I thought it time for The Divorce Seekers II. What a wonderful excuse to immerse myself in a period of history I’m passionate about.
To get in the mood, I’ve mixed a Dubonnet cocktail—the cocktail of choice by Emmy Wood, the legendary proprietor of the Flying M E. She said she could sip one or two all evening and be “fit as a fiddle” to drive her guests back to the ranch after a night out drinking and gambling.
So, fix your beverage of choice, ask OK Google to play Hoagy Carmichael’s “Old Buttermilk Sky” (a 1947 Hit Parade tune), and let’s travel back to the good old, bad old days when Reno was “Divorce Capital of the World.” The stories are true… but some names have been changed to protect The Divorce Seekers.
—Sandra V. McGee
Napa, California. 2023
Sandra’s passions are movies from the 1940s, and Reno when it was “Divorce Capital of the World.”