THE SHORT VERSION
My writing career was launched in the 1990s when I was a publicist for the performing arts in Southern California. In 2000, I began the first of nine non-fiction collaborations with my late husband, William L. “Bill” McGee. We have nine titles on Amazon in the following genres – World War II in the Pacific, Postwar at Operation Crossroads at Bikini 1946, the Nevada Divorce Ranch Era, and three “slice of life” memoirs. My passions are ballet, movies from the 1940s, and Reno when it was “Divorce Capital of the World.”
THE LONG VERSION
I’m a Valley girl from Southern California. Despite my current (ah hem) mature status, the words “like” and “totally” are still part of my vocabulary. I didn’t set out to be a writer. It just happened and I went along with it.
Roped In – Or I’m Not a Secretary, 1981
In 1981, I met Bill McGee, a Montana cowboy-turned broadcaster-turned writer. They say opposites attract and soon we were a cowboy-and-lady couple. He was winding down his 32-year career in broadcast marketing and sales, and was updating one of his sales guidebooks. I happened to be a fast and accurate typist. But when he asked me to type his handwritten manuscript pages, I bristled – I was not a secretary. But I typed the pages, then I typed some more, and then I began suggesting edits.
The Psychic’s Prediction, 1983
My father passed away unexpectedly at age 59. My mother, curious about her future, asked me to accompany her to a psychic. The scene was out of a movie. The psychic lived in the Hollywood Hills in a 1920s Spanish-style mansion that had seen better days and was sub-divided into small apartments. She looked like Norma Desmond, the character played by Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard — thinly-plucked eyebrows, red lipstick applied in a heart shape, a long scarf wrapped turban-style around her head. And she had a crystal ball. After forecasting my mother’s future (I wish I remembered what it was), my mother asked the psychic to forecast mine. I politely declined, but Mother insisted. The psychic said, later in life, I would be a writer. She’s dead wrong, I thought. I wasn’t a voracious reader and I was no grammarian.
Publicist for the Performing Arts, 1994
We were living in Santa Barbara and I was taking adult ballet classes at a studio founded by a former American Ballet Theatre dancer. After class one day, he asked if I would be on the board of his newly-found professional ballet company. There was no money to pay for outside services, so I volunteered to be the publicist. I knew nothing about the job, but it sounded glamorous. I purchased two books on Amazon on how to do publicity for the performing arts. I copied the formats of sample press releases, calendar listings, public service announcements, and local and feature stories. I followed the pyramid rule of press release writing: who, what, when, where, and how to buy tickets — all in the first paragraph. The actress Bonnie Bartlett was on the ballet board and asked her publicist to take a look at my press kit. “I received your press kit and it really looks good,” wrote Claire Segal, adding a few constructive notes. My writing was not necessarily creative, but it was accurate. The Entertainment editor at the Santa Barbara News-Press said it was a pleasure to receive my press releases because they could run as is without rewrite. For seven years, I was the publicist for State Street Ballet Santa Barbara.
The Divorce Seekers – Or We Almost Went To Reno, 2000
One day, I stumbled across Bill’s cowboy scrapbook with a couple dozen old black-and-white snapshots dated 1947, ’48, and ’49 – 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 him about the photos. His stories about wrangling these wealthy dudes –mostly women – on the Flying M E divorce ranch (a dude ranch catering to divorce seekers) 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.”
Thus began our writing collaboration on The Divorce Seekers – A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler. It was to be a 6” x 9” paperback with a few dozen photos, but as our research and photo collection grew, 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.
During the four years of research and writing, Bill and I lived and breathed everything to do with The Divorce Seekers. Despite coming close to going to Reno ourselves for a divorce, our talents and temperaments complemented one another, and we liked working together. We went on to co-write eight more non-fiction books right up until 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.
The Psychic Was Right, 2020
My life post-Bill? I run our humble indie press. I write 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. Various magazines have published my stories on the brief-but-glamorous Nevada divorce ranch era. I receive inquiries from other writers who want my help with their writing, publishing, and marketing. And I’m dipping my toes into how to adapt The Divorce Seekers into a streaming series. Despite my initial reluctance to learn how to use a computer, I was made for word processing – my favorite keys being delete and backspace.
And all the credit goes to Bill McGee. I wouldn’t be doing any of this if it weren’t for him and I thank him every day for “roping me in” to his writer’s world. I have a lot of writing projects in mind… however, a little mystery goes a long way, so let’s see what happens.
Sandra V. McGee is a member of Western Writers of America, California Writers Club, and Bay Area Independent Publishers Association. Her stories about the Nevada divorce ranch era have appeared in various magazines. She has an Associates Degree in Music Performance from College of Holy Names, and a B.A. in Music from the University of California, Berkeley. When not writing, Sandra’s passions are the ballet, movies from the 1940s, and Reno when it was “Divorce Capital of the World.”
Feature Stories by Sandra V. McGee