A visit to the glamorous divorce ranches of the Mad Men era.

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July 21 2010 5:29 PM

Betty Goes Reno

A visit to the glamorous divorce ranches of the Mad Men era.

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Like Betty Draper, many of the divorcing guests were sheltered Easterners who had never been on their own, let alone somewhere as rustic as Washoe County, and they went wild with the freedom. In The Divorce Seekers, McGee reports that he was seduced by a guest on his very first day on the job at the Flying M E. In Unbridled: A Tale of a Divorce Ranch, author Marilu Norden gives a thinly veiled account of her own experience at Pyramid Lake Ranch in the 1950s. The experience made for a sort of rite of passage: drinking and dancing (at first reluctant), followed by a restorative affair with a ranch hand, and, most importantly, the camaraderie of similarly positioned women. Like Norden, many of the women who came to divorce ranches were mothers who were experiencing their first taste of freedom in years, either because they had left their children behind, or because there was always someone at the ranch who would take care of the kid while mom explored what it meant to be unhitched. (You can listen to a pair of sisters describe life growing up on a divorce ranch in a recent episode of StoryCorps.)

In Mad Men, Betty set off for Reno not only with baby Eugene but also her paramour, Henry, which suggests little freedom for dalliance. But going to Reno with a "spare" didn't stop a lot of women from falling in love with a local instead. According to The Divorce Seekers, socialite Maggie Astor, who came to stay at the Flying M E Ranch in order to divorce one man and marry another, instead fell in love and ran off with a local museum director. A few years later, the museum director returned to the Flying M E alone and picked up another divorcee.

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The infamous goings-on of Washoe County inspired a good amount of popular culture. In 1939's Charlie Chan in Reno, a woman at a hotel in Reno is accused of murdering her soon-to-be-ex's soon-to-be wife, who was also in town for a divorce. Clare Boothe's visit with friends at Washoe Pines Ranch likely inspired the divorce-ranch scene in The Women. Arthur Miller wrote the short story that later became The Misfits while staying at Pyramid Lake Ranch—waiting for a divorce so he could marry Marilyn Monroe.

At the end of their six-week stay, guests took one last trip to Reno, to visit the Washoe County courthouse. The typical divorce proceeding took all of six minutes, and afterward, some newly minted divorcees walked across the courthouse to marry their spare. Others booked it on the first train out of town, never mind that they had just sworn in court that they intended to stay in Nevada. Folklore had it that, before they left, women threw their wedding rings over the bridge near the Washoe County courthouse. In reality, according to Bill McGee, no one was crazy enough to throw away a real ring, so divorcees, inspired by the myth, went to the five-and-dime to buy a cheap ring to throw over.

By the early 1960s, the Mad Men era, Reno's reign of divorce supremacy was ending. Many other states had liberalized their divorce laws, and more were on their way to doing so. (Somehow New York is still struggling with the issue.) Most of the big divorce ranches had closed, but one that remained open was Donner Trail Ranch, and there would have been some symmetry in Betty ending up here: Donner Trail's last high-profile guest was Mary Rockefeller in 1962; on the show, Betty's Henry works for Gov. Rockefeller. Unfortunately, Donner Trail did not allow children, and so Betty and her baby most likely would have ended up staying in town at the Riverside Hotel. But as the history of Reno's divorce trade shows, not much could stand in the way of a divorcing woman and the Wild West. Let's hope Betty carries some memory of it this season. She can always go back to Reno and return with a cowboy.

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Priya Jain is a New York–based freelance writer and the books editor for Bust magazine.

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