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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When the curtain fell on the third season of Mad Men, Betty Draper, our favorite housewife in crisis, was on her way to Reno to get a divorce. When we see her again this Sunday, it'll be a year later, and Betty will be divested of Don and married to Henry. But it'll be a shame if the show doesn't give us a taste, perhaps in flashback, of what happened to her in the Silver State. We could see Betty riding horses, gambling, and flirting with cowboys at one of the famous "divorce ranches" in Nevada. In such a scene, we would watch her participate in what was essentially a rite of passage for women who, at a time when divorce was still taboo in much of the country, were doing something bold and rebellious that would forever alter their lives. There is a reason Walter Winchell called the change a divorcee went through a "Reno-vation."

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From the 1930s to the early 1960s, Nevada—and Reno in particular—served as the divorce capital of the United States. Few other places made ending a marriage so easy. New York, for example, would grant a divorce only if one spouse could prove that the other had been adulterous—with pictures, perhaps, or an eyewitness. Even with the evidence in hand, an aggrieved spouse still had to wait a year between filing for divorce and being granted one. By contrast, Nevada offered nine grounds for divorce—impotency, adultery, desertion, conviction of a felony, habitual drunkenness, neglect to provide the common necessities of life, insanity, living apart for three years, and extreme cruelty entirely mental in nature—and required no proof. (According to The Divorce Seekers: A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler by Bill and Sandra McGee, mental cruelty, the most popular charge, "could cover a wide variety of complaints, even something like 'she talks to me when I'm trying to read,' or 'he interrupts me when I'm trying to write.' ") Best of all, there was no waiting period, provided one of the spouses had been a resident of the state for at least six weeks.

The six-week rule was established by a 1931 bill that was designed to gin up Nevada's economy in the midst of the Great Depression. (The state also legalized gambling that year for the same reason.)  Nevada had been doing a brisk divorce trade ever since Mary Pickford made headlines by winning her divorce there in 1920, when the residency requirement was six months. Wealthy people started arriving from all over the country, and spending millions of tourist dollars while they waited out their stay. Of course, not many people could afford such an extensive visit, so, in reducing the period to six weeks, the Nevada legislature hoped to make these divorce vacations more accessible.

The plan worked. According to journalist Robert Wernick, the number of divorces in Nevada "rose steadily, from a thousand a year in the '20s to a peak of over 19,000 in 1946, every one of them providing an outlay of hundreds if not thousands of dollars on local goods and services." Most of those took place around Reno, in Washoe County, where bars, hotels, ranches, and casinos sprang up to cater to the divorce crowd. Nevada remained an upscale destination, although some less affluent divorce seekers took jobs as waitresses and card dealers to pay for boardinghouse rooms. Because the husbands had to work (or wanted to stay behind with their mistresses), the vast majority of those who descended on Reno to end their marriages were women. A whole lexicon sprung up around this migration of wives: Along with getting "Reno-vated," women went to "take the six-week cure." They sometimes brought a "spare," or a second husband. Very often they found themselves trashing their housewife dresses for jeans and boots, flirting and drinking and dancing in a way that would have been considered improper back home—an attitude that was, fittingly, called "going Reno." And divorce seekers who really wanted a taste of the Western lifestyle went to stay at what came to be known as "divorce ranches."

Even before the 1931 law, some horse ranches had begun taking in "dudes" (out-of-towners, male or female) in order to earn a little extra income. They offered guests a slice of the Western experience—riding, swimming and fishing, and trips to the rodeo. Soon they were sheltering dudes who were looking to shake a spouse. Sometimes the atmosphere was rustic, like at the TH Ranch, where accommodations consisted of a series of one-room cabins without running water or toilets. On the other end of the spectrum was the Flying M E Ranch, which offered comfortable guestrooms in a large, modern ranch house, a swimming pool, and an air of exclusivity. The Flying M E became so well-known for keeping their guest list hush-hush that even nondivorcing celebrities, like Clark Gable, vacationed there.

Since most divorcees-to-be had ironed out the terms of their divorces and filed their paperwork back home, their only real job in Reno was to pass the time. According to Bill McGee, who worked as a dude wrangler at the Flying M E, a typical day at a divorce ranch might have looked like this: horseback riding in the morning, an after-lunch trip into town for shopping or a visit with a lawyer, and then, in the evening, cocktails, communal dinner, and another car trip to a bar or a casino, where the ladies would dance and drink and gamble.

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.

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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