When Women Went to Nevada for ‘the Reno Cure’

The rich history of a divorce mill

If you watch classic cinema, you know “Reno” is code for divorce. And if you watched the AMC series Mad Men, you know Betty Draper took a trip to Reno, at the end of Season 3, for that very reason.

What you may not know, is everything I’m about to share with you, below.

Between 1900 and 1970, Reno was the Divorce Capital of the World. Nevada’s earlier status as a U.S. territory played a crucial role. With a six-month residency requirement, it was shorter (and faster) than the one-year requirement in other states.

When the Great Depression hit, Nevada saw the divorce industry as a chance to fuel economic growth. The residency requirement dropped to six-weeks, allowing for a “quickie divorce.”

In the 1930s alone, over 30,000 divorces were granted in Reno, bringing in more than $3 million a year to Nevada’s economy, thanks in part to legalized gambling.

Providing a reason for divorce was easy, too. In states like New York, a divorce could only be granted when adultery had been committed. Nevada allowed a range of reasons, such as neglect, abuse, and even, insanity.

A high-profile divorce popularized the destination for Californians. Laura Corey was married to one of the world’s wealthiest men — a steel magnate — and her temporary move to Reno got written up in The San Francisco Call newspaper, in 1909.

William Schnitzer, a New York lawyer, relocated to Reno in 1907, for the sole purpose of setting up a lucrative divorce business. He placed ads in Eastern newspapers, attracting wealthy New York socialites who preferred to keep their private affairs private.

Pulp novels and Hollywood movies proliferated the image of Reno as synonymous with a quick divorce, in the same way popular culture today paints Las Vegas as a place to elope.

People (mostly women) came to Reno from all over the country. The trek became known as “the Reno cure.”

Luxurious hotels were built, specifically to cater to the divorce trade. Ranches, boardinghouses, all types of residences, opened their doors for the divorce business.

Private homes offered lodging, too, positioning themselves as entrepreneurs — like a specialized version of AirBnB.

As part of the legal requirement, you had to have a “resident witness” — someone who would testify that they had seen you every day, without a gap longer than 24 hours, for the duration of the six weeks. Hotel owners and boardinghouse managers usually fulfilled this role.

Dude ranches provided accommodations, as well as leisure activities. But their main appeal was privacy. They offered a secluded getaway, popular with the New York socialites.

George Cukor’s all-female film The Women, released in 1939, depicted a divorce ranch, based on the real-life experience of Clare Boothe Luce, the woman who wrote the original screenplay.

George Cukor’s The Women, 1939
George Cukor’s The Women, 1939

“That the majority of Reno divorce-seekers were women reflects the fact that men had jobs that kept them home, though many women found work in Reno, either by choice or necessity. A steady need for waitresses, laundresses, card dealers, clerks, maids and even ranch hands meant a girl could arrive with next to nothing and earn enough to pay her way. For many women, this was the first time they had money of her own to manage and spend.” — Time, Sofia Grant

Romance novelist Sofia Grant became so enamored by the divorce history in Reno, she set her 2019 novel Lies in White Dresses there. Her Time article is an interesting read, highlighting the freedoms that the LGBTQ community experienced.

Dancing, drinking, dining, and live entertainment. A so-called “sin city,” Reno offered countless ways to amuse yourself, if you had cash to throw around.

You had 23 hours between each check-in with your resident witness, allowing enough time for round-trip escapades to California. You could also take riding lessons at one of the many divorce ranches.

For women who couldn’t afford to treat Reno as a vacation spot, the YWCA helped them find employment. Along with the jobs listed in the quote above, they filled the roles of nurses, housekeepers, and baby sitters. With all the divorce lawyers in town, many women worked as secretaries and stenographers.

Colleges advertised special classes for its temporary residents who wanted to develop their professional skills. Secretarial schools had “intensive” courses, like a boot camp for secretaries that ran for six weeks at a time.

Divorce reform. By the 1970s, most states allowed “no-fault” divorces, making a trek to Reno unnecessary.

Las Vegas exceeded the Reno divorce trade, in the early 1960s. Ria Langham, Clark Gable’s second wife, brought attention to the city when she posed for promotional photos, dealing card at the Hotel Apache.

Other states, such as Utah and Arkansas, competed with Nevada for “divorce capital” status, but they were held back by citizens who voted against the lax laws — mostly the short residency requirement.

Here’s a treasure trove for anyone interested in the fascinating history of divorce in Reno, Nevada.

Read more at http://renodivorcehistory.org/

The historian Mella Rothwell Harmon curated the collection. The website is organized in an accessible format for general interest, but it includes historical documents, too.

  • A woman spent her six-week residency time in jail, successfully avoiding the costs of food and lodging.
  • Divorces in Paris were also made famous by a celebrity couple.
  • Some women went on a six-week weight loss program, while staying in Reno.
  • Two sisters grew up on a divorce ranch — one of them married a man whose wife had stayed at the ranch.
  • A divorcee stayed in Reno for 10 years, after landing a plum job as a card-dealer in a club.
  • Newly-divorced women would throw their wedding rings over Virginia Street Bridge, nicknamed the “Bridge of Sighs,” located near the courthouse.
  • Famous actresses who came to Reno for divorce ended up performing in theatrical plays during their stay.

The next time you watch a classic movie — whether it’s Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits or Rosalind Russel in His Girl Friday, you’ll now have more context for the story.

Same goes for contemporary works, set in the 20th century. I don’t think Reno will shake its association with divorce any time soon.

Writer living in Brooklyn, NY.

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