Weather Window | Divorce, Nevada style
Special to the Sun
TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif.— EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second and final installment in a two-part series. Read part 1 of ‘Divorce, Nevada style’ here.
During the 1920s, Nevada’s divorce trade had become so lucrative that in 1927 the state legislature shortened the prerequisite legal residency from six months to three.
When the Great Depression got a choke hold on the State’s economy a few years later, the legislature passed the most lenient divorce law in the country, reducing the residency requirement to just six weeks. Most states only accepted proven adultery as grounds for divorce, but Nevada’s 1931 law required little in the way of evidence against the defendant.
The Nevada court generally accepted the testimony given by the plaintiff, under oath, as to the grievances that prompted the divorce petition. Since the concept of incompatibility was not recognized at the time, “extreme cruelty in either party” was used by nearly 70 percent of all Nevada divorce plaintiffs. The case records themselves defined what could be considered “cruelty.” One woman testified that she sought relief because her husband had forced her to stop playing in the middle of a card game. Another could not bear her marriage any longer because her husband refused to give her an allowance, and finally, one woman filed for divorce claiming cruelty because her husband made her life dull. One man filed because his wife criticized his driving.
The new law opened a floodgate of divorce seekers into Reno.
During the summer of 1931, every room in Reno was rented, and tent cities popped up along Virginia Street. The list of celebrities flocking to Nevada in the 1930s and ‘40s included some of the most famous cultural icons of the time — people like Jack Dempsey, Sinclair Lewis, Barbara Hutton and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Mrs. Joe DiMaggio made the trip to Reno’s Divorce Mecca, as did Mrs. Clark Gable and Mrs. Adlai Stevenson.
The divorce business in Reno was so popular before World War II that the Washoe County Courthouse became known as “The Women’s Exchange,” because hundreds of women divorced and immediately re-married behind its closed doors. When District Judge George Bartlett pronounced divorce as a cure for otherwise irremediable marital ills, women at the local divorce ranches seized upon “the cure” as a synonym for divorce.
TAKE ME TO THE RIVER
Once freed from the bonds of holy matrimony some women made their way to the Virginia Street Bridge to throw their wedding ring into the Truckee River. Legend had it that a wedding ring thrown into the “River of Broken Dreams” would guarantee that the former wearer would never be divorced again. But not everyone could chuck his or her cherished wedding band. In the “The Misfits,” a 1961 movie based on Reno’s divorce trade and starring Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, Monroe’s character is told that everybody throws their ring into the Truckee — but she can’t do it. Many did, however. During a drought in the early 1990s, three men from Reno dredged the Truckee River below the Virginia Street Bridge and retrieved more than 350 wedding rings of all descriptions from the river bottom, including a beautiful gold ring with the inscription “Love is as strong as death – 1890.”
Despite the Great Depression, Reno’s economy was booming. The divorce trade pumped millions of dollars into northern Nevada during the 1930s. Seven hours a day, five days a week, two judges each granted a divorce every 10 minutes. Hotels were booked solid, restaurants always busy and the casinos were raking it in. Lawyers were also getting rich on hefty fees.
Although it has been widely reported that women divorce-seekers outnumbered men by a large margin, the actual ratio was about 6 to 4. But it seems that the female clients generated the most colorful stories.
One of the more interesting cases involved heiress Ann Cooper Hewitt Gay, heiress to the fortune of her inventor-father Peter Cooper Hewitt. In 1936 Mrs. Gay had figured in a sensational and lurid lawsuit against her oft-married socialite mother, alleging that during a routine appendectomy her mom had the surgeon also remove one of Ann’s fallopian tubes. Ann claimed that her mother was trying to sterilize her in order to obtain a larger portion of the inheritance. Charges against two physicians were dismissed after a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to go to trial. In 1939 Mrs. Gay arrived in Reno seeking divorce from Ronald Gay, an automobile mechanic. Three days after the millionairess gained her divorce decree against Gay, Ann Cooper married Gene Bradstreet, a San Francisco bartender. Little more than a year later, after their Hawaiian honeymoon, Ann was back in Reno seeking a divorce from Bradstreet.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at stores or at http://www.thestormking.com. Mark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out Mark’s blog: http://www.tahoenuggets.com.