Reno: Sin City Revisited
In those days there were no Interstates, and you could stop by the side of the road almost anywhere to get a refreshing milk-shake. I was paying for such a milk-shake at the cash register of a clean well-lighted place in Nebraska and chatting pleasantly with the owner.
"Where you headin'?" she asked me.
I replied: "Reno."
Her blue eyes turned a slightly more steely blue. "Young man," she said, "the American people proved once and for all last November that we will never tolerate a divorced man in the White House."
That was 1953, before the development of modern polling techniques, so there is no way of knowing how many people had voted against Adlai Stevenson on those grounds the year before, but I have no doubt the number was considerable. My Nebraska friend was right about me too: I did go to Reno and I lived there for two years, and I did get a divorce there, and no one ever asked me to run for President.
We could, however, neither of us have foreseen that in a mere twenty-seven years later, assuming she was still alive, she would be enthusiastically voting for a Revolution to be introduced by a man, Ronald Reagan, who was not only divorced but had lived all his mature years in Los Angeles, the Babylon of modern times..
The Reno into which I drove three days after her warning words had an arch over its main thoroughfare, Virginia Street, just south of the railway crossing, proclaiming it the BIGGEST LITTLE CITY IN THE WORLD. It was certainly little enough, even by the modest standards of the 1950's. Though it was the largest city in Nevada, it numbered barely twenty-seven thousand souls. It was very well known however, its name was familiar throughout a world where most people were unaware of the existence of much larger Little Cities like Sioux Falls or Peoria. Its catchy two syllables appeared regularly in the dialogue of Hollywood films, in the jokes of stand-up comedians, and in the sermons of preachers across the land. It smelled of jollity and hellfire, adultery and jackpots, it was the City of Sin.
Americans like all other people have always had ambiguous feelings about Sin, overt disapproval alternating with or shading into secret fascination. If a popular preacher could proclaim that Reno was Sodom, Gomorrah and Hell rolled into one, an equally popular song could trumpet
I'm on my way to Reno
Shouting the battle cry of Freedom!
Such ambiguities are always starker in a frontier community, which is what Nevada remained for most of the first century of its existence. A solid hard-working God-fearing community of ranchers and farmers was perched precariously on top of a brawling Wild West of miners, drifters, cowpokes and desperadoes. Every little town had its complete cast of characters out of a Hollywood movie -- cowboy, badman, cattleman, cattle-rustler, sheepherder, sheriff, banker, preacher, prim school-teacher, tough old woman, plucky young woman, rustic philosopher, derelict Spanish nobleman, dancing-girl. Rules of conduct were necessarily more relaxed than in the stiff and righteous east. "Being a cattle thief don't disqualify a man for anything political he may want in this state," wrote H. M. Yerington who had a city named after him. "From instances I have known, it adds to a man's standing in the community."
Divorce was always perfectly legal in all states of the Union from the very beginning, but in almost all of them it cast an indelible social stain, and getting one was a long, undignified and often embarrassing process Inhabited largely by immigrants and transients, Nevada like other western states took a more relaxed attitude. From the very beginning of statehood in 1864, you could get a divorce in Nevada if you had been resident there for six months. You could get it on grounds of insanity, or of separation for more than a year, or of incompatibility, whatever you chose to think that meant, and the hearing was behind closed doors and the records impounded so that you could avoid all the public disclosure of demeaning details which was common in more traditional jurisdictions.
It is probable that many Californians heard of these liberal rules and came across the border for a divorce in those early days, but their names are unknown to history, though there is a widely current report that the first woman to be married in the state of Nevada was also the first to be divorced .
Official History would only enter the Nevada court room as the twentieth century was about to open.
On April 13th 1900 local newspapers reported that a judge in Minden, the administrative center of Douglas County about fifty miles south of Reno, granted divorce decrees to John Francis Stanley Russell, aged 35, and to Mollie Cooke Somerville, gallantly described as over 18, both of whom had come from England to rid themselves of cumbersome spouses. They had been spending the statutory six months happily together in the bucolic snowbound solitude of the Glenbrook Inn on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe. Two days later they were married by another judge at the Hotel Riverside in Reno. When the news of what they had done reached their native land, the response was sent around the world by Associated Press:
LONDON, April 18.-- The cabled announcement in the marriage columns of the TIMES this morning of the wedding of Earl Russell to Mollie Cooke at Reno, Nevada, April 15th, has created a sensation here as it appears that Earl Russell, according to English law, is still legally married to the first Countess Russell, who is now performing at the Tivoli music hall.
The STAR thinks the announcement which also appeared in this morning's STANDARD, may be a hoax, for it says by marrying another woman the head of the noble house would render himself liable to imprisonment for bigamy on his return to England.
The WESTMINSTER GAZETTE suggests that Earl Russell may have secretly secured an American divorce, but it was pointed out that this would not save him from penalties from the English courts.
Countess Russell was almost prostrated and arranging to postpone her stage appearance of this evening. She said: "It is terrible if it is true that a man can go to another country and get married after the courts of this country have decided against him."
When the Earl returned to England six months later, he was arrested and charged with bigamy, tried before his peers in the House of Lords, found guilty and sentenced to three months in Holloway Prison. It was a not too uncomfortable experience for him, he had a suite there in which he could entertain friends at fine dinners, but he was very bitter about it all and threatened to abandon his seat in the House of Lords and acquire one in the U; S. Senate. (At the time of his divorce from Mollie fifteen years later, however, he was still in London, practicing as a barrister specializing in divorce matters. And he kept his seat in the House of Lords till his death in 1931 when it was inherited along with the earldom by his brother Bertrand the philosopher and seducer of T. S. Eliot's first wife. Bertrand's heir is said to have come to Reno himself for a divorce in 1951.)
The word was now out, but it was not until July 1906 that the Reno divorce court arrived under full sail in the American celebrity world. Every newspaper and every newspaper reader in the land that month was panting to know what was going on when the wife of William Ellis Corey, president of United States Steel, came to Reno with her little son a month after her husband had sailed for Europe sharing a stateroom with the actress Mabell Gilmore -- conduct which led a writer in the New York Times to call him "the worst type of anarchist" - and announced her intention to spend the rest of her life in the great outdoors. In six months she duly got her divorce and shortly thereafter headed back east. Both the first Mrs. Corey and Mabell Gilman, who soon became the second, were reported to have gotten more than a million dollars apiece in cash out of Mr. Corey for their part in these proceedings, and the lesson was not lost on the national press which began to cover the Reno judicial scene in depth from both the emotional and financial angles. The name Reno itself rapidly became a kind of commercial and cultural artifact. A lawyer named William Snitzer was disbarred for advertising "Reno divorces" in New York city newspapers and theater programs. A new culture hero was created in the form of the Reno wooer, like Ray Baker, a former warden of the Carson City penitentiary, who was described by the Reno Gazette as being very attentive to Mrs. Margaret Emerson McKim, "the handsomest plaintiff that ever rustled silkenly into the witness chair at Reno," but she preferred to marry Mr. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt. Baker went on however to marry several heiresses including one who ended up with the name Delphine Dodge Cromwell Baker Godde.
The respectable elements in Reno were horrified to learn that there were more than 500 divorce-bound people residing in Reno. Men among them had, said the Reno Journal, "degraded and destroyed the honor of daughters of some of the most prominent people in Reno. And it is a continual dread that the mothers of boys see their lads grow up to be become the devotees and paramours of women who are prostituting their right to respect and honor." In 1913 the united forces of the Men's Civic Association, the Reno Mothers' Club, the State Anti-Cigaret League, the Anti-High-Heel League and many others under the leadership of the Reverend Brewster Adams made a pilgrimage to Carson City, the state capital, and bullied the state legislature into extending the residence requirement to twelve months. Governor Oddie, honored as the only Nevada politician of his day who left office poorer than when he had entered it, signed the bill happily: "I congratulate the people of Nevada. It will mean new and better business in Reno, bringing permanent residents to the most beautiful little city in the world. It is impossible for the majority to realize the harm and ridicule the divorce industry has brought to this state. Outsiders forget everything else. Now they will learn differently. The eyes of the world are on Nevada."
The eyes of the world blinked.
What prosperity Reno had disappeared overnight, and within two years, under the pressure of aggrieved businessmen and lawyers streaming on special trains into Carson City, a new law -- after ferocious parliamentary maneuvering in the course of which Reno relinquished the site of the State Fair to Fallon in exchange for one vote in the State Senate -- reinstated the old six-month limit, and business returned to normal. The reverend Mr. Adams would later become famous as the Desert Parson, revered for the speed and efficiency and beatific smile with which he would marry divorcees fresh out of the courtroom or out-of-staters dissatisfied with their dilatory local churches.
The final consecration of Reno as the divorce capital of the western world came in 1921 when the actress Mary Pickford, recently proclaimed "America's Sweetheart" by the proper authorities, traveled from Los Angeles to Minden, announcing she intended to live there forever. She had not been there but two weeks when her husband, Owen Moore, was observed by private investigators within the town limits. The Pickford attorney, Patrick McCarran, later to be a U. S. Senator famous for his efforts to keep alien trouble-makers from our shores,, had papers served on him at once, and asked for an immediate decree. The judge in Minden was dubious about the legality of the proceedings, but McCarran pointed out that when as a member of the State legislature he had written the currently applicable law on divorce he had included a little piece of fine print providing that if a defendant were served papers in the county in which he and the plaintiff had last cohabited, the bond of matrimony could be broken at once, and since these circumstances fitted the case of Mr. and Mrs. Moore, the proceedings were quite in conformity with the law. The judge yielded to this legal expertise, the decree was duly issued, Mary Pickford skipped back across the state line to marry Douglas Fairbanks, and though there were ugly rumors that Owen Moore and the sheriff who served the papers and the judge who signed the decree had been paid ten thousand dollars apiece for their cooperation, while McCarran's fee more than covered the cost of a handsome riverside house in Reno, the decree went unchallenged. McCarran had argued before the court that "love, not legislation, is the solution of the divorce problem," and this time love won.
The publicity fallout was enormous, and from then on divorce was a growth industry, the Reno lawyers and hotel-keepers and speakeasy-operators and gamblers and wedding chapels all recorded steady increases in their profits. To keep the increases going the state legislature twice reduced the required residency time, to three months in 1927, to six weeks in the Depression year 1931 Through all the darkness of the Great Depression divorce was one of the few pillars on which the fragile economy of the state could rest, a state with few resources, traditionally surviving on federal handouts. Nevada had only come into being as a state because President Lincoln needed three extra seats in Congress to be sure of passing the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. Its immense territory was more than ninety percent desert, barren mountains surrounding barren plateaus carpeted with dull green sagebrush or creosote, where the traveler might go hundreds of miles without seeing any living thing in motion but jack-rabbits and tumbleweed. It had no industry, and by 1920 the mines of Virginia City and Goldfield that had once produced fabulous fortunes were largely worked out. The whole population of the state could have fitted into a few city blocks in New York or Chicago..
It is hard for people today, who see Nevada as the fastest growing state in the union, appearing regularly on their TV screens as the scene of gigantic criminal conspiracies carried out against a background of gigantic Egyptoid and Aztecoid temples, to realize how small and primitive it was barely a generation ago. When Russian Louie Strauss shot Harry Sherwood, a rival foot soldier in the ranks of Murder Incorporated, in a sleazy gambling parlor at the southern end of Lake Tahoe in September 1948, the only room that could be found within fifty miles big enough to hold the mass of witnesses and curious onlookers for the first judicial hearing was the dining room at the Glenbrook Inn, which the last candidate divorcees had just left at the onset of winter weather.
The hearing was indecisive: not one of the dozens of eye-witnesses found he could conscientiously swear that he had actually seen Russian Louie pull the trigger, and the authorities had to let him go. He soon ceased appearing in his usual haunts, and not one of his friends has ever laid eyes on him since.
There are no reliable statistics on how much money divorce brought to Nevada, but as the number of decrees rose, from a thousand a year in the 1920's to 3000 in 1930 to over 11,000 in 1946, with every one of them providing an outlay of hundreds if not thousands of dollars on local goods and services, it had to be a tremendous windfall for what was then the least populous and the poorest state in the union. An unofficial and probably exaggerated estimate in 1981 put the total to that date at 235 million dollars. However many there really were, these were millions that were the breath of life to a state which had seemed headed for the poorhouse
It was more than the cash. Divorce helped give the state a unique identity, with a touch of oddity, a touch of sin, a great whiff of celebrity. It was an exciting place to be in or even to think about, it was awash in national and even international celebrities. It was a bit of cosmopolitan glamor, a gaudy carnival plunked down in the dun landscape of the Great American Desert. Without the divorces, says a leading local citizen who does not wish to be identified, Reno would have been just another cow-town. Instead, it was a national byword, a national institution There were movies about it, songs about it, Walter Winchell coined a word for the sea-change through which despondent spouses went there: Reno-vation. There was a steady drumbeat of gossip in the press as familiar name followed familiar name, Jack Dempsey, Pearl Buck, Barbara Hutton, Peaches Browning Sherwood Anderson, Carol Lombard, Mrs. Sinclair Lewis, Edgar Rice Burroughs, no end of Vanderbilts, Mrs. Eugene O'Neill, Mrs. Joe DiMaggio , Mrs. Adlai Stevenson, Bobo Rockefeller, the Maharajah of Indore, Paulette Goddard divorcing Charlie Chaplin, Mrs. Clark Gable divorcing Clark Gable, at least one of the many Mrs. Tommie Manvilles, Harry Bridges, two sons and the daughter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt; all worth a headline for at least a day or two.
A typical news story of the 1920.s reported an evening at the Willows night club where an impromptu chorus line that included Mrs Sinclair Lewis, Mrs. Jack London, Cornelius Vanderbilt jr, Leonard Kip Rhinelander, several gangsters and Judge George A. Bartlett ("Judgie") who was every one's favorite divorcer, sang a song with the refrain:
We don't give a damn for the forty-seven other states
We're in Nevada now!
Since the days of Achilles and Agamemnon, it has been one of the functions of the upper classes to provide entertainment for the masses with their outrageous behavior, and divorce was still outrageous enough in the 1920's to keep a legion of Homers busy. It took a whole corps of specialized journalists to channel the flood of headline-worthy visitors. The reporters would converge on the railway depot every time the express trains from the east were due in, copies of Social Registers in their hands, and after examining the labels on the trunks in the baggage room they knew on whom they could swoop.
The most talented of this band of bards was Bill Berry, Reno correspondent of the New York Daily News for a quarter of a century. His specialty was ferreting out the shy celebrities who didn't want their name in the papers on this occasion. They might try such a devious tactic as getting off the train at Sparks, a couple of miles east of Reno, but the first sight they would see on Nevada ground was Bill Berry prowling the platform.
The people handling Cornelius Vanderbilt "Sonny" Whitney's divorce had worked out an elaborate concealment plan for their boss in 1941, they arranged to have him smuggled in for his decree at the little town of Winnemucca, 200 miles northeast of Reno, and when he arrived in Winnemucca there was Bill Berry, and when Berry explained that he had once worked at Sonny's paper the New York Herald-Tribune as a typesetter, Sonny gallantly invited him to the courtroom and to champagne afterwards and gave him a prize scoop which earned him a full-time job at the News.
In war and peace for the next twenty-five years, no reporter on the paper had so many by-lines as Bill Berry. His proudest moment came in April 1945 when he heard through his well-placed sources that Gloria Vanderbilt de Cicco, who had been hiding out in Nevada for six weeks, was going to greet her next husband Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra and a notorious foe of prying newsmen, at Truckee over the California line as soon as she got her decree. She drove in her Cadillac to greet the train which was due in at four a.m., and there was Bill Berry beside the tracks at the Truckee station. She fled in a rage back to her Cadillac and locked herself in. The train arrived, along with the first blasts of a Sierra blizzard. Stokowski, dressed more appropriately for the concert stage than for the 6000-foot altitude where the Donner party had met its doom, stumbled out into the snow carrying two heavy suitcases and hailed a figure which he assumed was a railway employee. When the figure said, "I'm from the Daily News, welcome to Truckee the back door to Reno," he fled in panic into the middle of the street. Gloria spying him put her Cadillac in motion, but since she had only learned how to drive it a few days before, she was going forward when she meant to go backward and was bearing straight down on the maestro, and as Bill Berry remembers it if he had not yelled at her to shift gears there would have been a tragedy that would have made its way on to page one of every newspaper in the world, otherwise entirely occupied with the death of president Roosevelt which had occurred a few hours before.
For Gloria Vanderbilt as for any ordinary plaintiff, there was a traditional ritual to be gone through, with traditional ceremonies. After six weeks lying low within the state boundaries, the wronged spouse appeared in closed chambers in the Court House, where a witness testified that she or he had been physically present in Nevada for every one of the previous forty-two days. The plaintiff then swore to the judge that she, or he, had moved to Nevada with the intention of taking up permanent residence there, then explained briefly the circumstances that had made continued married life unbearable. The judge then signed the decree, and after the payment of a modest fee the deed was done, and it was off to the railway station, sometimes directly, sometimes by a more leisurely path, down the hall to the Justice of the Peace or across the street to a Wedding Chapel to exchange new marriage vows, then down Virginia Street to the Truckee river to toss the golden band that marked the former bondage into the riotous waters, then to the Riverside Hotel for champagne till it was time to catch the train back east. Or, like the Stokowskis, the newly wed couple might prefer to spend a short honeymoon in some scenic spot like the shores of Lake Tahoe, with Bill Berry crawling under the floorboards of their bungalow to keep a record of their activities and bribing the local grocery so that the Daily News could reconstruct their daily menus.
There were cynics who suggested that all that testimony about permanent residence was generally if not always perjury, but the state of Nevada has always recognized a person's inalienable right to a change of mind. A false witness, however, about the continuity of those forty-two days in which the plaintiff was spending money in the state of Nevada could be subject to heavy fines and long prison sentences.
In fact, not everyone left Nevada precipitously. There were rich eastern women who fell in love with cowboys and married them and settled down on the land. There were poor eastern women who liked the feel of the country and got jobs as waitresses or blackjack-dealers, or in the houses of prostitution in counties where these establishments had received the seal of local option. There were millionaires who savored the clean tax-free scent of the state's mountain air and bought ranches and raised prize cattle. There were restless boys who got work as wranglers or rodeo riders.
Divorce as a business might be financial salvation for Nevada. An uncomplicated painless divorce was also a blessing for tens of thousands of ordinary people with that many ten thousands of individual human problems. Except for the most jaded and most mercenary spouses -- like the Countess shedding her fourth husband the Count in Clare Boothe Luce's The Women: "Married, divorced! Married, divorced! But where Love leads I always follow. So here I am, in Reno " -- divorce is always a wrenching, or at least an unsettling experience. The most miserable marriage has its happy moments that can linger uncomfortably in the memory of the most wronged of spouses, and even if you are sure that all the wrongs came from the other side, there is always a nagging sense of failure, of regret for what might have been done if it had only been done better. There is almost no such thing as a perfectly placid divorce. This is something that ordinarily begins with a conflict over sex and ends with a conflict over money, and these are both powerful forces that set up big waves in human life. The smiling faces that were photographed getting off the trains in Reno or Sparks hid a sea of conflicting emotions and uncertainties.
Candidates who opted for a quiet dignified divorce in Nevada came from all backgrounds -- Nevada newspapers headlined the first Jewish divorce in 1875, the first black divorce in1909, the first Indian divorce in 1910. The plaintiffs could be male or female, rich or poor, hurt or angry, they came in all shapes and sizes, vamps and flappers and ingenues, Harvard professors and dish-washers, pimps and preachers. There were some who still adored the spouses they were throwing over ("If the judge asks me what I think of my husband I will have to shout, He is wonderful!"), there were some buoyed up by hatred ("If he came into this room right now, I would claw his dirty eyes out". The average, and certainly the symbolic type conjured up by the word divorcee in those days, was a young woman from the east who had never seen a live coyote or cowboy, who had never been on her own, never expected to manage her own life. Now she was three thousand miles from hubby and from daddy, and she had six weeks to fill with a heady frightening freedom, with no job, no housework, no children to occupy or distract her, four thousand feet above sea level, where the conversation and the social conventions and the very color of the ground were different from anything she had ever known. She could hide out in a more or less dingy hotel or boarding-house, drifting from slot-machine to slot-machine, occasionally looking up to wonder at the circling mountains, and suffer all the menace and the boredom of the 20th century. If she had a little money, her lawyer would prefer to steer her to one of the institutions which Reno had created specially for those in her position, one of those authentically American institutions mixing pragmatism and symbolism, like the comic strip, the public opinion poll, the jazz band, the soap opera, the motel, the beauty contest, the Internet, that have stamped the social and cultural history of the 20th century. This was the divorce ranch.
A divorce ranch was likely to be good-sized house out in the country which once had been the center of a working cattle-ranch and was now fitted out with bedrooms upstairs or cabins scattered among the cottonwoods, with stables and paddocks and sturdy horses with western saddles and resident wranglers to take care of them. Such ranches were scattered over the surrounding valleys, and for the three decades, from the thirties through the fifties, that they flourished, they represented a unique and vigorous sub-culture in America.
There were a dozen or more of them operating full blast in the 1930's, many of them strikingly lacking in modern comforts (Nevada, according to one historian, had a total of twelve licensed plumbers in 1932) but, by the time I got there, there were only four or five, each with its special brand of rustic elegance. Their peculiar character came from the unstable nature of their occupants, with the cast of characters changed every six weeks, in a state itself built upon uncertainty. In this high wind-blown land , where bonanza always alternated with its opposite, borrasca, where people lived close to the stubborn unreliability of horses, where droughts killed the crops every few years, where a run of elevens at the craps table might be interrupted at any moment by a run of double zeroes, there was always room for the unexpected.
You never knew what you were going to come across if you visited a divorce ranch in those years. The girl coming in from a ride in the hills might be conventionally Westchester, or she might be the one who liked, in default of any other device to call attention to herself, to walk down Virginia Street leaving a trail of artificial eyes which she dropped through holes in her trousers pockets. (This was the girl who was once discovered lying on her side on the yellow stripe in the middle of U. S. Highway 395. "What are you doing here?" they said. "I was waiting for a friend," she said.)
You might meet any of the Champagne Charlies and Nevada Jacks to be found in every community in the state, bearded old buckaroos who could tell you colorfully implausible tales of swapping yarns with Mark Twain on the levees or of wild rides across dry lake-beds with naked Russian countesses . You might meet the man who had fixed up a fine spread for himself with a Hollywood starlet for wife, and prize Arabians, and vintage cars, who would say, "My ex still thinks that because my decree is only good in Nevada she can get me. She has operatives at every road leading out of the state so if they spot my license plates in California or in Utah they can have a U. S. Marshal on me in minutes. But hell, I like it here. What I like most is, when the dividend checks come in each month, I pick out the biggest ones and photostat them and send the stats to that lovely lady so she can eat her heart out, God bless her."
You might meet Basil Woon, an English man of letters who liked to tell of riding a horse down the Champs-Elysees with Harold Ross and a naked girl on Armistice Day in 1918, and was currently peddling his book, Gambling in Nevada.
You might meet Rita Hayworth divorcing either Aly Khan or Dick Haymes, you might meet the wife of the governor of Massachusetts, you might meet John P. Marchand or the Duchess of Argyll or Saul Bellow or Arthur Miller or Andreas Papandreou the future prime minister of Greece. You might meet the man who had spent twenty years in prison staunchly denying that he had had any part in a famous bank robbery, and when he got out he went up into the hills with a burro and came down with two hundred thousand dollars in cash and was now living the life of a nobleman in a chateau of his own design and cruising the ranches for girls who might like a taste of chateau living..
You might find the girls going out to the Bonanza Inn by Walley Hot Springs where the miners of the 1859 silver rush used to go to assuage their aching limbs, .for a skinny-dip in the pool or for a continental dinner cooked by Ginnie Smedsrud, once a social butterfly who had flitted from Boston through all the capitals of Europe and could tell you tales of having cut Evelyn Waugh dead one night at the Cavendish. When she discovered one day in Geneva that her second husband had spent all but a few cents of the money she received from her first, she took off for Virginia City to get rid of him and marry a third, a Norwegian tennis-playing pink-gin-drinking gentleman named Halvor. She taught herself to cook and opened a restaurant which was written about in Gourmet magazine by Lucius Beebe the society columnist known as the poor man's Oscar Wilde, who kept a private railroad car on a siding near his home. Ginnie successfully sued him for writing in the article that her signature dessert, the tipsy trifle, was so soaked in alcohol that guests could rarely remember what they had eaten before it. With her sharp domineering Bostonian ways she had little trouble fitting into the forthright western environment. She thrust a paint-brush into the hand of Halvor, who had never held such an object in his life, and told him to paint the bedroom floor upstairs. He shortly painted himself into a corner, and his plaintive Scandinavian wail was heard all over Virginia City: "Yinnie, Yinnie, what do I do now?" "Jump out the window," said Ginnie, and he did.
You might meet Hugh Marchbanks the mustang-hunter who would introduce himself as a dancer, a prancer and a gay romancer, and was only too happy to prove it. Unlike the lugubrious mustang-hunter, ineptly modeled on him, played by Clark Gable in the lugubrious movie The Misfits, he enjoyed every minute of his life and his romances. He abandoned one of the romances because "there she was [she was the ex-wife of a famous American writer] sitting in the middle of the most beautiful scenery in the world and she'd spend all morning painting her toe-nails." When he felt old age creeping up on him, Hugh married a cheerful waitress and at last reports was living cozily in a cozy home in Oregon.
Romantic entanglements in this atmosphere were frequent but rarely lasted long. If you ran into Red the wrangler at the Pyramid Lake Ranch bumping around in his old beat-up pick-up, you might ask him, "What became of the Caddie convertible you were driving last summer?" "It winter-killed," he would reply philosophically.
Joe Page had been doing an electrical job in Reno and he was driving back home to Carson City at two in the morning when he had a flat tire, and there was no jack in the car. There was no night-time traffic in those days, and he walked down the highway till he found a big house. The door was open and he walked in, and into a well-lighted parlor but there was no one around. He lay down on a couch and fell asleep. In the morning he was waked up by a maid bringing him breakfast on a tray. The house was the headquarters of the famous Flying M-E divorce ranch, and the maid assumed he had been out for the evening with one of the guests and after seeing her upstairs had dozed off in the parlor. When Emmie Wood the presiding genius of the ranch got acquainted with him, she liked his looks and his spirits and, since he had made the mistake of marrying a waitress at Enrico's restaurant and was losing his home in the divorce settlement, she offered him a well-furnished room known as the Deep Freeze because of its uncertain heating arrangement, and board, in return for being on hand to squire around such of the current crop of girls as were feeling lonely. Some of them, he says, were ripe for the couch, others were great fun, at all events they all found him a charming companion and he had a wonderful two years. There was one girl he got very close to, they wanted to get married but her family had other ideas. It was a very powerful family and one night when they were quietly together in a place in California, forces of the law kicked down the door to arrest him on charges that the young lady was being held against her will. "I certainly don't see and sign of anything being done against any one's will," said the law, and left pressing no charges, leaving Joe to pay for the damage to the door.
Of course he lost out in the end to the family, which dragged the girl back to Tuxedo Park.
Sometimes these stories had happy endings. I knew a girl who was working in the Glenbrook Inn and, to do a favor, drove over the mountains to deliver a turkey to the Flying ME in time for Thanksgiving dinner She arrived there along with a blizzard which forced her to remain for three days. Guests at the ranch at that moment consisted of three grandmothers and a manufacturer of clock-hands from Massachusetts. Before New Years she had married the manufacturer, they settled down in Massachusetts but Nevada was in their blood and they came back to live in Carson City happily forever after in a big house with a codfish weather-vane.
Overseeing and handling all these encounters and entanglements, keeping their flocks amused, distracted, and out of trouble, demanded a special breed of divorce-ranch manager. It might be a refugee from Philadelphia society like Emmie Wood of the Flying ME, it might be a an ex-rodeo rider and horse-trader like Harry Drackert at Pyramid Lake and later at Donner Trail who carried a bullet lodged next to his liver ever since he disregarded a warning from a man on Virginia Street not to lay a hand on his wife. Harry's wife Joan had come to Reno from Maryland with three hundred dollars in her purse, of which one hundred went immediately to the lawyer She got a job as desk-clerk in a divorce ranch and on he first day there the owner disappeared on a gambling toot, a maid was caught stealing jewelry, a husband turned up holding a gun in his mouth at his wife's bedroom door, another guest tore up all her sheets and lingerie because she said she wasn't used to being treated like this, and another left abruptly leaving an unpaid and monumental bar bill. Nothing in the business would ever surprise Joan again. She earned a reputation for being able to effortlessly handle any embarrassing situation that might arise, like the one when she discovered she had placed the fourth wife of a pillar of Philadelphia society at the dinner table next to his second.
For all the incidental melodramatics and for all the leering hints in the gossip columns, Emmie and Harry and Joan and the rest did a remarkable job of running their institutions. For all the wild west trappings, all the lurid escapades, the drinks and the horseplay and the society girl found strangled in a closet, they were business people providing a friendly clubby atmosphere far from lawyers and psychiatrists, and also the necessary enlivening experiences for what might otherwise have been six empty weeks. Nancy Jackson, who is now an insurance executive in Reno remembers coming, broke and broken-hearted to the door of the Flying ME in a distant past, and Emmie found some work for her to do and she stayed on for years. "She helped all of us find our sea-legs." A psycho-analyst might have done the same, but it would have cost more and would have been less fun.
No one has ever taken a census of the feelings of the people who spent forty-two perjurious days in Nevada, but I suspect that a great majority would admit that, despite all their emotional anguish they had a great time.
Days there were rides in the hills through the landscape of a John Ford western, or swimming in summer, skiing in winter. Nights there were the neon and ringing bells and clanking coins of the gambling casinos in Reno.
Gambling had been legalized in Nevada during the Depression when it became clear that divorcees would have much less money to spend. Once the necessary legislative action was taken it quickly became the state's number one industry but it was still far from becoming the behemoth whose bellows are now heard from one end of the desert to the other. There were only a few casinos in Reno in the 1950's, and in accord with the small-town character of the place, most of them were on a three-block stretch of Virginia Street: Harolds Club and Harrahs Club and the venerable Riverside and the brand-new eight-story Mapes Hotel towering over the city. The Wertheimer brothers who ran the Riverside casino were old-time gangsters from the Midwest, but they ran a conventionally honest business in these legalized surroundings: Mert Wertheimer used to like to tell guests that it gave him a turn every time a cop entered the room, it took him a moment to recollect that the man was there to protect him and not put the squeeze on him for a handful of dollars.
Unlike Las Vegas, the underworld never got much of a toehold in the Reno area. Charlie Mapes, last survivor of the heroic generation, ascribes it to the astuteness of Eddie Questa, boss of the First National Bank of Nevada, who lent legitimate casinos money at six per cent while his greedy compeers at the south end of the state were demanding twelve.
Gambling only became a big business one day in the early 1950's, when Bill Harrah, boss of Harrah's club, a modestly successful establishment on Virginia Street, freed himself one day by a giant explosion of will power from the bonds of Old King Alcohol and, finding himself with eleven empty hours in the day to fill, began to fill them with thinking, and he came up with a thought of genius.
The great majority of those who came to deposit their pay-checks in the slot machines and on the green-baize tables of Reno came from the cities and towns and fruit orchards around San Francisco Bay. The great majority of them came by car, and it was a hard drive, especially on weekends and in bad weather, taking all the twists and turns of U. S. Highways 40 and 50 over the Sierra Nevada . This was years before a generous government turned 40 and 50 into Interstates, and by the time the drivers reached the Nevada border they were trembling with fatigue and hunger and greed. And they were still more miles of mountain to go before getting to Reno. Why not catch them at the state line, with comforts and free drinks and a continual ringing of bells announcing the winning of jackpots?
Bill Harrah promptly bought up some land on US 50 in the village of Stateline at the southern tip of Lake Tahoe. There were already a few shacks there with primitive gambling facilities but no sensible person went near them; as Bill said, you had to put locks on your pockets before you went in. He quickly turned these eyesores into the biggest collection of gambling tables and machines under one ceiling that the world had ever seen. The ceiling in this case was made of glass, a gigantic one-way mirror up and down which sharp-eyed observers rolled in wheel-chairs peering down into a sea of green baize over which coins and chips and cards and dice and human hands continuously skimmed. When one of the hands stiffened for a fraction of a second in an unconscious signal that a bit of cross-roading was about to take place, it took only another fraction of a second to buzz the nearest of the security guards (they were all deputy sheriffs) and give the location of the felony, and in a few seconds more they would give the crossroader a rap on the knuckles that wold put him out of business for some time to come.
To the gambling quarters was soon added a giant hotel with glorious views of mountain and lake, and nightly shows in a great dininghall-theater with the great names of show business performing for precisely the number of minutes which cost analysis had shown the blackjack and craps tables could afford to operate without their best customers.
There were also fleets of buses to provide free rides every day of the year from the Bay Area, with free meals and free glasses of champagne, up to the lake over roads swept clear by Harrah snow-plows in winter.
Bill Harrah, who had learned to love cars when he had his first job, as a parking-lot attendant, could now travel in a fleet of Rolls-Royces.
It was the beginning of the mass Wal-Mart type of gambling, aimed at the common man and woman instead of just the high-rollers, the gambling which now calls itself the Gaming Industry and is listed among the Dow Jones..
As gambling in Reno rose to multi-million-dollar glory, divorce lost both prestige and income. Business was off, and the out-of-state press was no longer interested in what went on in Reno except on special occasions. One of these came in 1963 when Mary Rockefeller, wife of the governor of New York, came to Harry Drackert's new digs at the Donner Trail Ranch at Verdi (pronounced ver-die) a few`miles west of Reno. Harry promised her there would be no pictures in the press, and he almost got away with it. The publishers in New York were frantic. A car was sent out to scour the hills and sure enough through the fog they spied figures on horseback which were Mrs Rockefeller and Harry Drackert. Harry galloped up and squeezed his horse against the door on the side where the photographer Don Dondero was sitting, and told him he would blow his brains out if he tried to open the door. Mrs Rockefeller galloped away, but Dondero had got one shot with a telephoto lens through the windshield just after the wiper had passed across it. It was too late to catch a plane out of the Reno airport, but a local pilot was persuaded to fly through hurricane-force winds to the San Francisco airport where it was handed to the pilot of a United Air Lines plane as it was about to take off for Chicago, where Life magazine was printed in those days. It was not a particularly good photo, but it got a two-page spread in Life, and the next week appeared in Time the Weekly Newsmagazine..
It was the Reno press corps' last hurrah. Reno divorces were no longer news. In fact there were now very few Reno divorces except for people who lived in Reno. American attitudes were changing, what had once been a disgrace or at least a defiance of convention was now an accepted part of ordinary life. What God had joined together was now being torn asunder in every court-house across the land. Divorces of statesmen like Senator Edward Kennedy or Representative Newt Gingrich, which might have shaken the republic to its foundations in the old days, barely rated mention in local television broadcasts.
Unfair competition from Alabama and Mexico, offering overnight divorces, had already begun to cut into business. And as time went on, practically every state in the union changed its laws so that you could get a divorce on Reno terms without bothering to make the trip to Reno. One by one the ranches and lodges catering to the divorce trade either burned down, like the flying ME, or closed their doors. The last to close, fittingly enough, was Glenbrook Inn, in 1981, just 81 years after Earl Russell had started the whole machine moving at that very spot.
It is all old-hat now, it is all history. There are twenty-three full-page ads for personal-injury attorneys in the Reno phone books, against three for divorce lawyers. Only a few old-timers are left, but when they talk to young people about the glory days of trysts and traumas at Washoe Pines or the Bonanza Inn, they might as well be talking of the Spanish-American War.
Inexorably the modern world closes in. Reno's arch, now lit by 16 thousand bulbs, still proclaims it the biggest little city in the world, but it is no longer so little as all that. Counting the suburbs spread through Washoe county, it now has a population of over 300,000. Gambling is noisily everywhere, and it is said to bring in several million dollars of revenue a day. But legalized gambling is no longer a monopoly of Nevada, the most staid states now have not only lotteries but have made deals with Indian tribes to open casinos on their reservations, and income from this source in Nevada is expected to flatten out or even decline over the coming decades. .
The city works hard at preserving its Old West image, mostly by keeping up the noise level. Every one who goes there goes to the giant casinos which now spread far beyond the four or five blocks that held all the action a generation or so ago. Once inside there is nothing but bells ringing and coins clinking, in the new Silver Legacy casino the gamblers gamble at the foot of giant silver-mine machinery which clanks over their heads like a messenger of doom. The tourists lose their money regularly at a rate fixed by the immutable laws of probability, but in general they lose it with a smile, they slink off on the buses back to Frisco insisting that they had a good time in Reno, even if the machines were a little tight that day. They always come back, shouting for more..
Reno is a modern city now, with modern city problems, crime in the center, sprawl at the edges. It has always tried to refurbish its image and live down its raffish past. In 1941 the Army closed down the red-light district, and though the girls came out of their houses singing, "We'll meet the boys in Tokyo," their houses have never re-opened their doors..
No longer do you have eccentric gambler entrepreneurs like old Raymond Smith of Harold's Club who used to burst into the middle of the pit unexpectedly and announce he would pay double for every winning bet then on the tables. Or he would hand out bus-fare home to poor souls who had lost their last cent in his casino. Gambling is now in the hands of soulless corporations whose shares are traded on the New York Stock Exchange and operate on strict business-school principles. Bill Harrah turned several times in the grave when to prettify the bottom line they sold off the gems of the antique automobile collection which he had spent the best years of his life creating.
Major companies would no doubt be rushing to put their headquarters in Reno if it were not for its dubious reputation. You wouldn't want to bring up a family there, would you? they tell themselves. In point of fact Reno has much to offer a family, including a distinguished university, a symphony orchestra, lots of room for the kids to play in . There is still no heavy industry, but a proliferation of small specialty operations making things like giant masts and sails for racing yachts, metal tops for campers, slot machines, electric trains, vaulting poles,.Christmas tree decorations and a secret blend of microcrystalline waxes which will keep fragile objects attached to the wall and safe from earthquakes. The city has recently opened what is described as the largest assemblage of bowling alleys under one roof anywhere in the world.
People have been moving in by droves to escape the smog and the taxes of California. Where cattle once stamped on Truckee Meadows and Paradise Valley there now extends one great all-American suburb with its usual shopping malls and its usual complaints ("I planted a couple of mountain aspens in my backyard so I could enjoy the wonderful autumn foliage, and now the EPA tells me I can't add a room to my house because where aspens grow the ecology is fragile and mustn't be disturbed.") .
Fifty miles south of Reno in a little town named Genoa [Gen-oh'-wa] a Dutchman named Van Sickle built a handsome stone ranch house in the 1850's. One day, according to local folklore, the notorious badman Sam Browne rode up and shot at him six times because, he said, he wanted to have a man before dinner. From drunkenness or incompetence, he missed all the shots. Van Sickle went back into his house, got out his shotgun and filled Sam Browne full of buckshot. The grand jury returned a historic verdict, "Served him right," and Van Sickle was elected first sheriff of Douglas County.
His ranch was being run in the 1950's by a big boisterous builder of earthquake-proof houses named Fritz Ruppel. I was helping him one day bringing his hay in, and I was passing a bale up to him on his truck when without warning he dropped his hooks and began bellowing, "My Bobos! My Bobos! DONG DONG DEE! DONG DONG DEE!" And he leaped off the truck and began rolling around in the stubble while a whole family of wild geese glided in and swarmed around him, the mother goose honking like all get out and the little goslings pecking away at the bits of hayseed on his shirt and jeans. He told me later this was only the latest episode in a story that had begun one day a few years back when he found a pair of baby geese in a nest. "I called them Mr and Mrs Bobo. The coyotes must have got their parents. I took them home with me, and I brought them up. I taught them to fly. I used to run down the road ahead of them flapping my arms, and they would start flapping their wings. Poor Mr. Bobo, the first time he flew, he flew right into a barbed wire fence and cut his throat. I bandaged him up and I would always recognize him afterwards by the scar. Mrs Bobo got wild and flew away pretty soon, but Mr Bobo stayed with me all summer. He used to peck at my hair, just like these rascals. He used to love to go swimming with me, he'd dive under my belly. He was jealous of the dogs, and wouldn't let them sit in my lap. He taught me all their language. I could have clipped his wings and kept him as a pet, but I let him fly south for winter. He came back with a wild wife who had no use for humans. But here are the children, and I know he told them about me. Dong Dong Dee! Dong Dong Dee!"
It is one of my favorite memories of Nevada: there at noon over Sam Browne's grave in the meadow by the tules, with the clean blue empty sky stretching from the pine-carpeted Sierra to the bare knobs of the Pine-Nut Range, and not a sound except the distant wailing of a love-sick cow and Fritz and his friends all saying Dong Dong Dee in their varying accents.
At last accounts the Van Sickle ranch is to be subdivided and covered with bungalows for refugees from California.
©1996 Robert Wernick
Portions of this article appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, June 1996