How to Get a Divorce in the 1950s

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Faith Kelsey

While on the cusp of getting married in 2018, author Rowan Beaird found the inspiration for her novel about divorce. She was in Las Vegas for her bachelorette party and visited the Neon Museum, where history is told through defunct building signs dating back to the 1930s. During the tour, Beaird’s guide offhandedly remarked, “Everybody knows Las Vegas is where you get married and Reno is where you get divorced.”

Beaird, in fact, did not know this. The guide explained that Reno, Nevada, was once the capital of divorce in the United States. To help the state recover from the Great Depression, the government passed two new laws in 1931: One legalized gambling, and the other shortened Nevada’s residency requirement from three months to six weeks, the latter making it easier for someone to move to the state for a few weeks and then file the paperwork to split from her would-be ex-spouse under state law. At the time, Nevada had much broader grounds for divorce, including the catchall claim of “cruelty,” than somewhere like, say, New York, where proof of adultery was the only legal grounds for divorce. “It started this divorce revolution,” Beaird says. And with that revolution came divorce ranches.

Luxury ranches attracted wealthy women who spent their “days shopping and taking horseback rides and their evenings gambling and having affairs with cowboys,” Beaird says, while they counted down the few short weeks until their request for a divorce was officially granted. “I thought, Okay, this is the novel.”

Although Beaird’s novel, The Divorcées, is set in 1951, its themes are ageless: all-encompassing female friendships, acting out in a world that prefers women to stay silent, and the disorienting journey of finding yourself in your early 20s. And as rights that have helped countless women in the U.S. achieve their own versions of freedom for half a century are disputed or dismantled — from abortion to no-fault divorce — perhaps Beaird’s historical fiction is timelier than ever.

Let’s start with the premise of your novel: a luxury divorce ranch in Reno in the 1950s.
The history of divorce in this country feels like this lost chapter in the history of the women’s liberation movement. A lot of these women were going from being a wife to being a single woman, and that meant, in many ways, they would become a social pariah. I thought about the charged atmosphere of a house like that and the potential of what could happen if all of these women were in this place at this very specific time in their lives.

What was your research process like?
The memoir that was the most useful for me was The Divorce Seekers, by Bill and Sandra McGee. Bill was a ranch wrangler at the Flying M E in the 1950s, which was one of the most famous divorce ranches; Clark Gable stayed there. [Ethel Du Pont] Roosevelt stayed there. It was very well known. Emmy Wood, the owner of the Flying M E, owned a bracelet that was made of all the discarded wedding rings from former guests. The University of Nevada also created a Reno Divorce History project; they have amazing testimonials about what it was like to stay on the ranches. And I watched films that would have informed the women’s conceptions of what femininity at that time meant, like The Lady Eve and His Girl Friday. I listened to music by Patti Page and Evelyn Knight, read novels written during that time period, and also looked at some of the fine art from that period.

You intentionally chose a ranch for wealthy women as your setting rather than one for middle-class women or following a woman who moves to Reno and has to find work to forge her future. What was the thinking there?
I did go back and forth because there’s infinite fascinating stories to tell about this period in time. But I specifically chose a divorce ranch that catered to women of means because I do think wealth can give women the illusion of freedom. I liked the idea of these women believing that all of these doors are open to them when, in fact, most of them are shut.

Your protagonist, Lois, causes a stir when she reveals to the other women that her reason for leaving her husband was less dramatic or traumatic than theirs. How did you land on her origin story?
It was really important for the main character to have the radical idea that she could leave the marriage simply because she didn’t feel seen or known or loved by her husband. That is something that now we take for granted but at the time was socially unacceptable: the idea that you would leave a secure household where you were taken care of.

The bulk of the story focuses on the women finding themselves. Then, about 70-ish percent into the book, there’s the possibility of a casino heist. When did you decide you wanted to include that story line?Something I thought about deeply as I was writing the novel is how uncomfortable our society is with the expression of female anger and female rage. I thought, What if that expression of anger did become unruly? These are women who are trying to figure out how they can start a new life completely on their own — and if they were really fueled by that anger, they would decide that they had a right to take wealth from others.

How do you view the current way our country handles women behaving in ways society deems unsavory? What’s different from the 1950s?
I made sense of it partially through our culture’s reaction to divorce and divorcées. The first no-fault-divorce legislation wasn’t introduced until 1970. That was only 50 years ago. Because divorce has become so common these days, there’s this belief that because the legislation changed and because something has become much more common, it’s to the point where it’s socially acceptable. Yet for the vast majority of human history, divorce was considered a sin, and it was inaccessible except to wealthy men — in the same way that, for the vast majority of history, women have been confined to the home and only seen as wives and mothers.

When we look at our laws, when we look at the positions that women hold in society right now, we could draw the conclusions that we’ve made these incredible strides. But it shouldn’t shock anybody that our societal views haven’t changed as quickly as our legislation. Those beliefs that we have about divorce, about women’s role in society, they are deeply rooted in who we are as a country and what we believe. We’ve all been confronted in recent years with the realization that we haven’t evolved as much as we like to think.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

How to Get a Divorce in the 1950s