The year was 1951. During an era that many associate with Leave it to Beaver and postwar domestic bliss, Marilu Norden's married life was shattered. Now 88 years old, Norden remembers the shock she felt when her husband came home one day and told her he didn't love her anymore. "He wanted me to get a divorce," she recalls. "And he wanted to send me to a divorce ranch in Reno. And I'd never heard of such a thing back then." Chances are, you haven't either.
From the early 1900s to about the mid-1970s, Reno, Nevada was the divorce capital of the United States. Most other states had very few grounds for divorce, along with up to three year waiting periods. Nevadans, on the other hand, could get divorced on nine different grounds, including mental cruelty (a close approximation to modern "irreconcilable differences"). The catch: if you were from out of state, you had to establish residency in Nevada for six weeks before you could get unhitched.
So began the era of divorce ranches, or luxury dude ranches where people could relax while they waited out their "six week cure." Norden stayed at Pyramid Lake Ranch, a beautiful spot just outside of Reno. The drive out to Pyramid Lake, she says, was surreal. She had just given birth to her baby daughter, but most ranches didn't allow infants. With her four-year-old son in tow and the baby at home with her (soon to be ex-) sister-in-law, Norden was whisked from the Reno airport through the desert in a rickety station wagon, lopping off jack rabbits left and right. It was a far cry from Connecticut, and from her quiet, settled life with her husband and small children.
Norden, a beautiful singer, dancer, and actress, blended right in with the usual clientele of the divorce ranches. As the most exclusive lodgings for the divorce seekers, the ranches catered to the rich and the famous, especially Hollywood celebrities and East Coast socialites who were seeking a quick and private end to their troubled marriages. Among the big names who got "Reno-vated" were Ava Gardner and Mary Rockefeller. Arthur Miller even stayed at Pyramid Lake, where he was inspired to write The Misfits. After receiving his divorce papers, he would go on to marry Marilyn Monroe.
Women were far more likely to get divorced in Reno, as most men at the time were breadwinners who could not take six weeks off work. The ranches saw more than their fair share of heartbroken ladies, but they were also the sites of metamorphoses. Some women -- among them Norden -- found themselves completely transformed by their experiences in the desert, which were often their first times living on their own. During her first days at the ranch, Norden was still in shock. Briefly hearing her husband's voice on the phone as he asked to speak to their son was enough to make her cry.
But slowly, something deep within Norden changed. "It was very exciting and very thrilling, kind of like letting go." She started to relax, swimming in Pyramid Lake at night and going into town with other divorcées. "I even got up on the bar and danced," she laughs. "They dared me and I did it." She believes that her time in Reno was the first step to finding out who she was. In her first marriage, Norden says, she was "always trying to fit in, and trying to please." But in Reno, she remembers, "I found something in myself that's been there all of my life from then on. It was a strength of purpose and knowing that I could do this, and I was capable."
Stories like Norden's remind us that divorce is not a recent social crisis, and perhaps that it isn't even a crisis at all. Nostalgia for the good old days, when families stayed together and marriages lasted, doesn't quite fit with the reality of the thousands of women who got divorced Reno-style. Among them were women like Norden, who lost their husbands but found themselves along the way.
Marilu Norden's novel about her time at Pyramid Lake, Unbridled: A Tale of a Divorce Ranch, is available for purchase at Amazon.com.