Postcard of Flamingo Hotel and Bugsy Siegal

Dick Wolf preps American Babylon

Dick Wolf is prepping a new series, American Babylon, a period drama chronicling the story of the creation of Las Vegas. The series is inspired by the book, The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America by Sally Denton & Roger Morris. Mixing fictional characters and historical figures, the series explores the dreams, the power, corruption, and redemption of the “Miracle in the Desert”.

“I have always been fascinated by Las Vegas, a city that has the most colorful history of any in our country,” said Dick Wolf.

Drum roll, please

It’s been a few years since Bill and I collaborated on The Divorce Seekers: A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler. And I am still fascinated by the Reno divorce era and the romantic image of Eastern socialites mixing it up out West with cowboys.

The Divorce Seekers became the source book or “bible” (as it’s called) for an upclose glimpse into life on an exclusive Nevada divorce ranch  – the six-week residence of choice for wealthy Easterners and celebrities, who wanted to avoid the prying eyes of the press.

I am pleased to announce in May 2020, The Divorce Seekers was optioned by Emmy and Humanitas Award-winning writer/producer Judd Pillot for a broadcast, cable or streaming series. “Dick Wolf’s American Babylon bodes well for our project,” said Judd Pillot.

If I were in the studio or network casting department for this series, who would be my choice to play the Bill McGee character – the handsome and young dude wrangler on an exclusive Reno divorce ranch surrounded by all those wealthy and beautiful women? The late star of two-dozen-plus Westerns, Glenn Ford.

Please let me know your casting choice in the comments…

Best from Casa McGee,
Sandra

Bill McGee and Flying M.E. guest taking a beer break on a trail ride, 1948 (Author Collection)

 

Don your Western wear and watch a classic Western movie

Owen Wister is said to have created the first romantic cowboy in 1902 with his best-selling novel The Virginian. The hero, known as “the Virginian”, was brave and honorable, tough but soft-spoken. The Virginian was portrayed on the big screen in 1929 by Gary Cooper, in 1946 by Joel McCrea, and from 1962 to 1971 by James Drury in a television series of the same name.

Back when: Bill McGee cowboyin’ on the Flying M.E. guest ranch, Franktown, Nevada, 1947-1949

Mapes Hotel vintage champagne glasses

Vintage champagne coupes from Mapes Hotel estate 

Our dear friends, Deb Wiger Geraghty and James Stavena, surprised Bill and me with these vintage champagne coupes (saucers) from the Mapes Hotel estate. Deb and James are Reno divorce era history buffs and always on the lookout for vintage items from Reno and Carson Valley antique shops.

It was easy to imagine the elegant Sky Room at the Mapes, where Reno society and the divorce seeker colony went for dinner, drinks, dancing and a show. 

As Bill and I toasted each other with these beautiful glasses, we wondered whose lips — famous and infamous — had sipped from these glasses back when.

Bill was at the Mapes on opening night, December 17, 1947

 

MapesHotel

“I was in my second month of working as the head dude wrangler on the Flying M.E. dude ranch, twenty miles south of Reno. 

The newly-completed Mapes hotel, overlooking the Truckee River, was twelve stories high, the tallest building in Nevada at the time. Until then, the El Cortez Hotel was the tallest at seven stories. The Mapes Hotel changed the Reno skyline. 

On opening night, December 17, 1947, Reno society and Hollywood celebrities turned out en masse. Emmy Wood, the Flying M.E. proprietor, Allie Okie, the ranch hostess, and I escorted two carloads of ranch guests to opening night.

Allie and I stayed in the cocktail lounge and casino with the guests who wanted to gamble. Emmy took the others up to the Sky Room on the top floor. Reservations were not taken for opening night, but Emmy, who was already a legend in the Reno divorce ranch business, had pull. She and her guests were immediately seated at a window table. Joe Reichman, billed as “The Pagliacci of the Piano,” and his orchestra were playing and the dance floor was crowded. Emmy said later the views through the large picture windows overlooking the lights of Reno and the surrounding foothills and mountains were magnificent.

In the ground floor casino, Allie and I spotted actors Bruce Cabot and Johnny Weismuller, the boxer Maxie Rosenbloom, and other familiar faces. Weismuller was easy to spot with his long hair, dark glasses and unmistakable physique. He had just begun his six-week residency at the Donner Trail Ranch in nearby Verdi to divorce San Francisco socialite Beryl Scott.  During the next six weeks, he spent so much time at the Mapes gambling, drinking and dining, a newspaper reporter dubbed him “Tarzan of the Mapes.” We all got a kick out of that.”

____________________________________

Excerpted from The Divorce Seekers — A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler.

Roundup Magazine cover, October 2018

Proud to be among these amazing contributors to Roundup Magazine, October 2018 issue 

Click on the link below to read the story…

“A Place to Split: Nevada as divorce capital is a legend of our time” by Sandra McGee

More from Byline Sandra McGee

Roundup Magazine contributors to the October 2018 issue

The Secrets She Keeps

 

Best-selling author Deb Caletti sent us a signed copy of her latest novel, The Secrets She Keeps. The inscription read:

“For Bill and Sandra, Divorce ranch royalty! With gratitude.”

 

The story is set in 1951 on a Nevada divorce ranch. Ms. Caletti, though too young to have lived through the Reno divorce era, shared what it was like doing research for her novel: 

 

 

“I owe a debt of gratitude to Bill and Sandra McGee’s wonderful book The Divorce Seekers, which was an invaluable resource for information about the Nevada divorce ranches. . . . This book is a treasure if only for the photos alone—images of cowboys, the ranch, old Reno, and Moscow mule-sipping socialites in the midst of their six-week cure.

Bringing that time period to life was trickier than I’d anticipated because of exactly what I’d found so thrilling—how little there was out there about the divorce ranches. Luckily, I discovered The Divorce Seekers, a stunning coffee table volume of photos and memories by Bill McGee, a former dude wrangler at the famed Flying M. E. 

The images—with their smoky, black-and-white, retro allure—are what brought the time and place alive for me so that I could bring them [my characters] to life in the novel. Not only was the book an invaluable resource for information on day-to-day life on a divorce ranch, it also set the mood. I’d open the book to an image of two sleepy roommates in the middle of their Reno cure, wearing silky chemises, drinks in hand, or to a photo of one of the gals in her party-night finery, and I’d be just where I needed to be.”

A decade has passed since The Divorce Seekers: A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler was published in 2004, but the Reno divorce era and that unique Nevada institution — the divorce ranch — still continue to fascinate.

Brochure for the Boulderado Ranch, circa 1940s. (Courtesy Nevada Historical Society)

Brochure for the Boulderado Ranch, circa 1940s. (Courtesy Nevada Historical Society)

On Monday, April 20, 2015, Time Traveling premieres on the Travel Channel. 

The first episode in the new series features a visit to the sites of two former Las Vegas divorce ranches, Boulderado Ranch and Tule Springs Ranch. 

In spring 2014, Bill and I were contacted by the producers who were seeking information on Las Vegas divorce ranches of the 1940s and ’50s. Our book, The Divorce Seekers — A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler, is set in Northern Nevada, specifically the Reno area, where Nevada’s divorce business began. However, we do write about how Las Vegas got into the act years after Reno, and sent the producers a copy of our book.

In April 2015, in an interview for the Las Vegas Sun, Brian Unger of the Travel Channel told Robin Leach, “a book fell into the hands of someone in the home office, and they thought this would be a great story.”

We’re betting that book was The Divorce Seekers. 

What did we think of the first episode? We have to say, it was a disappointment. To our surprise, Reno’s role in the history of Nevada’s unique divorce ranch business was omitted completely. In fact, the program claimed Las Vegas as the town where Nevada’s divorce ranch business began. Shame, shame.

 

Related Post 
“A Place to Split” by Sandra McGee

 

 

 

The glamorous divorce ranches of the Mad Men era

When the curtain fell on the third season of Mad Men, Betty Draper, our favorite housewife in crisis, was on her way to Reno to get a divorce.

This created some buzz about Reno’s divorce era and what was it, and inspired Priya Jain’s story for Slate.com.

Click on the link below to read the story…

Betty Goes Reno: A visit to the glamorous divorce ranches of the Mad Men era,
July 21, 2010, by Priya Jain

After all, how many of the today’s younger generation know about the famed Reno six-week divorce era and how it eventually empowered women to get out of a bad marriage?

In 2014, Christopher Spata wrote a great piece in the Tampa Tribune about the screenwriting and attention to historical accuracy in AMC’s highly-successful television series (“Mad Men respectful with details from the past”, Tampa Tribune, April 13, 2014). Unfortunately, this piece is no longer available to read on the Tampa Tribune’s site, but as an example of historical accuracy, Mr. Spata addresses Betty’s going to Reno and why it fit historically with the script. As part of his fact-checking, Mr. Spata contacted Bill McGee for a comment or two and included a nice plug for The Divorce Seekers in his story.

Related Post
Priya Jain and the Reno divorce era for BUST Magazine

Doing research... (Author photo)

Conducting research – Bill McGee (right) at the Clyde Park Tavern, Clyde Park, MT, 2013 (Author photo)

Bill and I spent the month of September in his home state of Montana.

Objective: To research and fill in the blanks of Bill’s Montana roots for his upcoming memoir, Montana Memoir: The Hardscrabble Years, 1925-1942.

First stop: – Livingston (pop 7,000)
Like so many other small towns in the West, Livingston was established in the 1880s alongside the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

The wild and wooly town was situated on the Yellowstone River and was known as “the original gateway to Yellowstone National Park”. Tourists en route to the park had to change trains in Livingston and many spent the night in town before continuing their journey. By 1882, Livingston was a thriving community with 40 businesses, 30 of them saloons. Rough and tumble, the town attracted the likes of Calamity Jane, who is said to have lived in a local hotel with periodic stays in jail.

Bill was born at the  in Livingston in 1925. Bill’s father, Harry Ellwood “Mac” McGee, was homesteading in the Shields River Valley about 30 miles north of Livingston. When it was Bill’s time to be born, his “rich” uncle, Clyde M. Lyon, drove Bill’s mother, Vivian (Lyon) McGee, to the Lott Birthing Hospital in Livingston. Maternity patients at that time were not usually kept in regular hospitals. Numerous “maternity houses” – or “birthing hospitals” as they were also called – were scattered throughout Livingston before hospitals were thought appropriate for “lying in”.

The former Lott Birthing Hospital, Livingston, MT, 2013 (Author photo)

The former Lott Birthing Hospital, Livingston, MT, 2013 (Author photo)

The Lott Birthing Hospital, 128 S. Yellowstone Street, was originally a private residence built in 1889 (the year Montana achieved statehood) in the affluent West Side neighborhood known as “Bankers’ Row”. From 1920 to 1929, the residence housed the Lott Birthing Hospital run by local nurse Edith Lott. Nurse Lott was known for her compassion. She never asked if a patient could pay. She  took care of “the ladies from B Street” (the Red Light District) with no questions asked.

Today, the former Lott Birthing Hospital is once again a private residence and on the National Register of Historic Places. Livingston’s historic Main Street is a reminder of the past, with grand old buildings that have been restored. The town is a haven for artists, writers, and actors, with good restaurants – and still a healthy number of saloons.

Related Posts
Montana Memoir Research – Second stop: Wilsall (Post 2/3)
Montana Memoir Research – Final stop: Helena (Post 3/3)

Conducting research: The Bank Bar & Vault Restaurant, Wilsall, MT, 2013 (Author photo)

Bill and I spent the month of September in his home state of Montana

Objective: To research and fill in the blanks of Bill’s family history for his upcoming memoir, Montana Memoir: The Hardscrabble Years, 1925-1942.

Second stop: Wilsall (pop 237 at the 2000 census) 

In 1911, Clyde M. Lyon — who would become Bill’s uncle in 1925 — was visiting the West, looking for a good place to raise cattle. Clyde Lyon had already established himself in the Midwest as a successful businessman. However, like so many entrepreneurs of his time, he was drawn to the West seeking new opportunities. 

When he visited Wilsall, a small community about 30 miles north of Livingston in the Shields River Valley, he was convinced it was a good place for cattle ranching. 

By 1919, Clyde Lyon owned several ranches in Park and Meagher counties, as well as the Wilsall Mercantile Store, still doing a thriving business today (see below for then and now photos).

At the time, Harry Elwood “Mac” McGee, a cowboy and blacksmith, had a reputation around Montana as a top hand with horses. Clyde Lyon spotted Harry McGee’s talent with horses and hired him on the spot to work on his  ranches in Park and Meagher counties.

While working for Clyde Lyon, Harry McGee met Clyde’s sister, Vivian, who was working in the Wilsall Mercantile Store. In 1921, Harry and Vivian married, much against Clyde’s wishes, who did not want his educated sister to marry a cowboy. Harry and Vivian had three children while living on Clyde Lyon’s ranches: Bill, and his sisters, Doris and Betty. 

Clyde Lyon would be numbered among the prosperous and well-to-do citizens of his community. In 1921, he was written up in a Montana “Who’s Who” as “one of the well-known agriculturists and ranchmen of Southern Montana. . . never losing the dignity which is the birthright of the true gentleman”. (Montana: Its Story and Biography, Vol. II, 1921)

 

Clyde M. Lyon's Wilsall Mercantile Company (on the right), Wilsall, MT, 1921 (Wilsall Museum)

Back when: Clyde M. Lyon’s Wilsall Mercantile Company (on the right), Wilsall, MT, 1921 (Courtesy Wilsall Museum)

 

Still in business today: Wilsall Mercantile Company, Wilsall, MT, 2013 (Author photo)

Still in business today: Wilsall Mercantile Company, Wilsall, MT, 2013 (Author photo)

 

Conducting more research (Author photo)

Bill and I spent the month of September in his home state of Montana

Objective: To research and fill in the blanks of Bill’s Montana family history for his upcoming memoir, Montana Memoir: The Hardscrabble Years, 1925-1942.

Final stop: Helena, Montana’s capital (pop 29,351)

The Montana Historical Society in Helena had a wealth of information on Bill’s Uncle Clyde M. Lyon and Granduncle Frederick A. Lyon.

Frederick A. Lyon visited Montana in 1879 and, a few years later, settled in Forestgrove, near Lewistown. He courageously began his career as a homesteader on what was practically desert land. His operations grew and prospered, and, by 1921, he owned 2,000 acres of valuable and productive land. He was one of the pioneers in the business of alfalfa growing in Fergus County.

We hated to leave “Big Sky” country, but it was time to head home to California and process our new research into the manuscript for Bill’s Montana memoir, published three years later.

 

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