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 Wolf.

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

 

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 simply 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.

Mapes Hotel vintage champagne glasses

Vintage champagne coupes from the Mapes estate 

Deb Geraghty and James Stavena gifted Bill and me with these vintage champagne coupes (saucers) from the hotel Mapes estate. 

The elegant Art Deco hotel was the place to go when Reno society and the divorce seeker colony wanted a night out for cocktails, dinner, dancing and a show. 

As Bill and I toasted each other, we wondered whose lips – famous and infamous – had sipped from these glasses back in the day. 

Bill was at the Mapes on opening night, December 17, 1947. Here’s his story…

MapesHotel

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

The newly-completed hotel Mapes, 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 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. Emmy took some of the guests up to the Sky Room on the top floor. Reservations were not taken for opening night, but Emmy, who was a legend in the Reno divorce ranch business, had pull and she and her guests were seated at a coveted window table. Emmy said the views through the large picture windows overlooking the lights of Reno and the surrounding foothills and mountains were magnificent. Joe Reichman, billed as “The Pagliacci of the Piano,” and his orchestra were playing and the dance floor was crowded. 

Allie and I stayed in the ground floor cocktail lounge and casino with the guests who preferred to drink and gamble. We spotted actors Bruce Cabot and Johnny Weismuller, and the boxer Maxie Rosenbloom. Johnny Weismuller was easy to spot with his longish 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, Weismuller spent so much time at the Mapes gambling, drinking and dining, a newspaper reporter dubbed him “Tarzan of the Mapes.” We got a kick out of that.”

____________________________________

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

Read more about the Mapes by historian Mella Harmon at RenoHistorical.org

Click on the link to read…

“A Place to Split: Nevada as divorce capital is a legend of our time” by Sandra V. McGee, ROUNDUP (October 2018)

 

Roundup Magazine contributors to the October 2018 issue

Deb Caletti's new novel "The Secrets She Keeps", front cover

 

Deb Caletti, best selling author, sent Bill and me a copy of her new novel set on a Reno divorce ranch in 1951. The inscription read

 

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

 

 

 

Deb shares what it was like doing research for this 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.” -Deb Caletti

 

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

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

Two former Las Vegas divorce ranches were featured in the Travel Channel’s new series, Time Traveling

The new series premiered on April 20, 2015 and the first episode featured the Boulderado Ranch and Tule Springs Ranch.

In 2014, Bill and I were contacted by the producers, who were seeking information on former Las Vegas divorce ranches of the 1940s and ’50s.

Though our book, The Divorce Seekers – A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler, is focused on Reno-area divorce ranches – where Nevada’s six-week divorce business began – we do include how and when Las Vegas got into the divorce business years after Reno.

We gladly sent the producers a copy of our book.

In an April 2015 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 bet that book was The Divorce Seekers. 

In our opinion, the first episode was a disappointment. Reno’s role in the history of Nevada’s unique divorce ranch business was omitted completely. In fact, the program claimed Las Vegas where the town where Nevada’s divorce ranch business began. Shame, shame.

Related Post 
“A Place to Split” by Sandra V. McGee

 

 

 

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

This created some buzz about Reno’s six-week divorce era and inspired Priya Jain’s story for SLATE.COM (see link below).

After all, how many of today’s younger generation know about this slice of history in the American West that eventually empowered women in their marriages?

Click on the link to read…

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

 

Note: In 2014, Christopher Spata wrote a 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.

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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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Montana Memoir Research – First stop: Livingston (Post 1/3)
Montana Memoir Research – Second stop: Wilsall (Post 2/3)

 

 

 

IMG_0061

Sandra with Mark P. Hall-Patton (left), Clark County Museums Administrator and a regular guest on the hit TV series Pawn Stars.

Las Vegas, Nevada, June 25-29, 2013 – Hundreds of the country’s top Western writers gathered at the Riviera Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas for the Western Writers of America 60th Annual Convention.

Western novelists, historians, screenwriters, songwriters, and the agents and editors who represent them, enjoyed five days of Western camaraderie and networking.

This year a much-debated topic was the recently released Johnny Depp movie, The Lone Ranger. WWA members are serious researchers and know their history when it comes to the “old West”,  so there were lively debates about the movie and just who was the real Lone Ranger.

On Friday, June 28, seventy Western writers signed their books at Barnes & Noble in Henderson. The event was kicked off by a few words from Mark P. Hall-Patton, Clark County Museum administrator, and a regular guest on the hit TV series Pawn Stars.

Bob Wiseman, the Las Vegas author of the award-winning cookbook Healthy Southwestern Cooking, said, “This is a rare opportunity to meet some of the best known writers of the old and contemporary West.”

Bill and I represented the contemporary West with our book, The Divorce Seekers: A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler. Other writers taking part in the signing included Thomas Cobb, author of Crazy Heart, adapted into an Oscar-winning movie starring Jeff Bridges, and Kirk Ellis, Emmy-winning screenwriter of  HBO’s John Adams.

Western Writers of America (WWA) was founded in 1953 to promote and recognize literature of the American West. The membership includes novelists, historians, essayists, journalists, songwriters, screenwriters, editors, agents, and others. Annual conventions are held each June in a different Western community. Past winners of WWA’s prestigious Spur Award include Jane Smiley, Larry McMurtry, Stephen E. Ambrose, Tony Hillerman, and Elmer Kelton.

A new book idea is explored with Lynn Bueling (left) and Sandra and Bill McGee.

Bill and Sandra discuss a book idea with Lynn Bueling (left).

 

Related Post
WWA at National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Okalahoma City, June 2009

 

 

 

Scripps student Theresa Iker interviews authors Bill and Sandra McGee, June 2013.

Scripps student Theresa Iker interviews Bill and Sandra McGee for her thesis on the Reno divorce industry. June 2013

Scripps College student Theresa Iker first learned about the Reno divorce era from a story in Vogue magazine by novelist Lily Tuck about getting her divorce at the Donner Trail Guest Ranch in Verdi, Nevada (See link below to read “On Her Own” by Lily Tuck, Vogue, June 2012).

Theresa was then a student at Scripps College in Southern California. Like others of her generation, she  was unfamiliar with Nevada’s six-week divorce era and thought it would be a good subject for a thesis. What was so different about getting a divorce back then? Why did women – and some men – want to go to Reno for a divorce?

Theresa applied for and received a fellowship to conduct a research study about people’s experiences with the Reno divorce industry from 1915 to 1970.

There aren’t many individuals around today who experienced the Reno divorce era firsthand. However, Internet research led Theresa to Bill McGee and our book, The Divorce Seekers: A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler.

As Bill likes to say, “I may be the only former Nevada dude wrangler – still above ground – who lived through the Reno divorce era.”

Bill and I wish Theresa the very best in her work to preserve this part of Nevada history few people know about today!

Related post
“On Her Own” by Lily Tuck, Vogue, June 2012

Divorce hotels, a new concept by Jim Halfens

Jim Halfens, a Dutch entrepreneur, wants to introduce “Divorce Hotels” to the United States… a weekend program for couples seeking a speedy split-up.

In a recent  Internet search for “divorce ranches,” I found this interesting story in the New York Times: “Quick Getaways at the Divorce Hotel”  (5/27/2012).

A Netherlands entrepreneur came up with the idea of a “Divorce Hotel“… a place where a couple checks in on a Friday, married, and checksout on a Sunday, divorced. According to the story, the concept is already up and running at six high-end hotels in the Netherlands and may be coming to the United States soon.

Related posts:
What are the six biggest divorce trends in the U.S. today?

The Annual Cobb Pig Roast held every September on Neal and Mary Cobb’s Reno ranch is one of the year’s most anticipated events… and the September 2012 Pig Roast was no exception.

Bill and I drove to Reno and met up in the morning with the team for the upcoming documentary, RENO and the Romance of Divorce (RRD). We had raised the seed money and met to discuss the next phase of development.

In the afternoon, we joined the more than 200 guests at Neal and Mary’s ranch for a Western-style gather with an abundance of food, music, camaraderie, and of course the roasted pig.

Neal Cobb, Reno historian

Neal Cobb, Reno historian extraordinaire

 

“RRD” documentary producer John Cork (center) with “2012 Distinguished Nevadan” Guy Rocha (left) and Reno gaming historian Dwayne Kling (right)

 

(L to R) Producer of the “Harolds Club” documentary Steve Ellison; “RRD” creative consultant Bill McGee; “RRD” creative consultant Deb Wiger Geraghty, and James Stavena

 

“RRD” producer Lisa van Eyssen (left) with “RRD” creative consultant Sandra McGee

 

Roasting the pig on the Neal Cobb ranch, Reno

The roasting pig

Novelist Lily Tuck stayed on the Donner Trail Guest Ranch in Verdi in 1970 to get a six-week Nevada divorce

She never expected to have a wonderful time.

The heydays of the Reno divorce ranch era had already faded out, and the Donner Trail was the last of the legendary half-dozen divorce ranches that had been scattered outside of Reno from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Click on the link below to read Lily Tuck’s story…

“On Her Own” by Lily Tuck, Vogue Magazine, June 2012 issue

 

 

Ed Pearce of KOLO-TV, Reno, interviews former 1940s Nevada dude wrangler Bill McGee on the site of the famous Flying M.E. divorce ranch, Washoe Valley, Nevada. November 2004.

 

This documentary short was produced by acclaimed documentary filmmakers John Cork and Lisa van Eyssen for Twentieth Century Fox. The exclusive featurette (as it’s called on the DVD) accompanies the re-release on DVD of the 1939 film Charlie Chan in Reno. Former 1940s Nevada divorce ranch wrangler and author Bill McGee provides on-camera commentary. Posted is a 2-minute clip from the 15 minute docu.

The Charlie Chan Collection, Volume 4, is a 4-DVD box set and includes Charlie Chan in Reno, plus three other Charlie Chan movies and many exclusive featurettes. Available from Amazon.

 

1949

Marlboro ManLife magazine photographer Leonard McCombe shot this image of Texas rancher C. H. Long, a range boss for the JA Ranch near Amarillo, Texas. The image appeared on the magazine’s cover on August 22, 1949 and inspired Chicago adman Leo Burnett in the creation of one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history… the Marlboro Man.

 

 

 

 

 

1947

Bill McGee back when on the Flying M.E. dude ranch… enjoying a Camel cigarette. 

 

Take a listen to this interview on Nevada Public Radio’s KNPR in Las Vegas, March 1, 2011

Tales from Reno’s Divorce Ranches 

The interview includes commentary by the following Reno divorce era experts:

  • Author Bill McGee – former 1940s dude wrangler on Nevada’s Flying M.E. divorce ranch
  • Author Marilu Norden -divorce seeker at the Pyramid Lake Guest Ranch in the 1950s
  • Beth Ward – former owner of the Whitney Guest Ranch in Reno
  • Mella Harmon – Reno divorce historian

Opening page of Priya Jain's Reno divorce story for Bust magazineBrava to Priya Jain on her compelling, six-page feature story in BUST MAGAZINE (December/January 2010)

Click on the link below to read the story…

“The Six-Week Cure: Remembering the era when Reno ‘divorce ranches’ helped unhappily married women start new livesby Priya Jain

More by Priya Jain