Archive for the ‘Nevada Divorce Ranch Era’ Category

Sandra's Occasional Newsletter - Dec. 2021
A little bit of news… but not too much. 

Before Squaw Valley (now Palisades Tahoe) the destination ski resort for East Coast socialites in Reno for a divorce and Hollywood celebs was Sky Tavern on the Mount Rose Highway. Sky Tavern opened in 1945 with a 21-room hotel, coffee shop and bar. There was no electricity. The resort ran on a gasoline-operated generator. The ski lift consisted of a couple of rope tows and a T-bar lift, where you wrapped one leg around an upside-down metal T attached to a moving cable and let it pull you up the slope.

Squaw Valley opened on Thanksgiving Day in 1949. According to Squaw Valley & Alpine Meadows: Tales from Two Valleys by Eddy Starr, opening day was a fiasco. Union workers had stopped construction on the lodge, resulting in strikebreakers being brought in to finish the work. The resort founder, Alex Cushing, was working on the plumbing himself. There was no running water. There was no dinner until 10 p.m. Only one toilet was working and the waiting line for it snaked out into the lobby. One of Cushing’s daughters tripped and broke her leg that night, and the family dog was run over by a guest. However, Cushing persevered and Squaw Valley went on to become a world-class resort and host to the 1960 winter Olympics Games.

Women are less conservative than men in their ski apparel and food choices. While women are more fastidious and tend to eat less because their mind is on their figure and whose contours and details are emphasized by the wearing of ski clothes…they can be more easily persuaded to try what they have not eaten before. That is, to my thinking, because they are as a rule more curious than men.”
– Maitre ‘d hotel Fritz Schwarz, Squaw Valley, and formerly Sun Valley, Idaho (Reno Reporter, Oct 13, 1949)  

Flying M.E. divorce seeker at Sky Tavern ski resort, December 1947

Before Squaw Valley, socialites and Hollywood celebs skied at Sky Tavern ski resort. Pictured: Flying M.E. divorce seeker, Dec 1947. (Photo Valerie Vondermuhll. William and Sandra McGee Collection)

—From the new edition of The Divorce Seekers – True Stories from the 1940s Nevada Divorce Ranch Era. Coming in 2022 in softcover. A limited quantity of the first edition (2004), a hardcover coffee table book, is available on Amazon for $35. The book is currently being developed as a series for cable or streaming.

‘Til next year, happy holidays to all! Open all night for comments below…

Best, Sandra

                   Marilu Norden, Hotel Riverside, Reno, 1957


In 1951, the glamorous singer/dancer Marilu Norden registered at the Pyramid Lake Ranch to wait out her six weeks for a “quickie” divorce. The Pyramid Lake was 34 miles north of Reno in Sutcliffe, a location that was remote then and still is today. Other notables who stayed on the Pyramid Lake for a divorce were journalist A. J. Liebling in 1949 and playwright Arthur Miller in 1956. Miller writes in his autobiography that the Nevada desert and the cowboys he met provided him with the idea for the 1961 film The Misfits. (According to Liebling, there’s more to this story, but that’s the subject for another post.)

After getting her divorce, Marilu performed at the Hotel Riverside. In her caption to the above photo she writes, “In my show biz days, this was the costume I wore as lead singer in a show at the Riverside Hotel in Reno. I sang Blues In The Night strolling a proscenium stage as eight chorus girls danced behind me!”

Marilu recounted her time in Nevada getting a divorce in her novel, Unbridled – A Tale of a Divorce Ranch


Marilu and Bill reminisce about the good old, bad old days when Reno was the Divorce Capital of the World. Scottsdale, AZ, 2012

(Photos courtesy Marilu Norden and her son, Chris Norden)

Another true story… The Divorce Seekers – A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler by Bill and Sandra McGee

Reno Divorce Ranch Era - Ashtray Del Monte Dude and Guest Ranch

It’s just an old tin ashtray, but the stories it could tell…

When fellow Reno divorce ranch history buff, Jerry Garrity, spotted this old tin ashtray from the Del Monte Dude and Guest Ranch in an antiques bazaar in Reno, he knew if anyone would love to have it, that would be me. Indeed, just imagine the stories this ashtray could tell of a divorce seeker contemplating their future while smoking a Camel. What circumstances brought the divorce seeker to Reno for a “quickie” divorce? What was their story? Happy? Sad?

The Del Monte had its heyday in the 1930s and ’40s, and attracted divorce seekers looking for a place to call home for six weeks in Reno. Located 3-1/2 miles south of Reno, the dude ranch sat on property once owned in the 1800s by Myron Lake, Reno’s founding father. The historic ranch house, dating back to 1874, offered divorce seekers an old West experience.

In 1947, the ranch house met an untimely end

In the early morning hours of September 2, 1947, the ranch house caught fire. The fire was started by a cigarette smoked by a 33-year-old divorce seeker from New Jersey. She died in the fire when she refused to leave her second-floor room without any clothes on.

In the room with her at the time was the 23-year-old bartender who worked at The Strip, a nightspot adjoining the Del Monte. The bartender jumped to safety stark naked from the second-story window. He was arrested for indecent exposure.

The historic ranch house was a total loss. All that remains today of the site is a tall, spindly evergreen tree in a parking lot near the corner of South Virginia Street and Del Monte Lane in Reno.

True story.

Yellow Page ad for the Del Monte Guest Ranch, circa 1947.

From the 1947 Yellow Pages

More True Stories…
The Divorce Seekers – A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler
by former Flying M.E. divorce ranch wrangler Bill McGee and his co-author/wife, Sandra McGee

Hotel Mapes Champagne Coupes

Whose lips had sipped from these champagne coupes (saucers) from the Mapes estate in Reno? Fellow Reno history buffs Deb Geraghty and James Stavena found a dozen of these vintage glasses in a Reno antiques shop and – most thankfully – gave two to Bill and me. 

One evening, as we sipped Manhattans from the Mapes champagne coupes, Bill reminisced about opening night at the venerable Mapes Hotel on December 17, 1947


“The Mapes Hotel had a prime downtown location across the street from the Truckee River and the Riverside Hotel. When the Mapes was completed, it was twelve stories high, the tallest building in Nevada, and the first skyscraper built in the Western United States after World War II. Before the Mapes, the El Cortez Hotel in Reno was the tallest at seven stories. The Mapes changed the Reno skyline.

“I was in my second month as head dude wrangler on the Flying M.E. On December 17, 1947, Emmy Wood (the proprietor), Allie Okie (the ranch hostess) and I escorted two carloads of Flying M.E. guests to the Mapes on opening night. It was snowing and took longer than usual to drive the twenty miles from Washoe Valley to Reno.

“When we arrived at the Mapes, Emmy took a half-dozen guests to the Sky Room on the top floor. Reservations were not taken for opening night, but Emmy, who was by then a legend in the Reno divorce ranch business, had pull, and she and her guests were seated immediately at a coveted 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 were magnificent, overlooking the lights of Reno and the surrounding foothills and mountains.

“Allie Okie and I stayed in the cocktail lounge and casino with the guests who wanted to drink and gamble. We spotted actors Bruce Cabot and Johnny Weismuller (of Tarzan movie fame), and the boxer Maxie Rosenbloom.

“Johnny Weismuller was easy to spot with his unmistakable physique and longish hair. 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 would spend so much time at the Mapes gambling, drinking and dining, a newspaper reporter dubbed him… ‘Tarzan of the Mapes.'”

True story from The Divorce Seekers – A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler by Bill and Sandra McGee.


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



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

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

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.

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


TRUE WEST Magazine, opening page of Sandra McGee's Reno divorce story, June 2010


Thank you to editor Meghan Saar for including my story in TRUE WEST Magazine (June 2010)

Click on the link below to ready the story…

“The Divorce Seekers – An old-time wrangler recalls Reno, the ‘city of broken vows’, through his days at the Flying M.E. ranch” by Sandra V. McGee


Carson City, Nevada, September 19, 2009 – Bill and I were among a host of Nevada authors invited to sign their books at the Carson City Library’s 11th Annual Oktoberfest.

That evening, we celebrated our 29th anniversary at our favorite Carson City restaurant, Adele’s. Bartender Mark always takes good care of his patrons.


Writer/wrangler Bill McGee talks about his book, The Divorce Seekers: A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler and his time from 1947 to 1949 working on the Flying M.E., the famous dude and divorce ranch twenty-one miles south of Reno that catered to wealthy Easterners, socialites, and Hollywood celebrities.

Interview at Western Writers of America Mega-Book Signing
June 19, 2009
The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
Oklahoma City, OK

Sandra McGee, co-author of The Divorce Seekers: A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler, shares her thoughts on the Reno divorce era.

Interview at Western Writers of America Mega-Book Signing
June 19, 2009
The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
Oklahoma City, OK

As seen in PRECIOUS METAL, Magazine of Harrah’s National Automobile Museum (June 2005)

Click on the link below to read the story…

“The Cowboy’s Saddle” by William L. McGee 


As seen in PRECIOUS METAL, Magazine of Harrah’s National Automobile Museum (June 2005)

Click on the link below to read the story…

“Nevada As A Place To Split Is A Legend Of Our Time” by Sandra V. McGee