Decades before Nevada was known for its casinos, it was world famous for offering quick divorces. In this segment of Time & Place, historian Alicia Barber explains how the process worked for those who traveled to the Silver State to end their marriages.
For about sixty years, Nevada was the top destination for unhappy husbands and wives who wanted to end their marriages quickly. The industry was called “migratory divorce,” named for those who migrated to Nevada to untie the knot.
Just about anyone could take advantage of the state’s multiple grounds for divorce. But to do that, one of the spouses had to travel to Nevada and become an official state resident, a process that at first took six months, but was eventually shortened to six weeks. The options for short-term lodging during that period included something for every income level, from rooms in private residences and modest apartments to luxurious hotels and glorified dude ranches.
Barbara Davis made the fateful trip to Reno twice. The first time was in 1947, when she was divorcing a Brazilian socialite she had met while working as a showgirl in the famous Copacabana nightclub in Rio de Janeiro. Interviewed by phone in 2014 from her home in Las Vegas, she explained that she had fled Brazil without a lot of cash, which didn’t leave her with many options.
"I started looking around at—we used to call them “society ranches” or something. They were very popular in those days. And everything was so expensive that I just ended up living in a boarding house," she explained. "There were four of five of us there, and some were from New York, others, someplace else, you know, from all over the country."
Like many divorce-seekers, Davis needed to earn money to pay for her room and board. What she ended up doing came as something of a surprise, even to her.
"I discovered that the maid had quit, at the boarding house, and I asked if I could have the job. And the woman couldn’t believe it, because I had very elegant clothes. Plus, nobody knew it, but my husband was a marquis, so I was a marquise while I was washing the toilets."
After securing her divorce, Davis moved to Los Angeles and married an actor, but the match was not meant to be, and she ended up back in Reno in 1951. This time, she parlayed her experience as a showgirl into a job that came with lodging that was conveniently located adjacent to the Washoe County Courthouse, where divorce cases were heard.
"I got a job in the show at the Riverside Hotel. They brought in four showgirls, so all of the girls stayed at the hotel at that time. The rooms were included in the contract, so I just had to walk next door and get, you know, everything taken care of."
Reno’s divorce trade ended by the late 1960s, as other states loosened their divorce laws. But the landscape of divorce is still visible throughout the city in the form of many homes that once served as boardinghouses or rented out rooms, as well as apartment buildings and hotels like the Riverside, which was renovated and reopened in 2000 with 35 live/work spaces for artists.
Alicia Barber is a historian living in Reno. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries. Visit Reno Divorce History for more information.