Roman Mars [00:00:01] New immune supporting Emergen-C Crystals brings you the goodness of Emergen-C in a fun, new, popping experience. There is no water needed so it’s super convenient. Just throw it back in your mouth. Feel the pop, hear the fizz, and taste the delicious natural fruit flavors. Emergen-C Crystals, Orange Vitality, and Strawberry Burst flavors for ages nine and up have 500 milligrams of vitamin C per stick pack. Look for Emergen-C Crystals wherever you shop. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This podcast is brought to you by Squarespace. Want to increase revenue this holiday season? Squarespace’s Courses feature gives you the tools you need to create and sell your own online course. Start with a professional layout that fits your brand, upload video lessons to teach skills, and tailor your course with the built in Fluid Engine editor. Create content, then add a pay wall, and set the price. Charge a one-time fee or sell subscriptions. Head to squarespace.com for a free trial. When you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible.” This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. This past summer, producer Ellie Gordon-Moershel took a trip to Reno, Nevada.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel (field tape) [00:01:15] Well, the temperature is approximately 150 degrees.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:01:20] Maybe late July is not the best time for a pasty Canadian to visit Reno. The downtown sites are best seen after sunset anyway. All that neon–even on the cars.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel (field tape) [00:01:33] Where is it coming from? Oh, a car.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:01:38] But I wasn’t actually in Reno for the tricked-out cars or casinos or cocktails. I was there on a run of the mill 99PI mission: to find a bridge.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel (field tape) [00:01:50] Oh, my God. Now, this is the bridge.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:01:52] I still can’t get over how high pitched my voice goes there. But this was the Virginia Street Bridge. A bridge I’ve heard many stories about.
Anne Sturm [00:02:03] And apparently there’s the long tradition of women throwing their rain in the river.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:02:13] This is Anne Sturm. She grew up in Arlington, Virginia. Her mother, Pat, came to Reno in the 1950s to throw her own wedding ring off this very bridge.
Roman Mars [00:02:23] Anne’s mom was in Reno to get divorced. And she was taking part in what had become a final rite of passage for Reno divorcees. You’d exit the courthouse with your new divorce decree, head two blocks to the Truckee River, and fling your wedding ring off the Virginia Street Bridge–all to symbolize your start as a newly liberated woman.
Anne Sturm [00:02:44] She just said the tradition was throwing the ring. And my mother did it, too!
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:02:51] Pat’s lawyer was there to witness the whole thing, and he was appalled. He couldn’t understand how she could dispose of such a valuable asset, so he literally ran into the river.
Anne Sturm [00:03:02] He was all dressed up in his suit. And he rolled up his pants and maybe took off his shoes. I don’t know. And he walked out into that river, and he found the ring. And he came back. And he said, “You may need this.”
Roman Mars [00:03:22] Stories like these were common in Reno because back then, in the mid-20th century, it was internationally known as the divorce capital of the world.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:03:31] Reno was the best bet for people who were searching for a legal escape from a marriage gone wrong. Reno is a fascinating place to me because I love stories about divorce. I even had a friend once tell me that I was pro-breakup. She didn’t mean it in a negative way; it was like she was just making an observation about one of my political beliefs. Here’s the thing. Both of my parents were divorced when they met, and they never remarried. So, I didn’t grow up thinking marriage was particularly important. And at the end of the day, a story about people falling in love is just not as interesting as a story about a divorce.
Roman Mars [00:04:11] But for much of modern history, divorce has been very hard to do.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:04:15] Especially when the Catholic Church ran the show.
Rod Phillips [00:04:19] It’s a sacred bond. God has blessed it, and God doesn’t want you to separate.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:04:25] This is Rod Phillips. He teaches history at Carleton University in Ottawa and wrote a book on the history of divorce in the Western world.
Roman Mars [00:04:34] Divorce laws have historically been influenced by religious practice. And when early settlers colonized the U.S., they brought a range of divorce customs from Protestant Europe with them.
Rod Phillips [00:04:44] Yeah, the early settlers–the Puritans–were Calvinists. You know, Calvinist divorce laws were in place in the Netherlands and in parts of Switzerland, like Geneva, and also in Scotland. So, they all allowed divorce. And when they set up the colonies and established the statutes and the laws, they allowed divorce for two grounds of adultery and desertion.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:05:04] But not all the settlers were Puritans, of course. There were Quakers, Lutherans, Baptists, and also Anglicans who followed the Church of England, which at that time still did not permit divorce.
Roman Mars [00:05:17] After American independence, matters of family law were assigned to each individual state.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:05:23] In other words, a state’s government had the right to set the rules for how or even if you could obtain a divorce. So, divorce laws varied dramatically depending on what state you lived in.
Roman Mars [00:05:34] Some states offered several grounds for divorce, while others were more conservative. And then there was New York, which only had one ground: adultery.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:05:43] And you had to prove it. Even if both parties in the marriage wanted out, they would need to literally stage a photo op for evidence.
Rod Phillips [00:05:52] And that’s where you have people getting into bed with somebody and having somebody jump in through the window with a camera and take a picture of them sitting up in bed, fully clothed and everything. And this was the evidence. This is all the evidence you needed that adultery had taken place.
Roman Mars [00:06:09] So if you lived in one of the matrimonial conservative states, like New York, and didn’t have the resources to collude with your partner to stage an affair, you were left with one option: go west.
Rod Phillips [00:06:20] The Western states tended to be more progressive in many respects.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:06:27] The Western states were newly colonized and didn’t have the baggage of traditions.
Roman Mars [00:06:32] Just the baggage of colonization.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:06:34] So they looked around and came up with liberal marriage and divorce laws they felt reflected the times.
Alicia Barber [00:06:41] This is kind of an accepted component of our society here. And if people are going to get divorced anyway–get divorced somewhere–then we’re going to be a community that embraces that.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:06:55] This is Alicia Barber, author and public historian based in Reno, Nevada. She says there were a few things that drew outsiders to Reno from its very founding.
Roman Mars [00:07:05] Because of its proximity to gold and silver mines, Reno was selected as a stop on the Central Pacific Railroad in the mid 1800s. This made the city easy to get to for lots of different types of people.
Alicia Barber [00:07:16] So Reno kind of became the center of the whole region and really has been this transportation crossroads ever since–and then also a crossroads of many different people coming here for a lot of different reasons.
Roman Mars [00:07:28] But the big thing Reno had going for it was its short residency period. Much of the population of Nevada was transient, meaning they would come for short periods of time to take advantage of the mining rush.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:07:39] Nevada lawmakers realized if they lowered the time it took to become a resident, they could count this transient population as permanent and use them to gain more power in Congress.
Alicia Barber [00:07:50] So on the books, you know, by the turn of the century, you could become a state resident in six months, which was pretty quick.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:07:56] That meant people could become residents in a shorter period of time and in turn benefit from all the state’s laws, including divorce.
Roman Mars [00:08:06] A shorter residency period and more liberal grounds for divorce meant that if you were wealthy enough to relocate for six months, it could technically be easier to become a temporary Nevada resident, secure a divorce, and then go home rather than get divorced in your actual home state.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:08:22] Which, of course, made a lot of conservative politicians and social leaders in other states furious. They hated that residents could circumvent their own state laws and tried to ban this loophole. But in most cases, an out-of-state divorce was protected by the Constitution.
Roman Mars [00:08:39] And in 1905, a famous young socialite named Laura Corey helped transform Reno from a city where you could technically get a divorce to the place to get a divorce.
Alicia Barber [00:08:51] She was the wife of a prominent industrialist, William Corey. People didn’t at first know why she was here. But eventually it became clear that she was here to get a divorce.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:09:01] Coverage of this divorce was in every major newspaper.
Alicia Barber [00:09:05] That kind of precipitated then this awareness that Nevada and Reno in particular was a place where people could easily arrive on the railroad, establish their residency, get a divorce, and go on with their lives. So, this became known as migratory divorce.
Roman Mars [00:09:22] Laura Corey would just be the first in a parade of headline-worthy Reno celebrity divorces.
Alicia Barber [00:09:27] Early on, it was a lot of actors from the Hollywood theatrical community. Nat C. Goodwin and Virginia Harnett. The famous burlesque entertainer, Gypsy Rose Lee, divorced her third husband here. But then you can also think about socialites–you know–Vanderbilts, Rockefellers… Three of the children of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt got their divorces in Nevada.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:09:50] Soon enough, just a reference to Reno became shorthand for divorce.
Alicia Barber [00:09:55] By 1910, the phrase, “I’m on my way to Reno,” or “I’m going to Reno,” meant in people’s minds, “I’m going to get a divorce.” There was a popular song in 1910 called I’m On My Way to Reno, and it was sung across the country.
I’m On My Way to Reno [00:10:10] My wife and I don’t get along. We simply fight and fight. I married her to win a bet. It really serves me right. The love she once declared was mine had simply turned to hate. So, I made up my mind to visit old Nevada State. I’m on my way to Reno. I’m leaving town today. Give my regards to all the boys and girls along Broadway.
Roman Mars [00:10:34] With Nevada’s gold and silver mining depleted, politicians and businessmen in Reno were looking to take advantage of this new industry cropping up around divorce tourism.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:10:44] Nevada wasn’t the only Western state that noticed the economic benefit of luring in divorce seekers. Arkansas, Idaho, and Wyoming had all lowered the residency requirements as well. Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was one of the first cities to take advantage of migratory divorce and was actually known as a divorce colony. But when the stock market crashed in 1929, there were rumors that Idaho and Arkansas were going to match Nevada’s residency requirement, which had actually been lowered to three months by then. The country was entering the Depression, and Reno business leaders were desperate to hold tight to the one industry that remained in steady demand.
Roman Mars [00:11:24] And so in 1931, Nevada passed legislation that solidified Reno once and for all as the divorce capital of the world.
Alicia Barber [00:11:32] The state legislature reduced that residency period from six months to three months in 1927 and then to six weeks in 1931.
Roman Mars [00:11:41] With just six weeks needed to establish residency, Reno, Nevada, offered the quickest and easiest path to achieving a divorce in the country.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:11:50] This quick and easy pathway expanded access to divorce not just for the rich and famous but everyday people who didn’t have the luxury to take months away from their busy lives.
Roman Mars [00:12:00] In the same legislative session that lowered Reno’s residency to an unheard of six weeks, the state of Nevada also legalized wide open gambling. With the offer of a quickie divorce, along with a side of cards, slots, and dice, Reno became an unbeatable destination for divorced tourists.
Alicia Barber [00:12:18] People talked about how you could sit at the main train station in Reno. “You could watch the tide come in and the untied go out.”
Roman Mars [00:12:29] It was mostly women that came for the Reno divorce. And researchers offer a few explanations for this. One is that in middle class marriages at the time, the wife would be less likely to work outside the home and therefore have the time to spend out of state.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:12:43] Divorce was also technically a type of lawsuit in which one partner had to sue the other to get out of the marriage. So, it was seen as chivalrous for the husband to let his wife sue him for divorce because that way, he wouldn’t besmirch her reputation.
Alicia Barber [00:13:00] It was a lawsuit. You know, one person had to sue the other on grounds. You had to have a basis for suing to divorce someone.
Roman Mars [00:13:07] Unlike New York, which just had one single legal ground for divorce, Nevada had seven.
Alicia Barber [00:13:13] And they ranged from adultery to things like desertion, you know, imprisonment, later, abandonment, impotency… But also, one was extreme cruelty.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:13:25] Cruelty was by far the most used ground for divorce in Reno. And it was an open secret that it could be used as a catchall for all sorts of grievances.
Roman Mars [00:13:34] You didn’t need corroborating evidence to prove mental cruelty. One husband claimed cruelty by his wife because she criticized his driving. Another said his wife accused him of being a German spy. Another simply claimed cruelty because her husband made her life dull.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:13:50] Valid reason for divorce, in my opinion.
Mella Harmon [00:13:53] One of the stories was that people were camping along the Truckee River because it was summer, so it would be nice to do that. And they were just camping out for their six weeks.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:14:04] This is Mella Rothwell Harmon. Mella wrote her master’s thesis on the history of the divorce trade in Reno during the Great Depression. She says that since most divorced seekers didn’t want to rough it outdoors for six weeks straight, locals improvised to cater to this influx of temporary residents.
Mella Harmon [00:14:21] Even though it was a depression, there was a spike in building permits as people were rushing to build apartment houses and add on to their private homes to turn them into boarding houses and converting their garages to little cottages on their property to rent it out.
Roman Mars [00:14:43] Where you stayed in Reno and who saw you there were very important pieces of information because you needed to provide both under oath.
Mella Harmon [00:14:51] You’d give your address. And then you would have someone with you in court who would testify on your behalf and call the resident witness, who would testify that you had been observed in Nevada every day for those six weeks.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:15:07] Many guest house managers even offered to act as the so-called “resident witness” as part of a divorce seeking package deal. Kind of like, “Come stay in my accommodations, and I’ll testify that I saw you every single day for six weeks.”
Roman Mars [00:15:21] One divorce-seeking woman initially lied under oath, claiming that she had stayed in Reno for the required six weeks, when in truth, it had only been four. She was sent to jail for committing perjury. But by the end of her sentence, she had incontrovertible proof that she was in Reno the whole six weeks. Her resident witness turned out to be none other than the county deputy.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:15:42] I feel for this divorce-seeking jailbird for many reasons. But one is that she was denied the emotional support which often came from the women who ran the boarding houses.
Mella Harmon [00:15:53] They were taken in by the boarding house manager, oftentimes like a house mother, and cared for. And many people have written some really lovely comments about how important these people were.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:16:09] I read some of these guestbook comments from the 1930s, and they were so intimate–full of inside jokes and intense gratitude like, quote, “You took my tears away over my divorce–gave me a reason to think the future could be happy.
Joelie Fuetsch Pehanick [00:16:24] Well, Mom used to try and console these ladies.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:16:29] This is Joelie Fuetsch Pehanick. It was her family’s guest book I read. Her grandmother and then mother ran a beautiful divorced guest house overlooking the Truckee River.
Joelie Fuetsch Pehanick [00:16:41] Sometimes they’d be up late at night with them, just trying to console them. And I think they were grateful because she had this upbeat personality and was so outgoing and humorous. It was a delight to have that because otherwise it could be a pretty somber household.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:17:03] When Anne Sturm’s mother came to Reno, she had to travel alone and leave her young children for six weeks, all for a divorce she didn’t want in the first place.
Anne Sturm [00:17:12] I had heard my father and mother fighting–arguing–but I’d get in bed with my brother and cry. So that was a very clear memory. So, I knew she was leaving. And I knew that she had to go to Reno and that she would be gone six weeks.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:17:31] It could have been a depressing and isolating time for Anne’s mom, but luckily, she had the means to stay at a luxurious dude ranch catered specifically to divorced women. It even had individual stalls for nude sunbathing.
Anne Sturm [00:17:45] My mother was a big sun lover. She came home with a no marks suntan.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:17:55] There are some really fun old photos of all the divorce-seeking women that stayed at these dude ranches, wearing cowboy outfits, eating dinners together, and horseback riding.
Anne Sturm [00:18:06] So she went there. And I guess it was full of lots of other women. They’re going through the same thing. And obviously, she came home much happier than when she went because of all that therapy, which, you know, wasn’t formal therapy. It was group therapy just because all of these women were in the same boat.
Roman Mars [00:18:30] Something else that set Reno apart from other divorce tourism destinations was that it wasn’t only accessible to rich, white women.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:18:38] One 1950 feature article in Ebony magazine reported that about 500 Black women came to Reno to divorce each year. These women needed to rely on Reno’s local Black community for support, which at that time was very small.
Shayne Del Cohen [00:18:53] We also had a community that was very strong because it was so small and they couldn’t do certain things in Reno.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:19:00] This is Shayne Del Cohen. She’s a former board member of Our Story Inc., which is a nonprofit devoted to stories that have been underrepresented in northern Nevada history. She says Black women coming into town for a divorce needed a support system that operated outside of the white mainstream.
Roman Mars [00:19:18] Although by the mid 1900s, many discriminatory laws were overturned in the states, there was still extensive discrimination. In Reno, Nevada earned the nickname “Mississippi of the West” for having overtly racist and exclusionary practices. So, if you were a Black divorce seeker, it was essential to have local support to help navigate the city safely.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:19:39] This support was made possible by a small but tightly knit community held together by the local African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Shayne Del Cohen [00:19:47] The social life at that time was centered around the AME Church on Bell Street, which had a boarding house right next to it. And the church had chicken dinners for $1.50 a month. They had a book club. They had a little theatrical group. They did all sorts of things.
Roman Mars [00:20:08] That same 1950 article in Ebony magazine features a photo of Reverend Thompson of the Bethel AME, who welcomed strangers with this question: “Are you here for the cure?”
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:20:18] “The cure” Reverend Thompson was referring to is the “six weeks cure,” a nickname referring to the six weeks it took to get a divorce in Reno and therefore be cured from your miserable marriage. I have to say, I was initially confused by how welcoming the church was in an era when divorce was super taboo. And so, I asked Shayne about that.
Shayne Del Cohen [00:20:41] Yes, the church ethic towards marriage and divorce was pretty conservative, but their compassion wasn’t. Their compassion was all encompassing.
Roman Mars [00:20:56] But as important as the compassion was, it couldn’t pay the bills. Many of the people who came to Reno also needed money during their six-week stay. They needed a job.
Mella Harmon [00:21:06] A number of the divorce seekers needed to find a job while they were in Reno in order to pay for their divorce and their residency here. And there were jobs available for both men and women.
Roman Mars [00:21:17] Men seeking divorces in Reno could find work as a mechanic or a ranch hand. Even famous Black, Marxist writer C. L. R. James got work as a ranch hand while he was in town for a divorce in 1948.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:21:29] If you were a woman, you could head over to the YWCA, which would help set you up with a short-term gig, like shop clerk, waitress, housekeeper, or stenographer. Or you could find work in one of the many institutions Reno was famous for.
Mella Harmon [00:21:43] Reno’s casino industry was both entertainment for the divorce seekers as well as a place for employment.
Roman Mars [00:21:51] Before the tourism industry, gambling mostly took place in back rooms and was geared towards a rougher local crowd. But with the flood of divorce tourists in town, casino owners were looking for new ways to appeal to these middle-class visitors.
Alicia Barber [00:22:05] There was a very famous club called Harold’s Club that opened in the 1930s that started to promote itself through a real kind of cartoony western kind of theming that made it seem more like respectable fun and not just some kind of sordid activity.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:22:19] Alicia Barber again. She says one tactic of increasing respectability was hiring women. And there was one job completely perfect for the Reno intersection of gambling and divorce: the shill.
Alicia Barber [00:22:33] There was a job known as a shill where attractive women would be hired to just sit at one of the table games and play the game and look delighted and, you know, try to attract other people to come.
Roman Mars [00:22:44] In 2014, Mella Harmon spoke with a woman named Janis whose mother was hired as a shill when she was out in Reno seeking a divorce in 1944.
Janis [00:22:53] When she went up to get her divorce, she had to figure out a way to earn a living because she was going to be here for six weeks. And I also think she’d have been bored to tears sitting up there for six weeks trying to find something to do. But she was a very good card player. And she told me, “I didn’t know they hired shills.” But she said she’d sit at the blackjack table.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:23:13] There’s even a story of a local woman applying for a job at the same casino who recalled that everyone kept asking her, “Are you sure you’re not here for a divorce?”
Alicia Barber [00:23:26] The general impression was that, you know, Renoites were pretty amused by it and thought, “Wow, this is just great, you know?” So, there was a lot of popular culture. And then this was the kind of publicity that really fed upon itself. So, Reno’s promoters didn’t have to do anything to get this kind of publicity because the media was just fascinated by it.
Roman Mars [00:23:50] In between juicy newspaper headlines, the American public was fed a steady stream of Reno divorce drama from Hollywood films.
Alicia Barber [00:23:56] Really starting in the 1930s, there were a lot. There were three in production in 1931. It was just fertile ground for drama.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:24:05] Even Marilyn Monroe’s last film, The Misfits, was about a Reno divorce. In this scene, she stands on the famous Virginia Street Bridge and contemplates throwing her own ring in.
Isabelle Steers [00:24:19] If you throw in your ring, you’ll never get another divorce. Go ahead, honey. Everybody does it. More gold in that river than there is in the Klondike.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:24:34] The personal stakes were high for all of these women, and Reno delivered. It was a refuge from social taboos, an opportunity for job experience, and a potential pathway to a more fulfilling marriage with financial security. If you managed to wear a cowboy hat, play the slots, and have fun while at it, that was just a bonus.
Roman Mars [00:24:53] Reno’s divorce era began petering out in the late 1960s as divorce law became more liberalized throughout the Western world.
Alicia Barber [00:25:01] The migratory divorce industry in Nevada really ended in the 1960s with the introduction of irreconcilable differences and no-fault divorce throughout the country.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:25:10] In 1969, California became the first state to introduce irreconcilable differences and no-fault divorce. Previously, one spouse had to sue the other in order to get out of a marriage on specific grounds.
Roman Mars [00:25:24] Like adultery or being a German spy.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:25:26] But no-fault divorce meant you didn’t need to prove wrongdoing anymore. Other states quickly followed California’s lead and adopted similar divorce laws.
Alicia Barber [00:25:36] And that really pretty much put an end to it because then it wouldn’t be any harder to really get a divorce in other places than it was in Nevada. It might be faster in Nevada, but the fact that you didn’t have to sue anymore just made it more widely available and efficient throughout the country.
Roman Mars [00:25:53] Reno held the title of Divorce Capital of the World for a little over six decades and helped to bring an end to tens of thousands of marriages. Even though today visitors may not be aware of Reno’s divorce history, it altered the identity of the city forever.
Alicia Barber [00:26:08] It was divorce that really was largely the inspiration for this slogan that we have for Reno, which is: “The Biggest Little City in The World.” That was about the fact that for its size–which was a small, modest, little, western town–Reno is so much more cosmopolitan than you would expect. And that in many ways was due to the fact that you had all of these people coming from outside to get divorces from much more cosmopolitan urban centers. And they brought something with them. And that did stay with Reno. And that really in combination then with the legalization of gambling, created the tourism industry that has continued to this day in the state of Nevada.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:26:58] And now, a good 50 years after the end of Reno’s reign as the divorce capital of the world, I approached the Virginia Street Bridge–the bridge where women cast off their wedding rings for decades–and was shocked by a sight.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel (field tape) [00:27:12] My God, there’s love locks here now. Ironic.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:27:19] Love locks–those padlocks you sometimes see on famous bridges. That thing where a couple inscribes their initials, attaches the lock to the bridge, and then throws away the key–all to symbolize unbreakable love or whatever. Needless to say, I was startled–then annoyed–by this discovery. This was a bridge of liberation. How dare it be vandalized by relationships literally represented by shackles? But then, up until recently, I had no idea Reno’s famous casinos were employers of unhappily married women. So maybe I was missing the story behind these locks, too.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel (field tape) [00:27:58] It’s about love of yourself. Maybe these aren’t locks dedicated to self-love.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:28:04] Who am I kidding? But at the very least, these couples already know of a fun place to get divorced.
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Roman Mars [00:31:16] So we’re back with producer Ellie Gordon-Moershel. Thank you so much for that story, Ellie. It was a fun divorce story.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:31:21] I told you it would be.
Roman Mars [00:31:23] I know. And you delivered.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:31:25] But one thing I did not mention in the story is that I actually brought my girlfriend on my Reno divorce trip.
Roman Mars [00:31:33] That’s kind of a strange couple’s getaway–to do your divorce story with your partner.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:31:37] Okay, I think it’s romantic. But one of the afternoons we were there, we were trying to find some postcards first at an actual feminist bookstore/cat adoption center. But it was closed, sadly. However, next door, someone had spotted us and kind of was like, “Oh, why don’t you come in here and check things out?” And it turned out that place was the Northern Nevada LGBTQ Center.
Roman Mars [00:32:00] Nice.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:32:01] And so when I told the executive director why we were in town, she was like, “Oh, come here, and take a look at this.” And she rolled out a big movie poster. And on it was a 1950s convertible. There’s two women standing in front, one in modest white heels and the other in, like, cool cowboy boots. And the slogan across the top read, “In 1959, Vivian Bell Came to Reno for a Quickie Divorce. Of All the People She Met There, the One That Most Surprised Her Was Herself.” So, I recognized it immediately because it’s for this film called Desert Hearts, which is beloved in the queer community because it was the first mainstream lesbian film to have a happy ending.
Roman Mars [00:32:43] Wow. Okay. So, what year did this come out?
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:32:45] It came out in 1985, which is actually the year I was born. But it was just one of those things and films I just knew about, you know, like, out of the lesbian cinematic universe. But the film was actually based on a novel that came out in 1964 called Desert of the Heart by an author named Jane Rule.
Roman Mars [00:33:04] Tell me more about Jane Rule.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:33:06] She was a fellow Canadian, and she did pass away in 2007. And even though I hadn’t heard of her, she was a well-known literary figure in some circles. I would say she was besties with Margaret Atwood. It turns out Jane Rule’s archives are at the University of British Columbia. When I was looking through them, it felt like there was, like, hundreds of letters from Atwood. And on a shallow note, I have to say, I was pleased to see that Margaret Atwood’s handwriting is just as bad as mine.
Roman Mars [00:33:36] They’re just like us. So, tell me about Jane’s connection to Reno. Like, what prompted her to write this book?
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:33:42] Yeah. So, I read Desert of the Heart about a year ago. That is how I found out about the Reno divorce history. That’s why this episode exists. And unlike the movie version, there’s just so much detail about the older character coming into town for a Reno divorce. And the detail of it made me think, like, Jane must have gone to Reno. But I just could not find that out in the research online. But then an acquaintance of a friend emailed and was like, “I’m pretty sure Jane’s long-term partner, Helen, went to Reno for a divorce.” And I was like, “Oh, my God.” And I was so excited. And that’s why I went to the archives in the first place. And yeah, sure enough, Helen did travel to Reno for a divorce, and Jane went with her.
Roman Mars [00:34:32] So the book came out in ’64. So, when did she experience Reno?
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:34:36] She was there in 1958, which was nearing the end of sort of Reno being the divorce capital. But I would say it probably still was very much experiencing the heyday of that. And Jane had written to her parents that Helen couldn’t get a divorce in her home state, Massachusetts, because most of the judges were Catholic. And while they were both in Reno, Jane actually got a job at a casino.
Roman Mars [00:35:00] Oh, was she one of the shills you were talking about?
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:35:02] She did learn about shills from an employment agency. And she did try and get a job as one at the Mapes Casino, which is actually where Desert Hearts was filmed decades later. But the manager took one look at her and said, “Sorry, lady.” And this is just me guessing, but I think it’s because Jane Rule was a six-foot-tall lesbian.
Roman Mars [00:35:24] I see. So, she wasn’t like the typical shill material?
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:35:27] No, she was not. But she did end up getting a job at Harold’s Club.
Roman Mars [00:35:32] And so what did she do for Harold?
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:35:33] She had this job called “change girl,” which involved lugging around 40 lbs. of coins for customers that needed to break their bills for the slots. And she wrote an excited letter to her parents about the job and that the experience was probably destined to give her writing material, which, of course, it was. And then the bonus of a “frontier outfit” that she could bring back to Vancouver.
Roman Mars [00:36:00] Okay, so she’s down there with Helen. I assume Helen got her divorce. So, what happens then?
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:36:04] Yeah, she got her divorce. Her and Jane went back up to B.C. And one of the letters I saw written, you know, during this time–Jane mentioned her own marital status. She was writing to her parents. She was responding to what must have been a letter about them being worried that Jane herself would never get married. And so, Jane was writing them back and said, “I haven’t the vaguest desire to get married.” And then she goes on to say that she doesn’t feel too guilty about it because “I’m fairly sure that you’re rather fond of who I am,” which is very sweet. She wrote them a lot.
Roman Mars [00:36:36] Yeah, that’s very sweet.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:36:37] So Helen passes away in 2000, which is before gay marriage is legalized in Canada. But I have to say, like, knowing what I know about Jane Rule, I really don’t think they would have ever married anyway. But they stayed together for the rest of their lives. And their ashes are at the Galiano Island cemetery.
Roman Mars [00:36:55] And so where is Galiano Island?
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:36:57] It’s actually pretty close to Vancouver. It’s part of the Gulf Islands that are just a ferry ride away. And Roman, I didn’t plan this, but my girlfriend and I actually booked a cabin for the weekend right before this episode drops on Galiano Island. And a couple days ago, I looked up the cemetery, and our cabin is literally steps away.
Roman Mars [00:37:17] Wow. Wow. That’s so cool. So, are you going to go and pay your respects?
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:37:21] I definitely will. I want to thank Jane for introducing me to Reno.
Roman Mars [00:37:25] Well, I’m glad she introduced you to Reno. And then I’m glad that you introduced us to Reno. So, thank you so much.
Ellie Gordon-Moershel [00:37:30] Thank you.
Roman Mars [00:37:35] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Ellie Gordon-Moershel. Edited by Vivian Le. Sound mix by Martín Gonzalez. Music by Swan Real. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Special thanks this week to Marie and Laura Jo. Our executive producer is Kathy Tu, Delaney Hall is our Senior Editor. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Sarah Baik, Chris Berube, Emmett FitzGerald, Christopher Johnson, Jayson De Leon, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado Medina, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find us on most social media platforms, but those feel pretty bad these days. But I can recommend one place that does feel good: our website, 99pi.org.