Reno Fever. Whirlpool of Reno. Temporary Address: Reno. In the divorce era, simply including the word “Reno” in the title of a work of fiction conjured up a world already familiar to the American public. The divorce center provided a perfect backdrop and cast of characters for storytelling in a range of formats.
Literature inspired by Reno’s divorce trade included short stories, poems, and more than two dozen novels. Although mostly genre and pulp fiction—often no more than true confessions or anecdotal narratives—these depictions hold great social and cultural value. Whether melodramatic or psychologically astute, they add greater complexity to perceptions of the Reno divorce by exploring the motivations, interactions, and ambivalence of its participants.
Notable novelists such as Faith Baldwin, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., and James M. Cain employed Reno as a setting. Playwright Arthur Miller first wrote “The Misfits” as a short story, and then converted it in to a screenplay for the 1961 film starring his then-wife, Marilyn Monroe. Latifa Johnson’s Sheila Goes to Reno (1952) and Jill Stern’s Not in Our Stars (1957) populate Reno’s landscape with an array of flawed characters hovering somewhere between liberation and self-destruction.
In most of these stories, a female divorce-seeker arrives in Reno, where she encounters certain stock settings, situations, and individuals. Characters frequent the nightclubs and casinos of downtown Reno, ride horses throughout the open country, and fall into the arms of cowboys. The grittier portrayals create a landscape of dashed dreams, bankrupt gamblers, and lives come undone. In contrast, the poetry of the Reno divorce is for the most part light and humorous, deploying sing-songy rhythms and obvious rhymes intended to amuse the casual reader.
Marilu Norden traveled from Connecticut to Reno in 1951 to divorce her husband. Accompanied by her four-year-old son, Phil, she spent her six-week residency at the Pyramid Lake Guest Ranch, located fifty miles northeast of Reno. Although bereft over the end of her marriage, Norden found a strong community of support in ranch operators Harry and Joan Drackert and her fellow guests, some of whom also had brought their children.
Norden later used her experiences as the imaginative foundation for her award-winning first novel, Unbridled: A Tale of a Divorce Ranch (2008). In the novel, Lara Treadwell is sent to a guest ranch by her husband, as Norden herself was, to secure a Reno divorce after the birth of her second child. Reflection and a little bit of romance set the character on a more confident path.
Norden was inspired to write the novel not only by her own experience, but out of an underlying concern that the guest ranches, and Reno’s divorce trade in general, were in danger of disappearing from public memory. As she explains, “I thought it was very important to bring this out into the open, to people who never even know that such a thing existed.”
Packing a visual punch, postcards sent personal stories and public images of the Reno divorce outward into the world.
Nonstop coverage by the press provided entertainment for the masses as well as promotion of the divorce trade.
Novelists, short story writers, and poets found the Reno divorce to be rich terrain for their imaginations to roam.
The unique contours of Reno’s divorce industry provided ample material for song and stage.