Divorce in Popular Culture

The Divorce Capital of the World and popular culture were a match made in heaven.

Audio Tour
Project curator Mella Harmon describes the wide spectrum of cultural depictions of the Reno divorce appearing through the decades.

How would you answer the following crossword clue: 5 down, four letters, Nevada divorce city?  If you need another hint, it starts with R.

Throughout the twentieth century, Reno’s divorce trade was so ingrained in the American consciousness that all someone needed to say was “I’m going to Reno” and the meaning was clear.  Reno divorce was a plot line and a sight gag in plays and films, the subject of novels, the object of poetry, and the topic of countless newspaper and magazine articles.

The specialized industry inspired other lingo, as well. To the public, Reno was a “divorce mill” or “the great divide,” where “the colony” settled in to take “the Reno cure”—or as celebrity gossip columnist Walter Winchell termed it, to be “Reno-vated.”

Popular culture also elevated certain Reno sites to national divorce landmarks. The Washoe County Courthouse, where legal proceedings took place, became the “House of Divide” or “The Separator.” By the 1920s, stories and images circulated of divorcées kissing the columns that adorned its front entry upon receiving their decrees.

The nearby Virginia Street Bridge across the Truckee River became another famous landmark, where the newly-divorced were said to stand while flinging their old wedding rings into the waters below. Although widely considered a myth, the story proved true, with many documented cases of ring-flinging off “the wedding bridge” or “the Bridge of Sighs.”

Reno captured the national imagination with its unique combination of liberal divorce laws, western charm, sophisticated culture, breathtaking natural surroundings, and after 1931, legalized gambling. With a cast of characters including cowboys, rich Easterners, attorneys, judges, nightclub operators, and more, it held infinite possibilities for dramatic depictions, from fiction to film. The cosmopolitanism that the divorce trade helped to create even inspired the city’s famous slogan, “The Biggest Little City in the World.” There was truly no place like it.

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