Reno became the Divorce Capital of the World just as Hollywood was coming into its own. The two worlds, full of drama and intrigue, proved fascinating to Americans, particularly when they intersected.
The first round of actors and actresses to join Reno’s divorce colony came from the world of the New York stage. One of the first was actor Nat C. Goodwin, who arrived in Reno in 1908 to divorce his third wife, actress Maxine Elliott. A side benefit of attracting the theatrical crowd was that Reno audiences were often treated to performances by these dramatic new residents. Noted actress Virginia Harned divorced her husband, Shakespearean actor E.H. Sothern, in Reno on October 15, 1910. Four days later, she appeared onstage at Reno’s Majestic Theatre in a new play by Herbert Bashford, called “The Woman He Married.” Stage actress Lilyan Stratton (Corbin) divorced her second husband, actor Frank Campeau, in Reno in 1917, and later authored the book Reno about her experiences.
The advent of cinema brought other stars, including silent screen actress Winifred Westover, who divorced her husband, actor, screenwriter, director, and producer William S. Hart, in Reno in 1927. Film actress Paulette Goddard divorced her first husband, the industrialist Edgar James, in Reno in 1932. Stage and screen actress Tallulah Bankhead divorced film actor John Emery, in Reno in 1937.
Actresses traveling to Reno for “the cure” in the 1940s included Maureen O’Hara, Jane Greer, and Myrna Loy, who served out her time at the Washoe Pines guest ranch. Famous burlesque entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee divorced her third husband, Spanish-born muralist Julio de Diego in Reno in 1955, while she was appearing in the Mapes showroom.
Although not occurring in Reno, Mary’s Pickford’s nearby 1920 divorce shone a spotlight on Reno’s growing divorce trade. Pickford, known as America’s sweetheart, was delivered to the Campbell Ranch in Genoa, Douglas County, by her attorney, Reno’s Patrick McCarran, on February 15, 1920. Despite the six-month residency requirement, Miss Pickford was granted a divorce on March 3rd in Minden, the Douglas county seat, from her actor husband Owen Moore, who was also in Nevada at the time. Pickford then married her lover, leading man Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., on March 28.
The case highlighted a loophole in Nevada’s divorce law that had allowed Pickford and Moore to collude to obtain a divorce without going through the statutory residency period. The legality of the divorce was upheld by the Nevada Supreme Court in 1922 and Nevada voters soon passed an amendment to the law eliminating the loophole.
Other famous actors and actresses who chose to complete their residencies outside of busy Reno included Lana Turner, who obtained a divorce in Carson City in 1952, and Carole Lombard, who divorced actor William Powell there in July 1933 in order to marry Clark Gable.
When the famed film star Rita Hayworth married her third husband, Prince Aly Khan, in 1949, she became Hollywood’s first genuine princess. By 1951, however, royalty had worn thin for the actress and she moved to Lake Tahoe in 1951 to establish residency for a Reno divorce. Hayworth and her daughter Yasmin Aga Khan stayed at a rustic house at Sawmill Harbor at Lake Tahoe, reportedly because of a threat to kidnap the child. For months, the royal divorce and Rita Hayworth-sightings were fodder for the press.
Hayworth’s divorce was finally obtained in early September 1953 and on September 24th, she married the Hollywood actor and singer Dick Haymes in Las Vegas. Two years later, Hayworth was back in Reno to divorce Haymes. All told, Rita Hayworth was married and divorced seven times.
Individuals from society’s upper echelon brought style, wealth, and attitude to the Biggest Little City.
Divorce-seeking celebrities from the worlds of theater, film, and television enthralled Reno residents and the press.
From writers to royalty, luminaries of all sorts made the journey to Reno.