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Divorce in Reno

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A Forgotten Trope popular when divorce was difficult in most of the United States but much easier in Nevada. In the early 20th century, most American states had fairly strict divorce laws, often only granting divorces for specific cause (abandonment, adultery, etc note ) and often requiring a long waiting period, and for both spouses to be present in the courtroom. No-fault divorce was rare until The '70s after California introduced it in 1969, and more and more states began to follow suit. (The last state in the Union to adopt no-fault divorce, New York, only did so in 2010.) In Nevada, however, no-fault divorce was legal by the early 20th century. Even more significantly, in 1931 the residency requirement to establish residency in Nevada, and thus be able to get divorced in Nevada, was reduced to only six weeks. So while in most of America one would have to wait quite a long time to get a divorce, and one would probably have to show cause why one should be allowed a divorce, one could go to Nevada and get a divorce in six weeks, no questions asked.

Many old movies and plays about the fashionable upper classes will have characters travel to Reno, Nevada, to obtain painless divorces. (At this time Reno was by far the biggest city in Nevada, as Las Vegas did not start developing until The '50s.) Reno businessmen went out of their way to attract those seeking Nevada divorces with specialist lawyers and affordable extended-stay hotels. Eventually, as the other 49 states liberalized their divorce laws, thus making divorce vacations to Nevada unnecessary, this became a Forgotten Trope. (Well, not quite. Nevada is still used for these kinds of divorces, but today the main reason is to bypass the community property laws of some states, most notably California. Another reason is to get the juiciest settlement possible; a notable use of this trope is England - which didn't technically have no-fault divorce until the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 - using the process known as "forum shopping".)

Other places with lax divorce laws, known on That Other Wiki as divorce mills, may also serve the same purpose. That Wiki also has a page on a similar practice involving Mexico.

The Inverted Trope, where people go to get married because marriage is easier there, is Elopement.


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    Films — Live-Action 
Examples set in (or about) Reno, Nevada:

  • In The Dark Horse, political campaign manager Hal Blake, who's in love with pretty secretary Kay, winds up being pretty much blackmailed into remarrying Maybelle, his shrew of an ex-wife. But after Hal's candidate wins the election, Hal gets an offer to run a campaign for governor of Nevada. In the Happy Ending, he tells Kay that he'll get a divorce while he's there.
  • In the Buster Keaton film Seven Chances (1925), Buster has to marry someone — anyone — before turning 27 or lose his inheritance. He runs a newspaper ad for a wife and is ready at the altar with tickets to both Niagara Falls and Reno.
  • At the time of this trope, divorce wasn't considered a polite topic of conversation, so this could be used as a complete euphemism. Here's a middle-class example from the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) (having nothing to do with the main plot):
    Becky: I've been in Reno.
    Miles: Reno?
    Becky: Reno. Dad tells me you were there, too.
    Miles: Five months ago.
    Becky: Oh, I'm sorry.
  • In Follow the Fleet (1935), Bilge never actually says that Iris is divorced. He says that her husband didn't understand her, "so the poor kid had to go to Reno."
  • In The Women (1939), based on the play of the same name, Mary goes to stay at a ranch in Reno with a group of other women as they wait to obtain their divorces. The movie was remade into a film as well as a musical comedy called The Opposite Sex.
  • Film Noir Born to Kill (1947) involves a woman who came to Reno to get a divorce, and hooks up with a jealous lover who murdered his ex-girlfriend and her new man.
  • In romantic comedy Phffft!!, Jack Lemmon and Judy Holliday get divorced in Reno but can't seem to get out of each other's lives.
  • In The Misfits, this is why Roslyn is in Reno. Right after getting her divorce, she falls in love with an older local man.
  • In The Lady Eve this is the suggested remedy when Henry Fonda wants to rid himself of Barbara Stanwyck, who is actually running The Con against him.
  • Referenced in The Shawshank Redemption (the beginning of which takes place in the late 1940s). Andy learns that his wife is having an affair, and she wants a divorce. Both she and her lover are killed shortly afterwards. At trial the prosecutor repeats Andy's response to his wife — "I'll see you in hell before I'll see you in Reno" — and this is one of several factors that convinces the jury to find Andy guilty.
  • In Charlie Chan in Reno, Charlie's son when he hears his dad is going to Reno — actually to consult the Reno Police on a case — is afraid his parents are getting a divorce.
  • In Libeled Lady (1936), Bill tries to surprise Gladys with the news that she's technically still married to her first husband, but Gladys subverts this when she tells him she got a divorce in Reno.
  • In His Girl Friday Hildy mentions going to Reno to get a divorce from Walter.
  • In My Wife's Relations, Buster Keaton boards a train to Reno, signaling that he's going to escape his Accidental Marriage.
  • These lines from the song "Shuffle off to Buffalo", which was featured in 42nd Street.
    Matrimony is baloney,
    She'll be wanting alimony in a year or so;
    Still they go and shuffle, shuffle off to Buffalo.
    When she knows as much as we know
    She'll be on her way to Reno while he still has dough
    She'll give him the shuffle, when they're back from Buffalo.
  • Shirley Temple vehicle Stowaway (1936) ends with Susan and Tommy, having entered into a Marriage of Convenience so Tommy can adopt Barbara (Temple), going to Reno to get divorced. Barbara intervenes, getting Susan and Tommy to admit in court that they really do love each other. The judge disallows the divorce and the film ends with Tommy, Susan, and Barbara as a happy family.
  • In That Thing You Do!, waitress Mauguerite mentions getting married in Portland before moving to Reno... right where she got a divorce.
  • Golden Boy: Tom takes on Joe as a prizefighter because Tom is desperate for $5000 to buy off his wife so he can get a divorce. He is thrilled when she gets a boyfriend and goes to Reno, saving him the money.
  • Dance, Girl, Dance: Elinor has a ticket for Reno at the beginning. She seems to want Jimmy to talk her out of it but the conversation goes awry, and she winds up leaving for a six-week Nevada vacation.
  • Merry Wives of Reno: Two wives go from New York to Reno to get divorced because they both think their husbands cheated on him with a third woman (only one of them is correct). The latter half of the film is set in Reno, which is depicted as a non-stop bacchanalia of sex and drinking.

Examples not set in Reno:

  • Tijuana, another once-popular destination for quickie divorces, serves the same purpose for the housewife who hitches a ride with the party-seeking college boys in Road Trip.
  • The Married Couple of the Year Two: In 1793 South Carolina, protagonist Nicolas Philibert (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is an exiled (and married) Frenchman who wants to divorce from his wife Charlotte (Marlène Jobert), who stayed in France, so he can marry his American girlfriend. He can't in the USA since Charlotte is not present for that, but divorce has been recently legalized in Revolutionary France, so he has to travel back to France to divorce from her.

  • In Jane Rule's 1964 novel The Desert of the Heart (and its loosely adapted Film of the Book Desert Hearts, made in 1985 but set in 1959), the protagonist is an English professor who goes to Reno to divorce her husband—and gets into an unexpected lesbian relationship with a casino worker.
  • In Stephen King's novel 11/22/63, the romantic interest of the main character becomes a cocktail waitress in Nevada for six weeks so that she can divorce her psychotic husband.
  • In Rally Round the Flag, Boys!, Angela Hoffa and Harry Bannerman are having a tryst when she mentions that she'll be away for a few weeks in Reno. Harry is instantly chilled by this news, but Angela reassures him that Harry had nothing to do with breaking up her marriage to Oscar, who thinks a divorce serves her right. (What Harry doesn't know at this point is that Angela is determined to break up his marriage.)
  • Inverted in Who Censored Roger Rabbit?. Roger proposed to Jessica on the night of their first date. They then flew to Reno to elope. Their marriage, however, only lasted a year.
  • John Cheever wrote a lot of stories about unhappy couples who lived in New York so this trope popped up several times. In "The Season of Divorce" a housewife's would-be beau pops up at her (and her husband's) apartment unannounced, with a check made out to the wife, which he hopes she'll use to go to Reno and get a divorce.
  • In The Fountainhead, Dominique travels to Reno to get a divorce from Peter Keating. Her later divorce from Gail Wynand is more conventional.
  • At the time Ogden Nash wrote these lines in his poem "This Was Told To Me In Confidence," the implication would have been clear to anyone:
    ...If I tell you Mrs. Drew is off to Reno,
    You are not to breathe a word, that’s understood;
    For I said to Mrs. Drew
    That I heard it all from
    Oh, a little bit of gossip does me good.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Downton Abbey: Michael Gregson tried to obtain German citizenship (after also considering Greece and Portugal) so he can divorce there. Gregson's wife was irretrievably mentally ill and did not even recognize Gregson, but at the time (the early 1920s), British law did not allow divorce in such situations. (In one of Downton Abbey's trademark legal ironies, English law would permit divorce for "incurable insanity" not terribly long afterward, upon the passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937.) German law, however, did, and he moved to Munich to begin the arduous process of becoming a German citizen. Unfortunately, he is killed by Nazi Brownshirts within a year of arriving.note 
  • On Mad Men, Betty flies to Reno at the end of Season 3 (set in 1963) to get a divorce from Don.
  • "Cowboy", from season one of M*A*S*H subverts this. Cowboy's wife sent him a letter from Reno. Hawkeye and Trapper, reading it to Cowboy over the radio, panic about the implications until Cowboy reveals he lives in Reno. They panic again when they read "Dear John", only for Cowboy to reveal that his real name is John Hodges. Cowboy's wife reassures him in the letter that she loves him and would never cheat or leave him.
  • In a Very Special Episode of The Facts of Life, Blair is incredulous that a troubled new student's mother lives in Nevada. "Nevada? Nobody lives in Nevada except Wayne Newton and women getting a divorce." (Realization hits her, and she understands the problem.)

  • Billy Joel wrote a song called "Stop in Nevada" about a woman leaving her husband to move to California — but she has to, well, stop in Nevada first, presumably for the divorce.
  • Steely Dan's "Haitian Divorce" was about a similar practice where people on the East Coast would go to Haiti to get their own divorces as Haiti was closer than Nevada, although this was less common as Nevada's divorces had to be given "full faith and credit" since Nevada was an American state while Haiti's were covered under the less expansive "comity", which often wasn't granted by the states. Also, the wife has a fling with a hot Haitian guy while in the country divorcing, from which results a Chocolate Baby.note 
  • "Don't Go Down to Reno" by Tony Christie.
  • "The Part You Throw Away" by Tom Waits references getting divorced in Mexico:
    I want that beggar's eyes, a winning horse
    A tidy Mexican divorce
    St. Mary's prayers, Houdini's hands
    And a barman who always understands

  • One segment of The Women takes place in a Nevada dude ranch where assorted wives, including a Countess about to divorce her fourth husband as well as the main cast's Mary and Sylvia, are waiting to establish residency for their divorces. A newspaper gossip column refers to Miriam Aarons as "being Reno-vated".
  • "Rhode Island is Famous for You", a song from the revue Inside U.S.A., has the following lines.
    Grand Canyons come from Colorado
    Gold comes from Nevada
    Divorces also do.
  • "What Chance Have I with Love?" from Louisiana Purchase references this:
    Look at what love did to Reno,
    It put Reno on the map.
    When a woman goes to Reno,
    It's because some man is a sap.
  • The 1946 Broadway flop Park Avenue had a song titled "Sweet Nevada" praising the state's liberal divorce laws.
  • Referenced in The Skin of Our Teeth as Sabina is summarizing a "skipped" scene.
    "In this scene, I talk to Mr. Antrobus, and at the end of it he decides to leave his wife, get a divorce at Reno, and marry me."
  • Stephen Sondheim's original lyrics for "We're Gonna Be All Right" from his collaboration with Richard Rodgers Do I Hear A Waltz? contain the following:
    It all went wrong, but where?
    Details are slightly clinical
    She's out in Reno,
    The kids adored the flight
    Hi-ho, we're gonna be all right
  • The title of Paris Bound (1927) refers to the possibility discussed at one point that Mary, certain that her husband is cheating on her, might want to travel to Paris to obtain a divorce there, as was common at the time.

    Video Games 
  • The rebuilt city of New Reno in Fallout 2 is the only place where you can get divorced from your spouse should you be unhappy with the results of a Shotgun Wedding.