- Associated Press - Sunday, September 13, 2015

RENO, Nev. (AP) - From the tales of the rich and famous, to stories from ordinary people who flocked to Reno for quickie-divorces before World War II, University of Nevada researchers have launched an ambitious website to chronicle everything from the stigma of divorce to the cottage industry that grew up around it in the “Biggest Little City in the World.”

Packed with more than 1,000 individual documents, photos, magazine articles and audio clips, Reno’s history as the “Divorce Capital of the World” is documented in the multimedia online exhibit from roughly 1910-1970.

“It not only highlights the impact the divorce industry had on Reno’s culture and economy, but also explores how Reno changed the national attitude around divorce,” said Mella Harmon, historian and co-curator of the project initiated more than a year ago at the UNR Library’s Special Collections Department.

Harmon said Reno backed into the title of “divorce capital” shortly after the turn of the century when the six-month waiting period typical in the West at the time was extended to a year in most states. In 1927, Nevada lawmakers cut the residency requirement from six months to three months, and four years later Gov. Fred Balzar signed legislation shortening it to six weeks.

Social and religious views of marriage and divorce were very different back then, said Alicia Barber, a former National Park Service historian who served as a consultant on the project collecting oral histories.

“A lot of people talk about how welcoming Reno was and how nice it was to come and not be the subject of a scandal because you were getting divorced,” Barber said in an interview earlier this year. “It was so common here. It was part of the culture.”

Donnelyn Curtis, project co-curator and head of the school’s special collections, said the online exhibit (at renodivorcehistory.org) is a “treasure trove” for academics and amateur historians alike. She said it provides “important historical detail about an important cornerstone of Reno’s cultural and economic development, which helped to shape this city’s identity.”

The exhibit’s narrative is organized around six themes: Law of the Land; Passing the Time; Temporary Residence: Reno; The Rich and Famous; Out of the Public Eye; and Divorce in Popular Culture.

Each is supported by stories, an audio history and photos or images.

Harmon, an adjunct assistant professor in UNR’s Department of Anthropology, said more than 32,000 divorces were granted in Washoe County from 1929-39 at a time Reno’s population totaled about 18,000.

Rita Hayworth, Norman Rockwell, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and mobster Bugsy Siegel were among those who got divorced in Reno.

Harmon said she became interested in the stories of individuals years ago while doing her master’s thesis on the “migratory divorce trade.”

Earlier this year, crews demolished a downtown bridge that was built in 1905 and became famous as a place newly divorced women would walk from the nearby courthouse and throw their wedding ring into the Truckee River. The tradition first was referenced in a brochure in 1927, Harmon said.

Cornelius Vanderbilt told the tale in his 1929 novel, “Reno,” which was made into a movie in 1939 and included a scene featuring a woman tossing her ring to the waters below. The legend grew with the filming of the motion picture “The Misfits” in Reno in 1960 when Marilyn Monroe played a depressed, divorced woman who contemplated doing the same before changing her mind.


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