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Story by Dorothy Wright
Nevada’s lax marriage and divorce laws have made for memorable hookups, breakups and romantic shake-ups
In 1931, in the throes of the Great Depression, the Nevada Legislature staked our state’s future on sin — divorce, gambling, easy marriage — as a way to draw tourists and their dollars. It was a bold move. Back then, divorce was scandalous — and strenuous. Most states had long waiting periods and a short list of grounds for granting a divorce, such as proven adultery.
Enter Nevada, which enabled a six-week waiting period and allowed vague grounds for dissolving unions, such as “mental cruelty.” This opened the floodgates for the unhappily married to flock to Nevada — who brought more than their share of high-profile splits that have been enshrined in Las Vegas lore. Among them:
• A bizarre case in 1931 that garnered headlines involved Minnie “Ma” Kennedy, mother of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, and herself a hellfire and brimstone preacher, and Guy Edward “Whataman” Hudson. After marrying Kennedy in Los Angeles, Hudson was charged with bigamy. He hightailed it to Las Vegas while his marriage to Kennedy was quickly annulled. Hudson settled in, officially to sell Buicks for Jim Cashman, but actually to divorce his first wife. Kennedy followed, preaching her fiery sermons on top of a blackjack table at the Boulder Club. The pair was united again in marriage — only to divorce acrimoniously a year later.
• In October 1934, Hollywood socialite Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the Tarzan novels, left his wife of 34 years and checked into the Apache Hotel (now the Horseshoe) in Las Vegas. He spent the six weeks gambling, playing tennis and chatting up his girlfriend, actress Florence Dearholt, on the phone. After the divorce was granted in December, he and Dearholt returned to Las Vegas in April to be married, each for the second time, proving writer Samuel Johnson’s adage that second marriages are “the triumph of hope over experience.”
• In 1939, Las Vegas got a profile boost as a divorce mecca when Mrs. Clark Gable came to town to wait out the obligatory time period. Wealthy Maria Gable, known as Ria, moved into her attorney Frank McNamee’s home, which he obligingly vacated. She was there, as she told the press, to “catch up on my knitting.” Of course, what she was “knitting” was an end her 17-year marriage to Clark, so that he could marry blonde actress Carole Lombard. Being a good sport, Mrs. Gable allowed herself to be photographed playing roulette, boating on Lake Mead and skiing at Mt. Charleston.
With the nationwide Gable publicity, and because of a new California law requiring a medical certificate as well as a three-day waiting period for marriages (the so-called “Gin Law”), divorces steadily increased in Las Vegas. And with that new divorce market came the advent of divorce ranches — dude ranches that catered to prospective divorcees. The former Kiel Ranch in North Las Vegas became the Boulderado Dude Ranch; Tule Springs in Centennial Hills opened its doors to six-week residents; and, in the ’50s, cowboy actor Hoot Gibson opened his D-4-C Ranch just west of the Strip. Women (and the occasional man) could ride horses, go fishing and take an excursion to the gaming tables while they waited to get unhitched.
[HEAR MORE: Hear historic tales from Reno’s divorce ranches on “KNPR’s State of Nevada.”]
Drunk in love
Little wonder that Las Vegas had an image as the place to “marry in haste, repent in leisure.” The post-midnight weddings between too-happy lovebirds have been roundly recounted in popular culture (think “The Hangover” and “The Hangover II”) and real life.
• Pop singer and former child star Britney Spears, after an evening of excessive nightclubbing and substance-ingesting, married childhood friend Jason Alexander (no, not the “Seinfeld” star), but both parties agreed to an annulment shortly after.
• Flamboyant Dennis Rodman, NBA basketball player and professional shock-star, married “Baywatch” actress/model/dancer Carmen Electra at a Las Vegas chapel at 7 a.m., only to declare later, “I was drunk.” They filed for an annulment nine days later, and the marriage was officially dissolved in six months. Electra told Time Magazine, “It’s easy to get caught up in the moment … but afterward you realize, ‘God, we did it in Vegas?’ It’s like getting a cheeseburger in a fast-food restaurant.”
• In the 1970s, as Patty Duke recounts in her autobiography, “Call Me Anna,” she flew to Las Vegas in the throes of the manic state of her bipolar disorder. On the plane, she met a nice Jewish boy from Las Vegas, Michael Tell. After a whirlwind romance of a couple of days’ duration, they wed — only to part after her mood came back down to earth.
But in honor of Valentine’s Day — and in Sin City’s defense — let’s remember that some of the happiest and longest-lasting marriages began in Las Vegas.
• Kirk Douglas married the lovely Ann Buydens in 1954 at the Sahara Hotel. He’s now 96 — and they’re still married after 59 years.
• Actress Bette Midler married performance artist Martin Von Haselberg in December 1984 at the historic Candlelight Wedding Chapel, which is now part of the Clark County Museum. They are the parents of a daughter, Sophie, and have an enduring marriage.
• Another Candlelight wedding, that of Sir Michael Caine to Shakira Baksh in 1973, is approaching 40 years of connubial bliss.
• Finally, actress Betty White married game show host Allen Ludden in 1963. It was her third marriage; he was a widower. Because of her previous bad luck at the altar, he had to ask her twice before she said yes. They were a famously happy couple until his death in 1981. She never remarried. But if White does get the love bug again, we’ve got plenty of wedding chapels that would gladly oblige her.
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