Fun times: What was really going on at those Nevada divorce ranches?

Imagine you’ve had enough of your cheating spouse. You’re ready to leave. But it’s 1947. And that means unless your spouse “gives” you a divorce, you’re stuck.

Or you could go to Reno!

From 1931 to the 1960s, divorce seekers by the thousands were running to Reno for a six-week, no-fault divorce. If they had the money and the need for privacy, they stayed on one of the dude ranches around town. Someone called those dude ranches “divorce ranches,” and the name stuck.

The Divorce Seekers: The Intimate True Story of a Nevada Divorce Ranch Wrangler (BMC Publications, 2023) by William L. McGee and his co-author/wife Sandra McGee recreates the bygone era of the divorce ranch as seen through Bill’s eyes.

Sandra McGee

From 1947-49, Montana cowboy Bill McGee was the dude wrangler on the exclusive Flying M E divorce ranch in Washoe Valley. He entertained Eastern socialites with names like Astor and du Pont, and Hollywood movie stars Clark Gable and Ava Gardner. During the day, he took guests on trail rides. In the evenings, he escorted them to their favorite watering holes in Carson City or Virginia City for gambling and drinking. The Flying M E guests preferred to avoid Reno, where they’d more likely be spotted by a reporter looking for a divorce story.

The first edition of The Divorce Seekers was published in hardcover in 2004, a hefty coffee table book with 444 pages and 500 illustrations and photographs, most from the private collections of the McGees and former Flying M E guests or their offspring.

After Bill’s passing in 2019, Sandra responded to requests for a paperback edition. She streamlined the first edition down to 184 pages and 200 images. The paperback edition is designed magazine-style and the reader can read cover-to-cover or skip around. 

Writer/producer Judd Pillot wrote, “Bill McGee’s stories are like an old Hollywood movie coming to life.” Lynn Downey, author of American Dude Ranch, says, “The Divorce Seekers is the best nonfiction book on the little-known history of Nevada’s divorce ranches.”

The Divorce Seekers is available at Sundance Books and Music, Nevada Historical Society, and on Amazon.

On May 8, Sandra McGee will sign books and speak at the Nevada Historical Society Writers’ Wednesday event, along with Carson City author Peggy Wynne Borgman, who was inspired by The Divorce Seekers to write The Better Half, a novel about a mid-20th-century divorcee on the run. A wine and cheese reception is scheduled from 5-5:30 pm and a talk is slated to run from 5-6 p.m. You can find more event details here.

Excerpt from ‘The Divorce Seekers’

Flying M E. November 1, 1947

My first impression of the Flying M E was not what I expected. The two-story ranch house was painted white with black trim. Good-looking saddle horses grazed in the paddocks. The spread looked more like a gentleman’s farm in Virginia than a divorce ranch outside of Reno.

Allie Oakie, the ranch hostess, read my mind, “It’s not the rustic-looking divorce ranch with log cabins, like you see in the movies. Emmy Wood knows her upper class clientele and what they like because she’s one of them.”

Emily Pentz Wood, or Emmy as she was known, was a blue blood from New York, a petite and patrician-looking woman with erect posture and elegant manners. She spoke in a lovely whiskey voice and addressed everyone – be they guests, lawyers, judges, or merchants – with an affectionate “dear.” What mattered most to Emmy were manners. It didn’t matter where someone came from or what they did. What mattered was if they had manners.

She interviewed me at the Riverside Corner Bar and hired me on the spot. “I think you’ll fit in nicely with my clientele. Can you start on November first, Bill dear? Oh, I have three rules for my dude wrangler: If you go to town with six guests, you return with six guests. There’s a two-drink limit for the driver. And there’s absolutely no fraternizing with the lady guests after hours. I fired my last wrangler when I caught him with a guest in his bunkhouse.”

I thought the last rule might be a problem, but I’d cross that bridge when and if I came to it.

I came to it sooner than I expected.

’Round midnight during my first week on the job, I heard a soft knock at my bunkhouse door. I thought there was a problem with the horses. I pulled on my Levi’s and shirt, and opened the door, expecting to see Allie Okie.

But there, standing in the moonlight, was the beautiful Mrs. Swanson.

We’d only met a few days earlier when I took her and her friend on an easy trail ride up to Little Valley. Mrs. Swanson was getting the divorce.

“Mrs. Swanson, everything okay?”


I stood at the bunkhouse door, knowing what I wanted to do, but hesitating to do it. Emmy Wood made it very clear when she hired me: absolutely no fraternization with the lady guests. I did not want to lose this job, a job most cowboys would covet, working on a divorce ranch, surrounded by beautiful and wealthy women.

“Is everything okay?” I repeated.

Mrs. Swanson looked me straight in the eye, and then she said with a fetching smile, “Nothing you can’t fix.”

I recognized the line. It was the closing line in last year’s hit movie, The Big Sleep, spoken seductively by Lauren Bacall to Humphrey Bogart.

I looked around to make sure no one was watching us, gently pulled Mrs. Swanson inside, and closed the door. I was breaking a rule, but what was a cowboy to do?

As Mrs. Swanson and I settled down to our business, I recalled a line from Casablanca, another Bogart movie, and reworded it to fit the moment.

“Mrs. Swanson, of all the bunkhouse doors, on all the ranches, in all the West, you knock on mine.”