The Secrets She Keeps: Essay « Deb Caletti
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The Secrets She Keeps: Essay

The Six-Week Cure

Maybe you saw the Mad Men episode where Betty Draper goes to a divorce ranch. Or maybe you saw the old film The Misfits, where Marilyn Monroe does. Or maybe, like me, you saw neither, and are as unfamiliar with those words as I was a few years ago when I came across them in a travel memoir. Divorce ranch? I had to know more. I looked up the phrase, and after I read about these places, I knew I had my next novel, the novel that would become THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS. Divorce ranches, I learned, flourished in Nevada in the 1930’s to early 1950’s, when divorces were difficult to get elsewhere. Women (usually high society or Hollywood types) would stay at the ranches for six weeks to establish residency, so they then might be free to get a divorce in the state that made it possible.

Flying ME Ranch
The Famed Flying ME Ranch, Nevada’s most exclusive. (Photo courtesy www.williammcgeebooks.com)
Two women at courthouse
Emmy Wood, proprietor of the Flying ME, escorts a new divorcee down the courthouse steps, 1948. (Photo courtesy of www.williammcgeebooks.com)

A stay at the ranch was sometimes called “The six-week cure,” and such a “cure” was a bold move in a time when divorce carried great shame. Often, a stay at one of the ranches also resulted in rebellious behavior in an unfamiliar locale. There was a new sense of freedom. Aided and abetted by the ranch matrons and cowboy “dude wranglers,” the women often underwent what Walter Winchell called a “Reno-vation.” While at the ranch, they would ride horses, go to town, go on a pack trip, hang out together, or ski, but they’d also drink, dance, flirt with cowboys, or even have an affair with one. Occasionally, the women brought their children along. Occasionally, a man would arrive for the six-week stay instead. And occasionally, the women brought a “spare” – the next husband they planned to marry at the wedding chapel right next to the courthouse after getting their divorce. But generally, the women came alone, frequently bonding to the other woman there, to the ranch staff, and to the land (or doing the opposite – hating all) as they moved toward their new lives.

Postcard
Changing Times. Here, a postcard refers to a new tradition: throwing your wedding ring into the Truckee River next to the Washoe County Courthouse after being granted a divorce.
Bill and woman on horses
Bill McGee, dude wrangler at the Flying ME, and a six-week guest go for a trail ride.
(Photo courtesy www.williammcgeebooks.com)

When I learned about the ranches, and understood the transformative experiences that were had there, I was intrigued. But when I realized how little there was about them in the popular culture, I had one of those writer-moments where your heart beats fast and you can’t wait to get started. Here was all of my favorite stuff in one beautiful, dusty, desert locale: marriage, heartbreak, women of varying ages attempting to understand themselves and their relationships. And here was a period in the history of marriage and divorce that was unknown to many contemporary women.

Book jackets
Divorce ranch reading, 1939 and 1941.
Courthouse
A divorcee hides her face from a photographer at the Washoe County Courthouse. (Photo: Special Collections, University of Nevada-Reno Library)

Bringing that time period to life, though, was trickier than I’d anticipated, because of exactly what I’d found so thrilling – how little there was out there about the ranches. Luckily, I discovered The Divorce Seekers, a stunning coffee table volume of photos and memories by a former dude wrangler at the famed Flying M.E. ranch, Bill McGee. The images – with their smoky, black-and-white, retro allure – are what brought the time and place alive for me so that I could bring them to life in the novel. Not only was it an invaluable resource for information on day-to-day life on a divorce ranch, it also set the mood. I’d open the book to an image of two sleepy roommates in the middle of their Reno Cure, wearing silky chemises, drinks in hand, or to a photo of “the gals” in their party-night finery, and I’d be just where I needed to be. Music of the time occasionally helped, too. As well, I researched the bestsellers of those years written by women, so I could get a feel for the female voices of the time. Sometimes I’d read a page or two in order to “get into character” so to speak.

Two women on lawn
Guests as The Flying ME.
(Photo courtesy www.williammcgeebooks.com)
Two women drinking in bed
Roomates. (Photo courtesy www.williammcgeebooks.com)

I was surprised how wild it all got on the ranches. When you think of that time period, you imagine a (literally) more buttoned-up experience, but no. The sex with cowboys, the drinking, the letting loose – it all sounds a bit film-version-cliché, but was very much the truth. Each generation thinks they’ve invented sex and rebellion, but we seem like over-sharing novices in comparison. Their experiences were not splayed out on every television and computer screen, and the language around it was discreet and even somewhat coy, but often these were no trips to the convent.

Drinking women
Cocktail hour at Whitney Ranch. (Photo credit Beth Ward, pictured center,
one of the two Whitney sisters who grew up on the ranch)

What also surprised me – and what became extraordinarily important thematically to the book – was how timeless our struggles are in terms of love. I could see the storylines repeating over the generations. We battle the same old things they did – bad choices, infidelity, abuse, career versus marriage conflicts, intruding parents. We move on too fast after a breakup; they’d go from the courthouse to the marriage chapel. We’re intrigued and tempted by a life not like ours; they’d buy ranch wear and try to bring home a cowboy. We’ve been taken (or we take); we’re endlessly hopeful (or fed up and jaded); we fall for the wrong person (or, finally, the right one). And so it was then. In THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS, the circular storyline and the mirror images that begin and end each chapter aim to say this: In terms of love and relationships, it is always “Here we are, all over again.”

Early Reno
Reno in the time of the ranches, with the Riverside Hotel, as featured in THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS.
River today
The Virginia Street Bridge today, over the Truckee River. Divers have found old weddings band in those waters, as mentioned in THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS.