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Welcome to Desert Companion's first-ever (and we hope not last!) love issue! Inside, find stories about Nevada's history as a marriage — and divorce — mecca, chocolatiers making the best sweets for your Valentine's sweetheart, and more.

Tying (and Untying) the Knot

Elvis and Priscilla Presley cut the cake at their wedding
LVCVA Archives
Elvis Presley and Priscilla Ann Beaulieu’s wedding reception at the Aladdin in Las Vegas, on May 1, 1967

Whichever you’re looking for, it’s been Nevada’s business to make it easier


On a recent Monday afternoon, I performed an act that permanently altered the tax status of two of my best friends: I dropped off their wedding certificate at the Regional Justice Center in downtown Las Vegas.

The day before, I’d had the honor and duty of officiating their wedding, a task for which I was greatly prepared after years of being master of ceremonies for my middle school band. In reality, the hardest part of my job during the happiest day of my friends’ lives was confirming who they wanted the witnesses to be.

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When I attended the class to get my officiant’s license, I was prepared to deal with the litany of forms and processes. The county employees giving the presentation emphasized that it would be my responsibility to make sure neither bride nor groom is under the influence of substances or being coerced into the marriage. But, fundamentally, the job of the officiant is to give them the right paperwork and fill out the wedding certificate correctly. There are no magic words that need to be said during the ceremony to make it legal. No tribunal review with the governor, the county clerk, or God. Just paperwork. It’s that easy.

And that’s kind of awesome.

I knew that marriage, specifically of the expeditious kind, is a big part of Reno and Las Vegas history, so to learn more about it I spoke to Angela Moor, a historian at UNLV who wrote her dissertation on the history of marriage and divorce in Nevada.

Moor told me that the practice of traveling to get an easy marriage done by an undiscerning official goes back centuries, even pre-dating the United States. In 1753, the Clandestine Marriages Act required couples under the age of 21 in England and Wales to secure parental consent before getting married. To circumvent this, young English couples traveled to the Scottish parish of Gretna Green, where no such regulation existed. This phenomenon traveled through pop culture and history all the way to Las Vegas, where one of the earliest wedding chapels took its name from the village. That venue was later rebranded as Graceland Wedding Chapel.

Similar to Gretna Green, Nevada’s status as a marriage destination emerged not from a deliberate decision, but because of prohibitive measures elsewhere. “During the Prohibition era,” Moor says, “California passed a three-day waiting period for marriage licenses, which was called gin marriage law. You’d get your marriage license, but it wouldn’t be valid for three days.” Presumably, three days would be long enough for any intoxication to wear off. In 1935, Connecticut passed a law requiring those looking to get married to have their blood tested for syphilis. Similar laws began spreading across the nation. (Some of them stuck around for a while. Montana was the last state to repeal its premarital blood-test requirement, in 2019; New York still requires Black and Latino individuals to be tested for sickle cell anemia, but can’t deny the license based on the results.)

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Nevada, meanwhile, never passed a blood-test requirement or waiting period and quickly became a runaway marriage destination, with Reno leading the way but Las Vegas eventually taking over. Once lawmakers and entrepreneurs saw how lucrative an opportunity this was, the practice went from being a convenient legal loophole to a meticulously protected asset. Popular culture, such as the publicity surrounding Elvis and Priscilla’s 1967 marriage at the Aladdin (a mural on the exterior of the Clark County Marriage License Bureau done by artist Jerry Misko prominently features their wedding photo), helped to propagate the industry. Marriages in Washoe County peaked in 1978, with 36,794 marriage licenses issued, while in 2022 there were more than 77,000 marriages filed in Clark County. I won’t deny that I get a bit of amusement at the thought that when the final count comes out for 2023, I’ll be able to take credit for one.

“Weddings are very expensive and high stress,” Clark County Clerk Lynn Marie Goya says. Her office oversees the Marriage License Bureau. “Sometimes people just want to get it done and not have all of the auxiliary angst.” Streamlining every aspect of Las Vegas weddings has been a key strategy of the bureau. “We had the idea of setting up a pop-up Marriage License Bureau at the airport right around Valentine’s Day, which is when we know we’re the busiest,” Goya says. “That way couples can get straight off the plane, pick up their license, and then go along their way.”

When I tell people I’m an officiant, they usually ask if I went the online ordination route — a dotcom reverend, if you will. But I didn’t need to see the light or take a dunk in the digital river, as most of Nevada’s counties don’t require a religious endorsement to officiate marriages. A notary’s license is enough. In Clark County, you don’t even need that. You just fill out a two-page application, pass a background check, pay the fee, and attend a training.

At the beginning, public officials carried out the bulk of quickie marriages. “Oftentimes,” Moor told me, “the very same judge who just finalized your divorce would then immediately perform your wedding.” A 1942 edition of Collier’s Encyclopedia claimed that “only the president of the United States holds a more highly paid public office” than the Las Vegas justice of the peace. Given the fact that 20,000 marriages were performed in Las Vegas that year, perhaps there was some veracity to that claim. The eventual rise of civilian officiants was spurred by public outcry about this perceived racket, and in response to the pressure, Clark County established what would become the Marriage License Bureau, clearing the way for a long-haired hippie like me to consider adding “singing cowboy officiant” to his résumé.

“You guys are actually the ones who do the ceremony,” Goya told me. “If you don’t do a good job, the whole structure falls apart. We wanted to make sure (officiants) realize (they’re) crucial to the industry and making it successful.”

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My friends had effectively been married for three years, sharing a living space and adopting pets together. All I did was make it legal. “It’s ultimately just a contract,” Moor says.

Our society tries to safeguard marriage behind the authority of religion, and, in an increasingly secular era, the state. It’s a major decision that perhaps can be rushed by foolish lovers in the lavender haze. But life is a series of messy ventures that sometimes go sideways. Doesn’t everyone have a right to make mistakes, unhampered by judgment and archaic traditions?

Judy Garland and Mark Herron sign marriage paperwork together
LVCVA Archives
Judy Garland and her fourth husband, Mark Herron, tying the knot at the Little Church of the West in Nov. 1965. They divorced in 1967.

Nevada obviously thinks so. It also believes they should be allowed to undo those mistakes. Quickly, if they’d like.


On AMC’s “Mad Men,” two of the series’ lead characters, charismatic ad man Don Draper and femme fatale Joan Holloway, are at a bar right after Holloway has been served divorce papers. The show is set in the 1960s, and Joan, despite her confident demeanor, seems embarrassed at her marriage having failed. But Don congratulates her. “Nobody realizes how bad it has to get for that to happen,” he says. “Now you get to move on.”

Many people come to Nevada looking for a quick marriage, which often is preceded by a quick divorce. Back in the 1930s and ’40s, it seemed easier to break the sound barrier than break up a marriage in the United States. The process was prohibitive and wearisome; one party had to admit fault for the court to make a ruling. Couples who sought a divorce would come up with creative ways to establish fault. In an amusing divorce proceeding in New Jersey, a wife claimed that her husband’s use of a condom qualified as desertion, as it denied her desire to have children through “natural intercourse.” In many cases, some element of perjury was involved.

According to the UNR’s multimedia series, “Illuminating Reno’s Divorce Industry,” the grounds for divorce in Nevada in 1931 included the following: impotence, adultery, desertion, conviction of a felony or infamous crime, habitual gross drunkenness, extreme cruelty (physical or mental), neglect, and insanity. Assembly Bill 127, passed by the Nevada Legislature in 1937, would have added “incompatibility” to that list, but Gov. Richard Kirman vetoed it. Perhaps the idea of a married couple simply not getting along was too scandalous for the time.

According to Angela Moor, couples would most often go for “extreme mental cruelty.” But that would still have to go into the legal record of the party at fault, a considerable blemish. (This would remain the practice until 1969, when California Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce law. New York was the last state to adopt no-fault divorce, in 2010.)

So, if you still had to admit fault to get a divorce in Nevada, how did the state become known as a divorce capital? Especially if many had to travel for days via rail or on primitive roads?


As anyone who has been separated or grown up with separated parents knows, it’s simple enough for a married couple to stop living together. The marriage police aren’t going to check. “If someone is going to the length to get a divorce,” Moor says, “there’s usually a reason.”

Often, that reason is to get remarried. And if your home state would make you wait nearly a year or longer for a finalized divorce, while Nevada was willing to grant its residents a divorce in six months, then the trip might not seem so bad. Moor introduced this to me with the term “migratory divorce,” wherein the parties have already made arrangements at home for their separation, and then travel to a jurisdiction with a lax divorce process to handle the legal formalities as quickly as possible.

Nevada’s liberal laws about most civil matters organically led to Reno becoming a popular divorce destination, especially with all its amenities. But during the Great Depression, other states, such as Arkansas and Idaho, noticed the profitability of quickie divorces and followed suit. In response, Nevada lowered its residency requirement from three months to six weeks in 1931, the same year it legalized wide-open gambling. The morning the new law went into effect, unhappy couples filed more than 300 divorce petitions in Nevada.

This brazen move secured Nevada’s status as the nation’s premiere so-called “divorce mill.” As World War II ended, between the summers of 1945 and 1946, people filed more than 10,000 divorces in Reno, according to “Illuminating Reno’s Divorce Industry.” That equals nearly half the number of marriages performed in Reno right before the U.S. entered the war. Make of that what you will.

By 1962, Las Vegas began processing more divorces than Reno and would continue to do so until the passage of no-fault divorce. And as with quickie marriage, the promise of a swift separation drew Hollywood celebrities to Sin City. In 1959, Las Vegas was the setting when entertainer Eddie Fisher divorced his then-wife, Debbie Reynolds, so he could quickly marry his new flame, Elizabeth Taylor. Fisher already had a five-year contract at the Tropicana; Taylor settled into one of the state’s infamous “divorce ranches” to wait out the residency requirement.

Women on paddleboats on a lake, with men on horses on shore waving at them
LVCVA Archives
Visitors enjoy the Twin Lakes horses and paddle boats on April 10, 1955, in what is now Lorenzi Park.

Intrigued by the phenomenon of divorce ranches, which as a concept sounds equally hilarious and cynical, I asked Moor, “So you would have to spend six weeks stuck at a ranch with someone you’re trying to split up with?”

“No,” Moor says, “only one party had to be in Nevada to get the divorce. Since women weren’t as much in the workforce at the time, they would usually be the ones who would spend the six weeks here and just send the paperwork back home.

“You also couldn’t market the divorce aspect,” she adds. “Lawyers weren’t allowed to advertise yet, so no Glen Lerner ads or anything like that. Instead, they would promote themselves as dude ranches with a special ‘six-week rate.’” Urban retreats such as Tule Springs and Lorenzi Park served as divorce ranches in their time, while vestiges of others can be found around town, such as a road near Harry Reid International Airport named for Hidden Well Ranch.

With the widespread adoption of no-fault divorce in the 1970s, Nevada’s draw as a divorce mill waned but didn’t disappear completely. California still has a six-month waiting period for divorce. Massachusetts doesn’t consider a divorce final until at least 90 days after the judgment. Even here there are still minor hassles: Moor has found posts on Reddit from individuals stressing about finding an affidavit witness for a divorce in Nevada, which is still required. “Like, really?” Moor asks, bemused. “In 2023 people are still having to worry about this?”

The divorce trade in Nevada may have been born from a resource-poor state’s need to survive, but it paved the way for divorce to become more accessible, thereby allowing people, especially women who may have been in abusive situations, to get out of unhappy marriages. And, at the end of the day, it’s just a piece of paper.

“You can have your own feelings religiously about what you think marriage entails and whether or not you can dissolve it,” Moor says, “but as far as state-recognized marriage goes, it’s a contract, and you should be able to void that contract if you want to.”

Six weeks to end one chapter of your life and start the next one. And in Nevada, you don’t need to go far to get your new life underway.