History puts Pickford’s Nevada divorce in Minden
GENOA – On the chilly afternoon of Feb. 15, 1920, a curly haired, blond woman named Gladys Marie Moore arrived in this community of barely 100 people to take up residence on the sprawling Campbell Ranch.
Gus Campbell was just 4 years old but he remembers his sisters played hopscotch with their pretty guest, a woman his grandmother introduced to friends as “her niece from back East.”
“She was very nice,” said Campbell, now 88. “We had lots of horses for her to ride.”
Genoa had no paved streets at the time. The Campbell Ranch had an inside bathroom, a rarity in rural Nevada. Campbell’s grandmother, Jane Campbell, was renowned as the area’s best cook.
Sixteen days later, Moore, 27, went into the Douglas County District Court in nearby Minden and swore to Judge Frank Langan that she had moved to Nevada to regain her health.
Between sobs, Moore said she intended to make the state her permanent residence. Her husband, Owen, had abandoned her. He was brutal and an alcoholic, she cried.
Langan immediately granted the woman he knew as Moore a divorce.
But reporters who flocked to the divorce proceedings knew her as Mary Pickford, nicknamed “America’s Sweetheart,” or simply “Little Mary.” She was perhaps the best known woman in the world.
Pickford was one of the greats of the silent movie era. She and fellow superstars Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and D.W. Griffith founded United Artists Studios.
When she died in 1979, Pickford’s wealth was estimated at more than $10 million, most of it in the value of her Pickfair estate in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Although she lied in court, state Archivist Guy Rocha credits Pickford with starting the tradition of Hollywood stars, particularly before the 1960s, rushing to Nevada for divorces.
A day after Langan granted her the divorce, Pickford headed to Reno and boarded a train to Oakland, Calif. Twenty-five days later she married Fairbanks, with whom she had been having an affair for several years.
In a biography of Pickford, author Scott Eyman said she gave Owen Moore $100,000 to play along with their divorce scheme. Fairbanks had given his wife $500,000 for his divorce.
“She should have gotten an Academy Award for her acting in the courtroom,” Rocha said. “It was perjury.”
Nevada had a six-month residency requirement for divorce at the time, the most liberal in the nation.
“Little Mary,” however, spent only slightly more than two weeks in the state that she told the judge would be her home.
Her lawyer was Patrick McCarran, who later would become a U.S. senator. In 1920, he already had been a legislator and state Supreme Court justice. McCarran knew the state’s divorce law contained a little-known loophole. The six-month residency requirement, approved at the 1915 Legislature, was contained in a complex sentence with two different meanings.
The first half of the sentence stated divorces could be obtained by any resident in a county where the defendant in a divorce action could “be found.” Only in the second half of the sentence was the six-month residency requirement.
Fortunately for Pickford, her husband just happened to “be found” in Douglas County at the same time she was setting up residency there, so he could be served divorce papers immediately.
“The whole thing was absolutely a fabrication set up by McCarran,” said Rocha, who has written on the divorce and was interviewed in a recent “Exploring Nevada,” documentary on Pickford, produced by the state Department of Cultural Affairs. “He manipulated the law. He made a mockery of it.”
Campbell said he does not blame the actress for her deception. He reasons anyone who wants a divorce should have one. There should have been no waiting period.
Although Pickford was just a nice lady to him when he was 4, Campbell became aware of her prominence as he grew older. As a teenager, he slept in a big canopy bed in the room where she stayed.
“People would come and beg to lie in the bed where Mary had lain,” Campbell said. “They came from all over the country.”
Robin Holabird, deputy director of the Nevada Film Office, said Pickford’s career did not suffer from the divorce.
“It was a different world then,” she said. “Fan magazines were starting and histories were invented for the stars. The public then was more accepting on face value of what they read. If the publicity said Mary was sweet and innocent, people would believe it. She stayed a star throughout the silent era. She still is a legend.”
Rocha agrees with Holabird’s thoughts on why the public accepted the divorced star. “They wanted her to be happy,” he said. “Morals and attitudes were changing in the 1920s. Mary Pickford put Nevada on the map. If you wanted a divorce and wanted it quickly, you came to Nevada.”
But Nevada’s political establishment was not happy about the divorce scam in the Minden courtroom. Gov. Emmett Boyle called it “a joke on the state’s judiciary.”
Attorney General Leonard B. Fowler was so angered that he appealed to the state Supreme Court to have Pickford declared a bigamist.
But in an April 1922 decision, the Supreme Court threw out Fowler’s appeal. They stated the attorney general had no power to contest divorce decrees.
In the 1923 legislative session, the law was clarified to say specifically that people had to live six months in the state before obtaining divorces. Later, the requirement was cut to three months and then to six weeks. Reno became notorious as the nation’s divorce capital.