MYTH #49 DIVORCING MYTH FROM TRUTH: MARY PICKFORD'S DIVORCE
by Guy Rocha, former Nevada State Archivist
We can thank the Saturday Evening Post for giving us the long-standing myth that "America's Sweetheart," film actress Mary Pickford, was divorced in Reno. In a story published on December 11, 1937, the popular national magazine declared, "Mary Pickford gave Reno its best ad when she established residence and bought a house there in 1920 to divorce Owen Moore. When she left she gave the house to her lawyer. It is the home today of United States Senator Pat McCarran. He was her lawyer."
The bell had been rung and to this day journalists and others claim that Pickford was divorced in Reno.
Can you ever "unring" a bell once rung?
It is true that McCarran, a former Nevada Supreme Court Justice, represented the twenty-seven year old Pickford, nee Gladys Louise (aka Marie) Smith, in the divorce suit against her husband actor Owen Moore. However, after McCarran greeted Pickford at the Southern Pacific Railroad passenger station in Reno on February 15, 1920, he transported the well-known, silent-film star by automobile to the Campbell Ranch outside Genoa. The divorce papers were filed in the Douglas county seat of Minden, 45 miles south of Reno. State law in 1920 required a residency of 6 months before a district judge could grant a divorce, or so it was believed until Mary Pickford came to Nevada ostensibly to live here.
"This case not only created a public sensation but also raised some important and disturbing legal questions," wrote McCarran's biographer Professor Jerome Edwards. "Pickford's divorce in Nevada had several unique and peculiar aspects which at first glance appeared to violate both the letter and spirit of the state divorce law," Edwards continued. "But McCarran skillfully discovered a loophole in the law large enough to shepherd the popular Miss Pickford through her divorce travail, at least five months sooner than might have been the case with less wealthy or famous clients."
On March 2, Mary Pickford explained to Judge Frank Langan that she had permanently relocated to Genoa to regain her health, and had not come to Nevada to get a divorce. The judge was told that her husband Owen Moore, who had deserted her after a stormy marriage, was making a movie in Virginia City and "just happened" to be found in Douglas County when he was served papers notifying him of the divorce proceedings. She testified that she and Mr. Moore had at no time colluded to avoid the six-month residency requirement. However, according to Pickford biographer Scott Eyman she gave Owen Moore $100,000 to play along with their divorce scheme. Granted a divorce on the same day, Pickford was driven back to Reno and took the train bound for California on March 3. "America's Sweetheart" married her lover and motion picture leading man Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. on March 28.
From the State Library and Archives: