August 15, 2010, Governor David Paterson of New York signed a no-fault divorce law, making New York the very last state in the U.S. to do so, but the state still maintains a seldom enforced law against adultery. (As regards the last, it’s just as well; the courts would be jammed even more.) New York now provides for both no-fault and at-fault divorce. Grounds for at-fault divorce:
· Cruel and inhumane treatment
· Abandonment for one year or more
· Imprisonment for more than three years following the marriage
So as regards divorce New York has finally stepped into the twenty-first century. But it wasn’t always like this; divorce in New York has a long and eventful history. So let’s take a glance.
Back in the days of Dutch rule, divorces were occasionally granted. In 1655 John Hickes of Flushing got a divorce because his wife had deserted him for nine years and had five or six children by another man – valid grounds, one might agree. When the colony became English in 1664, occasional divorces continued to be granted for the next 11 years, but after that it seems that no more were allowed under English rule.
In 1787 Isaac Gouverneur, a member of a prominent New York City family, petitioned the newly formed New York State Legislature for a divorce from his wife, who attributed her numerous infidelities to reading too many romance novels. As a result, following the proposal of a committee chaired by Alexander Hamilton, New York passed its first general divorce law, allowing divorce only on grounds of adultery, and denying the guilty party the right to remarry. And Hamilton, being an enterprising fellow, became Gouverneur’s attorney in the case that followed, making him the first divorce lawyer in the state.
The narrow grounds for divorce of the 1787 law didn’t stop New Yorkers unwilling or unable to charge adultery. Throughout the nineteenth century they resorted to migratory divorce, going to states with less rigid laws to end their marriage. So long before Reno beckoned, Rhode Island, Utah, the Dakotas, and the District of Columbia enticed the divorce-prone, and subsequently other states as well. The interstate trade in divorce became a roaring business.
The plight of an abandoned wife is well illustrated by the story of Eunice Chapman, whose 1802 marriage to a man 15 years her senior fell apart in 1810, eight years and three children later, according to her because of his abuse, alcoholism, and infidelity, and according to him because of her “abusive tongue.” Joining the Shakers, a sect that renounced sexuality, James Chapman took the children to a Shaker community near Albany. Now an abandoned woman with no access to her children and no way to rid herself of her husband, Eunice, still being married, had no civil rights of her own; she couldn’t own property, sue or be sued, make a will, or sign a contract by herself. Even though she claimed to have “ocular demonstration” of James’s infidelity, and an eyewitness to back her up, there was no assurance that a court would grant her a divorce. For that, a “guilty mind” was needed, and it wouldn’t be easy to present her husband as an incorrigible adulterer, when he had joined a celibate sect. Also, a trial would be costly, and she would first have to locate James, who had vanished with the children into another Shaker community in New Hampshire.
One other legal option was available: a petition to the Legislature for a special act of relief granting her a divorce as an exception to the existing legislation. Legislative divorces were fairly common in other states, but not in conservative New York. Undaunted, she undertook the campaign with frenzy … and with shrewdness. Making the most of her exceptional looks, she courted politicians, published exposés of Shaker “captivity,” and even ended up drawing crowds impressed by her effort. Many legislators were opposed, including one who argued that passing the bill would “give boldness to the female character” and encourage wives to haunt legislators for divorces. In 1818, after a three-year battle, she won her legislative divorce. But the difficulties she had to overcome were not likely to inspire other abandoned women to follow her lead, and hers was the only such divorce ever granted in the state.
But what if each spouse accused the other of adultery, while insisting on his/her own innocence? The courts decided just such a case in 1862: neither spouse was entitled to divorce. For adultery was taken seriously in those days, as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter bears witness. The story was set in Puritan Boston of the 1640s, but its treatment of the adultery theme, and sympathy with the stigmatized heroine, was criticized by clergy; a religious review asserted that the author “perpetrates bad morals.”
And how about divorce in New York City? The 1882 edition of James D. McCabe’s New York by Gaslight: A Work Descriptive of the Great American Metropolis, has a chapter entitled “Divorces without Publicity.” He starts by quoting ads from a New York daily, one of which he presents as follows:
Divorces cheaply, without publicity; desertion, incompatibility, non-support, intemperance, compulsory marriages; parties any State; explanatory blanks free; consultations free; confidential. LAWYER SMOOTHTONGUE, 105 --- STREET.
McCabe then explains that, even in a state where divorce laws are so rigid, a select number of lawyers (the “Divorce Ring”) know how to circumvent these laws, and if unsuccessful in New York, they can resort to some other part of the Union. Some of these lawyers have been disbarred for dishonest practices, so they hire “an honest shyster” to appear in court in their place. Their offices are in big buildings with long halls and many other offices, so clients can come and go without attracting attention. Their private consulting rooms are elegantly furnished and have the coziest armchairs, so clients can settle down in comfort and pour out their marital woes to a sympathetic counselor.
McCabe imagines such a consultation, where a heavily veiled woman, once seated, throws back her veil and pours forth her complaints. She is beautiful and obviously refined and wealthy, for this is a game of the rich. The portly, oily-tongued attorney promises to investigate the husband so as to determine if he has been unfaithful. Asked if the husband has ever attempted violence, she says that he once seized a paper weight on a table, which the attorney interprets as an attempt to bash her brains out. He assures her that this infamous assault will win the desired divorce from the “Western judge” before whom the case will be tried, and promises “a speedy release from such a monster.” Nor is it an empty promise; the divorce is duly obtained.
And who are the clients in these cases? According to McCabe:
· Extravagant wives whose husbands can’t meet their demands for money
· Dissolute actresses eager to change partners
· Married women infatuated with some scamp
· Married men eager to connect with a new partner
· Lovers of married women
And they all pay a handsome retainer that permits the lawyer to live high on the hog. Witnesses are always found, and the needed evidence produced or, more likely, fabricated. And if business is dull, divorce lawyers pay members of the fashionable world to circulated socially and set about persuading unhappy but hesitant wives that divorce will solve all their problems. Or the agent is paid to impersonate the husband and receive a summons from a server who then in good faith signs an affidavit that he has served a summons on the defendant.
|Divorce, old style. A hearing before a divorce referee in a New York City law office, |
circa 1900. The wife, the only woman present, is appropriately garbed in black.
|Divorce, new style. Marilyn Monroe sitting in a courtroom|
with her attorney while obtaining a divorce from Joe DiMaggio,
1954. But not in New York State. The wife is still garbed in black.
McCabe is obviously biased against divorce and those who either seek it or facilitate it, but sources from a later date show that there is substance in his account. So that’s how wealthy New Yorkers went about it in the early 1880s.
From the 1920s through the 1960s Reno, Nevada, the self-proclaimed “biggest little city in the world,” was known as the divorce capital of the U.S., because of Nevada’s minimal six-week residency requirement. By 1940, 49 out of every 1,000 divorces filed in the U.S. were filed in Nevada. And canny entrepreneurs established “divorce ranches” where divorce seekers could wait out the six-week residency requirement in ease. In Claire Booth Luce’s 1936 play The Women (later a 1939 film), most of her Park Avenue characters (all women, no men in the play or movie) end up on just such a ranch, with unexpected and hilarious results. Among the real people who got a Reno divorce were Mary Pickford, Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., prizefighter Jack Dempsey, Rita Hayworth, heiress and socialite Gloria Vanderbilt, and others. And, needless to say, plenty of residents of New York City and State.
Poster for the 1939 MGM movie. But how did Rosalind
Russell ever get demoted to smaller print? I saw it and,
young though I was, found it hilarious.
Not that Reno didn’t have competition. In 1960 Alabama granted 17,328 divorces, compared to a paltry 9,724 in Nevada. Other divorce mills were located in Havana, Paris, Mexico, and the (oh irony!) Virgin Islands. So the travel business was flourishing, thanks to travel-prone New Yorkers.
But what about those who were unable to decamp for distant regions? Annulments on various grounds were possible. But repeated attempts at divorce reform died in committee, so that in New York State adultery continued to be the only grounds allowed. Ah, but never underestimate the resourcefulness of New Yorkers. To establish adultery as grounds for divorce, a professional co-respondent was hired. In 1934 the New York Mirror published an interview with one Dorothy Jarvis entitled “I Was the Unknown Blonde in 100 New York Divorces.” In what came to be called “collusive divorces,” a husband and wife agreed to “stage” adultery. Of course the man must be at fault, not the virtuous wife. The husband and hired “mistress” take a hotel room, and when someone knocks on the door – presumably a maid or room service -- the husband or Blonde Bombshell (who could also be a Brunette Bombshell) answers the door scantily clad, and a photographer snaps a telltale shot or two and runs off, having obtained the evidence needed in court. But usually no hanky-panky has occurred; for the hired co-respondent, it’s just a job, for which she gets between $50 and $100, a nice little supplement to her income.
These practices came to light again in 1948, when New York District Attorney Frank S. Hogan announced the arrest of ten members of a “divorce ring” on charges of perjury and subornation of perjury, thus confirming for the twentieth century McCabe’s revelations in the nineteenth. As a result, in 1949 the number of decrees in New York City dropped by a third. But divorce fraud soon revived and flourished.
Meaningful reform finally came with the Divorce Reform Law of 1966, which expanded the grounds for divorce beyond adultery to include:
· Abandonment for two years or more
· Imprisonment of a spouse for over three years
· Cruel and inhumane treatment
· Living apart for two years or more pursuant to an agreement or a judicial separation decree
In exchange for supporting the bill, conservatives demanded and obtained safeguards against easy divorce. Filing procedures were made so complex that legal fees were beyond the reach of many, and elaborate counseling and conciliation procedures became mandatory.
Divorce proceedings could be long and costly and venomous. In 2005 Purpura vs. Purpura, a case that had dragged on for 21 years, finally seemed to be coming to an end. A Wall Street executive named Nicholas Purpura had been battling his wife over his assets since 1983, a fight initiated even before their divorce in 1988. He accused her of “humiliating and demeaning him” and calling him a “bozo” in front of their children, while she accused him of submitting phony bankruptcy records to keep her from getting his cash. A court ruling had finally decided that his $2.5 million, 17-room home on Staten Island was a marital property and therefore to be sold. But even that might not have been the end of it, since Purpura had filed four appeals that were still pending. Having spent more than $100,000 on six different divorce lawyers, the impoverished husband was now representing himself. “I won’t stop fighting,” he told the press, “even if I have to live in a pup tent.” So it goes in the world of the wealthy … or the once wealthy.
I can’t deny that we all get a certain perverse delight in reading accounts like Purpura’s of the marital woes of others, whose troubles seem far removed from ours. And in seeing photographs of erring couples caught in the act. Sometime back in those days Life magazine featured an article on a private detective hired to take telltale photos of erring couples in, I think, Berkeley, California. While his wife stood guard to warn him of interference, he stalked hotel corridors, knocked on doors, and snapped photos of whoever answered, or even invaded the room to take pictures. Life published a number of these photos, blacking out just enough of the facial features to prevent recognition. Like many a reader, I in my youthful ignorance gobbled up the photos in surprise and wonder. Some readers protested, as I recall, and when Life reported that the photographer’s wife was divorcing him (on what grounds? one wonders), it seemed grimly appropriate.
And here in New York State someone did a serious study of some 500 photos of adulterous couples used as evidence, listing how many men and how many women were in nightclothes, in their underwear, naked, or (a rather elegant touch) in a kimono. What the purpose of this was, I can’t imagine, though the results were published and are even available online. There’s a bit of voyeurism in us all, and New York’s strict divorce law encouraged it, and encouraged as well the invasion of privacy. A good example of how strict laws meant to encourage virtue and marital stability can backfire with dubious results.
Even as other states were adopting no-fault divorce laws, New York clung stubbornly to its fault-based laws. Until 2010, that is. And this in a state that is usually viewed as ardently liberal and progressive. So why the long delay? My guess: opposition to divorce reform by the Roman Catholic Church downstate, and by conservative Republican legislators upstate. And the reluctance of liberals to provoke a debate where they would be pilloried as enemies of marriage and the family. Though it has also been suggested that New Yorkers’ success in evading the state’s divorce law contributed, in that it lessened the pressure for reform. But no-fault divorce did come in time, though only after protracted and heated debate, when the contradiction between the laws on the books, and the actual practices of New Yorkers, could no longer be ignored. Yet the concept of fault still persists in the state’s political and moral traditions.
And today? If you google “New York divorce,” you will find such online offerings as these:
· New York Divorce -- $299
· Uncontested Divorce -- $499
· NY Divorce Online $149
· Cheap New York Divorce
· New York Divorce $79 $149
Yes, times have changed, and Reno is no longer the divorce capital of the country. New Yorkers can stay comfily put and get their divorces at what would seem to be bargain rates. “Money back guarantee,” says one ad, while another promises “no hidden fees,” and still another urges, “File in 1 day.” Obviously, it pays to shop around.
|A new twist, a law office sign in California.|
But how does the New York divorce rate compare with other states, and who has the highest rate, and who the lowest? According to the latest available government statistics, covering 2008-2009, the highest number of divorces per 1,000 people is – unsurprisingly – Nevada, with 6.6. The lowest rate is Massachusetts, with 1.8. And New York? In between, but on the low side: 2.5. And what states come close to Nevada? Surprises here, as well: Idaho and West Virginia, 5.0; Wyoming, 5.2; Arkansas, 5.6. Obviously, it’s not the liberal, permissive Northeast that tops the list, but more rural states where religion, including fundamentalism, still holds sway. Is there a connection? I’ll let the experts decide.
One last thought: Is there perhaps an alternative to divorce? In the village of Biertan, Romania, next to the old fortified church is a small, drab-looking building that seems to have no windows. For centuries, couples wanting a divorce have been obliged to reside there together for two weeks before proceeding with the divorce. Inside was only a single bed, plate, and spoon they had to share. This has been the custom for some four hundred years, and in all that time how many couples then chose to proceed with the divorce? Just one. Still, it’s worth noting that this is not a Roman Catholic or Orthodox community; it is Lutheran.
Two notes on trivia:
1. Last June, in a moment of delusion, I sent some poems to a small review. Recently, having heard nothing for six long months, I wrote the submission off. Then, on Christmas Day, I got an e-mail of rejection. The rejection doesn’t bother me, just the timing. What species of creep devotes part of Christmas Day to sending out rejections? My proposed response to the review: Merry Christmas right back at you! Pox vobiscum, and may you founder in insolvency in the coming year.
2. Chinese fortune cookies recycle clichés, but occasionally there is one of interest. Last Sunday, when my friend John and I lunched at our favorite local Chinese restaurant, he got this one:
Do onto others as you would have others do onto you.
Never has a fortune cookie been more suggestive.
Looking ahead to 2015:
Even the sedate and circumspect New York Times is willing to call “enhanced interrogation techniques” by their real name: torture. And torture is illegal by both American and international law. And that illustrious newspaper has even called for prosecution of all responsible, which at the very least would mean everyone from former Vice President Dick Cheney on down, including those who merely sanctioned it. Will this happen? I doubt it. At the most I anticipate denials, evasions, memory lapses, and legal obfuscations galore. Though maybe a court in Spain will do something, making travel there for some inadvisable. Perhaps, twenty or thirty years from now, something will happen, when all those responsible, having lived blithely and died gently, are safely in their graves.
|Ripe for dethroning?|
WBAI takes delight in predicting gloom and doom, and its radio host and nutritionist Gary Null is no exception. Currently he predicts that in the near future the dollar will be dethroned as the safest and most reliable world currency, with resulting financial turbulence. Last Tuesday he had on his show a guest whose name I didn’t catch, but who agreed with Null and went even further, predicting that this will happen in 2015, provoking a crisis worse by far than the crisis of 2008. The dollar looks strong, he explained, only because all other currencies are weak; for him, the only safe asset is gold. So let’s see if he is right. Though no expert in finance, I know that, by historical standards, this bull market is long in the tooth and ripe for a severe correction, if not a full-fledged bear market, but beyond that I’m not prepared to go. So the unfolding year will let us see if these dire predictions have any substance or not. The U.S. recovery seems finally to be gathering strength, but bad news has a way of coming when least expected. Meanwhile, Happy New Year!
Coming soon: Forbidden Houses, including murderers’ homes and scenes of bloodshed, haunted houses, mystery houses, and houses of scandal. After that: Movie Theaters Then and Now: Palace, Sleaze, and Art.
© 2015 Clifford Browder