When Paris Was Reno: American Divorce Tourism in the City of Light, 1920-1927


Thomas Russell, “The Paris Divorce Mill Grinds Again.” New York Times, 23 October 1927.

by Nancy L. Green

It was one of the Franco-American scandals of the 1920s. It brought Americans on an eastward ho to undo in Paris what had been wrought in America. It led to questionable legal practices at the Paris bar and diplomatic tensions over cultural practices. It is a little-known episode in the history of divorce as well as the history of tourism.[1] American couples crossing the Atlantic to untie the knot, or to “[seek] relief from matrimonial infelicity,” as one article deftly put it.[2] But the Paris divorce scandal is also revealing for the ways in which it illustrates the dual image of a city known for its dangers but also its freedoms.[3]

Called a “Paris divorce” as seen from the U.S., named “les divorces américains” from the French perspective, traveling to Paris for a divorce became all the rage in the early 1920s, and “the reputation of Paris divorcées [did] not [suffer] one jot” in the best New York circles.[4] Au contraire. “Divorce havens” are nothing new, but at a time when rising divorce rates were increasingly castigated by prelates and publicists in both the United States and France as a scourge of modern life, the journalistic spotlight turned on the curious case of well-to-do Americans traveling to France to get divorced.[5]

One of the most well-known Paris divorce cases occurred before the fad began and was atypical in that it concerned two well-known residents of the American colony in Paris rather than merely short-term visitors. Frank Jay Gould[6] and his (second) wife Edith had lived in Paris for five years when Edith sued for divorce there in 1919 on grounds of infidelity. The suit was dropped for lack of evidence. Several months later, however, Frank returned the compliment, suing her for adultery, which she admitted. They were divorced in France (and he later married the writer and salonnière Florence La Caze and remained in France until his death in 1956), but Edith later contested the divorce by questioning the jurisdiction of the French courts over an American couple.  Ultimately, the highest French appeal court, the Court of Cassation, and later the Supreme Court of the State of New York both confirmed the validity of the Paris judgment on grounds, among others, of the couple’s bona fide residence in the city and of Edith having initiated legal procedures there.[7] The Courts did warn however that the cause of divorce had to be recognized by the home state (New York) and that domicile (abroad) had to be effective. In the case of the American divorce wave several years later, the French courts seemed to turn a blind eye to the latter requirement.

The “veritable industry” of what could be called divorce tourism seems to have been initiated rather by an American opera singer’s divorce from her American millionaire husband in Paris in 1922.[8] The ease with which they were able to undo their marital bonds became public knowledge, and copycat divorces ensued. Two Parisian women lawyers interviewed in the 1980s remembered the interwar “temps des divorces américains” with a smile: it kept their Law Offices of S.G. Archibald and other American lawyers in Paris busy for several years.[9] The phenomenon was however more a specialty of the peripatetic elite than that of the more settled residential American colony (although the latter divorced as well). During the height of the Paris divorce fad, a large number of the divorcees came from New York State, although the East Coast was not alone in supplying plaintiffs. And a clear majority of the cases were initiated by women,[10] one of whom explained that “she was tired of supporting her ne’er-do-well husband, and so set out for Paris, ordering him to follow her.”[11] It meant renting a place in Paris to prove domicile and showing up before a French judge to attest that reconciliation was impossible. Even the wife of Rudolfo Guglielmi, aka Rudolph Valentino, chose Paris to divorce that quintessential silent film Latin lover.[12]

The comparison between Paris and Reno is not just due to the post-facto facetiousness of a historian. It was often mentioned in the press at the time, as divorce itineraries changed course. Contrary to Nevada, where state law began to require six months’ residence, French courts, while insisting on domicile, did not specify the length of time required for residence. In any case, as one commentator pointed out, if one had to spend time somewhere in order to effect the divorce, Paris’s allure “with its gay nights, its sleek gigolos, its secret courts, its discreet lawyers”[13] was stiff competition for Reno.

“Divorce in two weeks – strictly confidential.”[14] The advantages of the Paris divorce were celerity and secrecy: “No delay, no peeping detectives.”[15] Between 1922 and 1929, some 800 American divorces were pronounced in French courts.[16] It became more chic to divorce there than in Mexico or Nevada. A Paris divorce could cost the litigant from $2,000-3,000 (cheaper than Paris clothing, as one vicar exclaimed),[17] but it could run up to $10,000 when it included leasing an apartment to prove residence, bribing the concierge, paying off other tips and the fees of at least four lawyers (an American solicitor and a French barrister for each party), not to mention eventually paying a Frenchwoman who had gone into the business of being named as the “other woman.”[18] American law firms in Paris helped the parties find an apartment or sign a rental agreement in order for the soon-to-be-short-lived couple to establish residence. Witnesses had to be found and insulting letters procured. The whole process was not cheap, but price did not seem to matter.

Divorce in France, initially instituted during the French Revolution, had been abolished shortly thereafter by Napoleon. It was not re-established until the early Third Republic, leading one French historian to comment wryly that “the lawyer replaced the revolver and vitriol.”[19] Under the law of 1884 legalizing divorce in France, there was no requirement of a fixed period of residence, and grounds for divorce were relatively liberal, ranging from adultery, desertion, and violence to injure grave (grave moral injury). The latter in particular allowed for a wide range of reasons, including drunkenness and nagging – especially if it were in public. Furthermore, French divorce hearings were secret.  Reporters were not allowed, witnesses were seldom called, and there was “no distasteful vilification”[20] so frequent in American divorce proceedings. “The good taste of the French extended even to the court records, in which a co-respondent’s name was often designated by initials only.”[21]

Domicile rather than citizenship played a key role in both marriage and divorce of Americans in France. Since state rather than federal law regulates marriage and divorce in the United States, American lawyers in France had to draw up certificats de coutume (certificates of national custom) to explain/prove the U.S. situation before the French court. Since only domicile confers “citizenship” in a state, once a resident claimed domicile abroad, U.S. state jurisdiction no longer applied, and, in the absence of federal laws regulating marriage and divorce, they had to be adjudicated within the jurisdiction of the new domicile, i.e. Paris. As one American lawyer in Paris put it succinctly for the French court, confirming French jurisdiction:

When an American citizen leaves his domicile to settle in a foreign country, he ceases to be a citizen of one of the states of the union, although he continues to be a citizen of the United States of America. Consequently, there exists no national [U.S.] law to which he could apply with regard to divorce.[22]

Furthermore, both countries used and required different sets of documentary proof.  In the event of an impending marriage, for example, American lawyers in Paris had to provide documents that could serve in lieu of a French état-civil.  When Wallis Warfield Simpson and Son Altesse Royale le Prince Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, aka the Duke of Windsor, prepared to get married in France in 1937, an American lawyer at Archibald’s law firm, Gething C. Miller, filed an affidavit attesting to an acte de notoriété which had been pledged before the American consulate: Katherine Moore Rogers had filed the acte which, given that the state of Pennsylvania had no état civil and that Wallis Simpson’s parents were both dead, was submitted as legal proof of Wallis Warfield’s birth in Monterey, Pennsylvania, in 1896.[23] Lawyers for American clients had to attest that an individual had indeed been born as claimed, that he or she had reached their majority in the state of which they were a “citizen,” and that they had no need of parental consent to contract a marriage. The affidavits also had to assure the French government that the interested party’s home state did not require the publishing of banns.[24]

In the case of divorce, lawyers like Miller testified that there was no federal divorce law in the United States and that domicile therefore constituted jurisdiction. For Americans living in France, that meant France. Nevertheless, for their divorce to be recognized in the United States, couples had every interest in ensuring that the cause given was also valid in their home state.  Thus, some lawyers advised their clients to use adultery as grounds, be it true or false, to make sure that the divorce would be recognized at home.[25] Some American divorces in Paris were therefore filed on grounds of trumped-up adultery in order to satisfy stricter laws at home (where nagging in public was not sufficient grounds!).

In 1924, the rise in Paris divorces among Americans even led to a minor diplomatic incident. American clergymen and the New York Times both questioned the probity of this new flurry of divorces and implied that they reflected poorly on the French legal system. The outcry in the United States led the French Ambassador to the U.S., Jean Jules Jusserand, to take up the matter.  Paris newspapers in turn became outraged that American couples were taking advantage of the French system. Prime Minister Poincaré ordered an investigation.  An unofficial French memorandum that year reminded presiding judges that petitioners had to have a genuine domicile in Paris (with intent to remain) and that a properly filed certificat de coutume had to show that legal cause was recognized in the parties’ home state.[26] This slowed up the procedures somewhat but did not halt the flow.

The worry about “l’affaire des divorces américains” was not just fear of contagion.  The honor of the French judicial system was at stake, and Parisians were offended at being seen as the new Reno:

The City of Reno may desire to be known as the Paris of America, but it is evident that Paris does not wish to be known as the Reno of Europe. Too many good Americans have been going to the French capital, not when they die, but when they want to get divorced. [27]

Another investigation into the matter began in June 1927 and finally put a stop to the practice. An unusual public disciplinary hearing in 1928 (the first since 1808) brought several French barristers and bailiffs to court. As described empathetically by the French courtroom reporter, honorable French men in their black robes and red Legion of Honor ribbons were being accused of facilitating the divorces. Pale and emotional, they defended themselves by blaming the American lawyers for whom they worked, in whom they trusted, and who had provided the documentation. It is not our role to act as detectives and check out the truth of domicile, they protested. One of the bailiffs accused of taking bribes to speed up procedures took, however, another line of defense: he argued that such practices had existed since Balzac’s time.[28]

The accusation roiled the French court, worried, as one judge exclaimed, that the international reputation of the French legal system was at stake. An article in Le Figaro had called it “un scandale,” and, at the July 21stsession of the court, the President of the tribunal, Wattinne, his voice “âpre et sévère, presque violente,” exclaimed: “Voyez l’étendu du mal fait à la justice française!” “Elle est bafouée à l’étranger!” However, the Procureur de la République sought to calm things down by insisting that it was neither a scandale nor a blot on the honor of the French judicial system. Audible relief was palpable in the audience. And the defense lawyers insisted that, after all, the men involved had not received exorbitant payments; “le roi ‘dollar’” was not at work this time.[29] The French barristers had done most of the work but had received only one-third of the fees.

In the end, some of the court officials received minor penalties, and some French lawyers were suspended from practice for 2-8 months; three others were formally scolded. The bulk of opprobrium was placed on unscrupulous American lawyers. Three of them were publicly reprimanded in the proceeding, although, true to form, they were not named in the French press.[30] They were however unmasked by the New York Times: Dudley Field Malone; Benjamin H. Conner, none other than the recent past President of the American Chamber of Commerce; and Charles G. Loeb, future president of the ACC and eminent author of a 500-page treatise on the Legal Status of American Corporations in France that had been prefaced by none other than the former French Prime Minister, René Viviani.[31] Foreign divorces were shifted to a special section of one of the courts, henceforth presided over by a judge with reputedly excellent English and knowledge of U.S. states’ divorce laws.[32] The divorce flow seems to have reverted back to Mexico and Nevada. Economics did the rest, as the Depression kept many formerly-wealthy but newly-poor divorce-prone Americans closer to home.[33]

The affair of the Paris divorces was widely commented upon both sides of the Atlantic. The New York Times called it the “Paris divorce mill,” Le Figaro titled one of its articles “Un scandale du Palais.” In the U.S. as in France, these Atlantic-crossing divorces only fed the general lament about the increase of divorce across the board. Critics in both countries bemoaned the fact that marriage, like divorce, had become too easy and needed to be made more difficult: banns should be published to give people time to reflect on the former, residence laws needed to be enforced to prevent jurisdiction-hopping for the latter. However, the greater number of divorces in the United States was a particular matter of concern: 70 divorces per 100,000 in France in 1922 compared to 135 per 100,000 in the United States.[34] The U.S. divorce rate was characterized as a plague, complicated by the lack of uniformity from one state to another and the deplorable ease of changing jurisdiction in a country where people moved so often.  And many French critics worried about contamination.  Already in 1892, Jules Clarétie had called divorce an American import, a theme reprised during the 1920s legal scandal.  French commentators reiterated their criticism of American moeurs and the propensity to divorce there: “A vrai dire, la facilité avec laquelle on divorce aux États-Unis n’a d’égale que la facilité avec laquelle on s’y marie. [Frankly, the ease with which they divorce in the United States is only equalled by the ease with which they marry.]”[35]

However, if moralists on both sides of the Atlantic fretted over the increase in divorce, discussions about the practice also showed a Franco-American divide with regard to matters of the heart. By the 1920s, two opposing ideas of divorce became apparent. As mentioned above, the scandal broke in New York largely via the concerns of clergymen there, reported by the New York Times, and setting into motion an investigation. Nevertheless, a majority of French observers (and occasional Americans) responded by arguing that divorce was fundamentally a question of freedom, and that the French conception of abstract justice and individual liberty was broader and protected that liberty better than in the United States.[36] Greater freedom was tolerated, both within marriage and with the possibility of ending it: “it is immoral to oblige two people who hate each other to live together to the end of their days.”[37]

With a shrug of the Gallic shoulders at the court scandal, one French journalist pointed out that after all none of the American divorces had been contested. So what was the problem? If people want to get divorced, let them. Yes, there is too much divorce, Georges Clarétie, son of Jules and a lawyer, conceded in his reportage in Le Figaro of the Paris court proceedings, but he concluded:

Oui, on divorce trop. Oui, on n’a plus le respect de la vie conjugale et du foyer. Oui, les enfants souffrent trop des querelles des parents. C’est un fait. Il est douloureux, il est pénible. Mais qu’y faire ? Ce n’est pas la loi, ce n’est pas la procédure qu’il faut modifier, ce sont les mœurs. Et c’est bien plus difficile. Et c’est notre époque qui doit faire son examen de conscience, et se frapper la poitrine. ‘Plus ibi boni mores. Quam ubi boni leges,’ disait déjà Tacite il y a bien longtemps.

[Yes, there is too much divorce. Yes, we have lost respect for married and domestic life. Yes, children suffer unduly from their parents’ disagreements. It’s a fact. It is painful, it is regrettable. But what can be done? It is neither the law nor procedure that must be modified, but mores. And that is much more dfficult. And it is the age that must examine its conscience, and strike its breast. “Where there are good morals, there are good laws,” Tacitus already said long ago.][38]

Lansing Warren, “The Paris Divorce Mill Is Overhauled.” New York Times, 5 August 1928.

If during the American divorce scandal some French worried that Americans found their moral standards lax, some American observers, and not just the divorcees, approved of the more liberal French divorce law and moeurs. One American journalist coolly analyzed the situation by arguing that the more broadminded divorce law in France was to its credit (although noting in passing that this was somewhat surprising for a Roman Catholic country). In her 1927 Harper’s Magazine article entitled “The Market Value of a Paris Divorce,” the well-known journalist Dorothy Dunbar Bromley explained that while the French have great respect for the institution of marriage, they also “believe in a laissez-faire attitude toward other people’s personal life.”[39] Indeed, as she pointed out, divorce rates were still much lower in France than in the United States, thanks to greater liberty within the marriage and the acceptance of extra-marital liaisons as long as they were discreet. But the major lesson of these divorces for Bromley was that the United States should pass more civilized divorce laws, notably forbidding all publicity, so as not to “force our citizens to seek questionable foreign decrees”[40] which jeopardize second marriages and inheritances.  After all, “property rights are the crux of the whole matter,” she added.[41] In the end, the Paris divorces became a morality tale for divorce reform. They were used to argue – however unsuccessfully – for a national, standardized divorce law in the United States.[42]

But, above all, the “Paris divorce” scandal – as seen from the United States – shows once again how the City of Light could be a foil for contrasting images of danger and freedom. If clergymen and polemicists saw the divorce mill as confirming the danger of loose manners and lax laws in the French capital – from sex to the courts – the divorcing couples, along with divorce reformers in the U.S., saw French attitudes and Parisian courts as an opportunity for greater freedom. Freedom to divorce, freedom to do so without nosy neighbors. Freedom to dissolve the marriage bonds, banns or (k)not.

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1.On American tourism to France, see Harvey Levenstein, Seductive Journey: American Tourists in France from Jefferson to the Jazz Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); idem, We’ll Always Have Paris: American Tourists in France since 1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Christopher Endy, Cold War Holidays: American Tourism in France (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004). See also Brooke Blower, Becoming Americans in Paris: Transatlantic Politics and Culture between the World Wars (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). On divorce in France, see, e.g., Edward Berenson, “The Politics of Divorce in France of the Belle Époque,” American Historical Review, 93:1 (February 1988), 31-55; and idem, The Trial of Madame Caillaux(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), chap. 4; cf. James F. McMillan, Housewife or Harlot: The Place of Women in French Society, 1870-1940 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981), 27-28; Roderick Phillips, Putting Asunder: A History of Divorce in Western Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); Theresa McBride, “Divorce and the Republican Family,” in Gender and the Politics of Social Reform in France, 1870-1914, ed. Elinor Accampo, Rachel Fuchs, and Mary Lynn Stewart (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 59-81.

2.“Paris Now a Mecca of Divorce Hunters,” New York Times [NYT], July 30, 1922.

3.Nancy L. Green, The Other Americans in Paris: Businessmen, Countesses, Wayward Youth, 1880-1941 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 79-84. In the book, I concentrated on American residents rather than tourists. For the divorce of Americans resident in Paris, see pp. 97-108.

4.Dorothy Dunbar Bromley, “The Market Value of a Paris Divorce,” Harper’s Magazine, vol. 154 (May 1927), 669-681, 679. See also Lindell T. Bates, “The Divorce of Americans in France,” Law and Contemporary Problems 2 (1935), 322-328.

5.Indiana, for example, is cited as a divorce haven several times in Hendrik Hartog, Man and Wife in America: A History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

6.Son of Jay and brother of Anna.

7.Not to mention that France was the place of Mrs. Gould’s admitted adultery. Gould case discussed by Bromley, “Market Value,” 675.

8.Bromley, “Market Value,” 672. Another account dates the first Americans’ divorce in Paris to 1914: “France Makes Divorce Harder for Americans,” NYT, February 17, 1924.

9.Interviews, Mme. Béraud-Villars, June 3, 1983, Mme. Brigat, July 20, 1983, Paris. Although I never located a specific file on “Divorces,” there was a small one on “Mariages,” and that is where I found model certificats de coutume drawn up for both marriages and divorces. VD3, Archives 201, Mariages, Law Offices of S.G. Archibald. The divorce files were “hidden” under the names of the clients. See Nancy L. Green (with Rebecca Fite), “The Law Offices of S.G. Archibald: A Century of International Law Practice” (unpublished manuscript, 2000), 13-16. See also Maureen Montgomery, “Gilded Prostitution”: Status, Money and Transatlantic Marriages, 1870-1914 (New York: Routledge, 1989).

10.“Increase in Divorces Stirs the Lawmakers,” NYT, Mar. 14, 1926; and “American Divorces Keep Paris Busy,” NYT, January 31, 1927

11.Bromley, “Market Value,” 673. Cf. Le Figaro, July 22, 1928.

12.”American Divorces Keep Paris Busy,” NYT, January 31, 1927.

13.Bromley, “Market Value,” 679.

14.Advertisement cited in Bromley, “Market Value,” 670.

15.“France Makes Divorce Harder for Americans,” NYT, February 17, 1924.

16.Calculated from Bates, “Divorce of Americans,” 322.

17.“Hits Paris Divorces in Friday Sermon [at St. Paul’s Episcopal Chapel in New York],” NYT, May 31, 1923.

18.Bromley, “Market Value,” 676.

19.Anne-Marie Sohn, “The Golden Age of Male Adultery: The Third Republic,” Journal of Social History 28, no. 3 (Spring 1995): 469-490, 484.

20.Bromley, “Market Value,” 672.

21.Bromley, “Market Value,” 671.

22.Affidavit signed by Gething Miller, June 16, 1934; cf. another form prepared by HG/SC 9/3/37, both in VD3, Archive 201, Mariages, Law Offices of S.G. Archibald.

23.Green (with Fite), “The Law Offices of SGA,” chap. 2, p. 32.

24.E.g., VD3, Archives 201, Mariages, Law Offices of S.G. Archibald.

25.Bromley, “Market Value,” 676.

26.Bromley, “Market Value,” 673-674.

27.”Too Much for Paris,” NYT, February 8, 1924.

28.“Un scandale au Palais,” Le Figaro, July 9, 1928 ; “Gazette des Tribuanaux — Les divorces américains,” Le Figaro, July 25, 1928, p. 3

29.“Gazette des tribunaux – Les divorces américains,” Le Figaro, July 22, 1928.

30.Bates, “Divorce of Americans,” 328.

31.“Scores Americans in Divorce Inquiry,” NYT, July 22, 1928; Charles Gerson Loeb, Legal Status of American Corporations in France (Paris: The Lecram Press, 1922).

32.“Paris Courts Reform American Divorces,” NYT, August 20, 1927; “French Form Court for Alien Divorces,” NYT, March 11, 1928.

33.Bates, “Divorce of Americans,” 328.

34.Bates, “Divorce of Americans,” 322.

35.Jules Clarétie, L’Américaine (Paris: Dentu, 1892), 4 ; Charles Mercier, “La plaie du divorce aux États-Unis,” Le Figaro, September 5, 1927.

36.“France Makes Divorce Harder for Americans,” NYT, Feb. 17, 1924; “The French View of the Divorce Issue,” NYT, July 10, 1927.

37.”Paris May Tighten Divorce Procedure,” NYT, July 10, 1927.

38.Georges Clarétie, “Gazette des Tribunaux — Les divorces américains,” Le Figaro, July 22, 1928, p. 2. The ultimate decisions were held behind closed doors. “Gazette des Tribunaux — Les divorces américains,” Le Figaro, November 1, 1928, p. 2.

39.Bromley, “Market Value,” 675. Bromley herself divorced – in New York? — in 1924.

40.Bromley, “Market Value,” 681.

41.Bromley, “Market Value,” 680.

42.“Would Bar Divorce Abroad,” NYT, March 7, 1926.