Tuesday, March 8, 2022

How Otto Plath Divorced His First Wife Without Telling Her

Where Otto Plath was divorced and Otto and Aurelia were married, Ormsby County Courthouse. Flickr.com

Daylight was at its briefest, but December of 1931 was mild, more rainy than snowy, and late that month three Bostonians headed west to Reno, Nevada, “Sin City,” just under 3000 miles away. They were a married man of 46, Otto Plath; his 25-year-old fiancĂ©e Aurelia Schober; and her mother Aurelia Greenwood Schober, 44, who drove the car.

Otto Plath sought a quick divorce from a wife he hadn’t seen for years and didn’t care to hear from. Socialites and movie stars had been shedding spouses in Reno since a scandal in 1906 made it famous. It so happened that in 1931, the year Otto and Aurelia were ready to marry, Nevada cut its three-month residency requirement for divorce seekers to an unheard-of six weeks. That was headline news, and the year’s B-movies such as Peach O’Reno and The Road to Reno and Night Life in Reno showed how it was done.

Bound by a deadline and a budget, the three could not stay six weeks, but Otto—who was rarely so lucky—had relatives in Reno he had visited before. Those relatives could testify almost honestly that Otto on visits had spent six weeks there in aggregate, or fib that he had been their guest since November. Someone arranged—amazingly—to hire as Otto’s divorce lawyer Reno’s mayor, E. E. Roberts, a colorful public servant who lost more elections than he won, but not for lack of trying.

Nevada divorces worked like this: You or your spouse filed papers charging adultery or cruelty or such, and on your court date, spouse present or not, your lawyer told the judge the charges were true. Judges ignored lies that were not too obvious. But Otto did not have to file any charges, so his wife was never served with papers or notified. Along with Nevada’s six-week law, there was in 1931 a brand-new grounds for divorce, no charges needed: non-cohabitation for five years or more. Otto and his first wife Lydia had lived apart for fifteen years. In the courtroom another attorney simply stood in for her and agreed that the marriage was over.

By chance or by stratagem, the presiding judge was Clark J. Guild, chief proponent of Nevada’s non-cohabitation rule and Mayor Roberts’ crony. Otto’s divorce decree says “Ormsby County” and therefore was granted in Carson City, population 1,600, rather than glitzy Reno, of well-deserved ill fame, in the county next door.

It was Monday, January 4, 1932. No waiting, no blood tests required: Otto Plath and Aurelia Schober were married at the same courthouse that same day. We don’t know what they paid for the divorce, but the cheapest price for a lawyer plus the defendant’s lawyer plus court costs was $150. The wedding announcement sent out later says they married in Winthrop, Massachusetts.

The required legal notice was published only in Nevada, so Lydia Plath in Wisconsin learned of her divorce another way.

Sources: Nevada court costs in 1931: Mella Harmon, M.A. thesis, University of Nevada-Reno, 1998; Winter weather 1931-32; Wikimedia photo via Flickr used under CC by 2.0 license; wedding announcement, Smith College Plath archives; Aurelia S. Plath, preface to Letters Home; Clark J. Guild, Memoirs of Career (1971), University of Nevada Oral History Program; Renodivorcehistory.org. Ormsby County was absorbed into Carson City in 1969.

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