Ilyon Woo: Breaking Up Is Hard to Do





[Ilyon Woo is author of "The Great Divorce."]

Unhappy couples in New York have long gone to extremes to throw off the shackles of matrimony—in the worst cases, framing their spouses, producing graphic testimony about affairs, or even confessing to crimes they did not commit. All this will fade into the past if, as expected, Gov. David Paterson signs a bill making New York the last state in the country to adopt unilateral no-fault divorce.

Their counterparts in other states have had it much easier. California adopted the first no-fault divorce bill in 1970; by 1985, every other state in the nation—but one—had passed similar laws. In New York, the miserably married must still charge each other with cruel and inhuman treatment, adultery or abandonment—or wait one year after a mutually agreed legal separation—in order to divorce.

New York's first divorce law was passed in 1787, at the initiative of a cuckold named Isaac Gouverneur, who had the good fortune of securing Alexander Hamilton as his counsel. From then until the Divorce Reform Law of 1966, adultery was considered the only grounds sufficient for divorce. The woman whose husband fled West; the wife who was physically abused; even a man who discovered on his wedding night that his bride was of "doubtful sex" did not meet the criteria for a full divorce. If they were lucky, they might obtain a legal separation—or after 1829, an annulment.

The legal situation put many distressed couples in a quandary. Some devised adulterous situations. Those with money went out of the state to divorce—to places like Indiana in the 1800s, Nevada in the 1900s, or Mexico in the 1960s. (The cheap, fast Mexican divorce drew many celebrities too, including Marilyn Monroe during her split from Arthur Miller.) Still others remained bound to spouses they could not stand.

In the early 20th century, a number of young women hired themselves out as "correspondents" in divorce cases—essentially bait for philandering husbands. In 1934, the New York Mirror published an article titled, "I Was the 'Unknown Blonde' in 100 New York Divorces!"—featuring one Dorothy Jarvis, who earned as much as $100 a job. Ms. Jarvis had several tactics, beyond taking her date to a hotel room and awaiting ambush. There was the "push and raid" (where she would push herself into a man's room, dressed only in a fur coat, then whip off her outer garment), as well as the "shadow and shanghai" and the "dance and dope."...

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