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Whatever ever happened to the Yucatan divorce?

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Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow and William Powell in "Libeled Lady."
Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow and William Powell in “Libeled Lady.”

“I found out my Yucatan divorce was no good!” Jean Harlow yells at Spencer Tracy in an old late-late-late show movie.

The line goes by so fast, it’s easy to miss. (As do many lines in fast-talking 1930s movies). But the line is a clue to what travelers used to fly to Yucatan for, other than retirement, many years ago until the Mexican Supreme Court declared them illegal and the divorce mill moved to Reno. 

Divorces were tough to get in the U.S., but for a time, Yucatan had more liberal laws allowing an unhappy spouse to break his or her union.

Katharine Hepburn came to Yucatan in 1934 (two years before that movie) to divorce her husband of eight years, Ludlow “Luddy” Ogden Smith.

Ludlow “Luddy” Ogden Smith and Katharine Hepburn. Photo: Newspaper Archive

It was a friendly divorce by all accounts, but the matter was considered a delicate one, to be handled with discretion.

Accompanied by her friend Laura Harding, Ms. Hepburn had arrived on the S.S. Orizaba and registered at the Hotel Itza in Mérida. Attempting in vain to avoid attention, she registered as Harding’s maid, under the name Katharine Smith. In Progreso, she “got a fresh coat of tan,” according to the newspapers, and engaged an attorney, Francisco Acevedo Guillermo, to file suit.

Foreshadowing TMZ and Us Magazine, celebrity-hungry reporters tracked her down. After visiting Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and a large hemp estate at Mukuyche, she told The Associated Press that she was enjoying her trip.

“I was surprised and favorably impressed with the culture and civilization of both ancient and modern Yucatan,” she said.

When she left Mérida, she took a plane to Havana, and then flew back to New York. She never married again, but despite the complications suffered by Jean Harlow’s character in that movie, it seems Hepburn’s divorce “took.”

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