An Essay from “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”
March 25, 2009
posted by Caroline Picard
by Joan Didion
To be married in Las Vegas, Clark County, Nevada, a bride must swear that she is eighteen or has parental permission and a bridegroom that he is twenty-one or has parental permission. Somone must put up five dollars for the license. (On Sundays and holidays, fifteen dollars. The Clark County Courthouse issues marriage licenses at any time of the day or night except between noon and one in the afternoon, between eight and nine in the evening, and between four and five in the morning.) Nothing else is required. The State of Nevada, alone among these United States, demands neither a premarital blood test nor a waiting period before or after the issuance of a marriage license. Driving across the Mojave from Los Angeles, one sees the signs way out on the desert, looming up from that moonscape of rattlesnakes and mesquite, even before the Las Vegas lights appear like a mirage on the horizon: “GETTING MARRIED? Free License Information First Strip Exit.” Perhaps the Las Vegas wedding industry achieved its peak operational efficiency between 9:00 p.m. and midnight of August 26, 1965, an otherwise unremarkable Thursday which happened to be, by Presidential order, the last day on which anyone could improve his draft status merely by getting married. One hundred and seventy-one couples were pronounced man ad wife in the name of Clark County and the State of Nevada that night, sixty-seven of them by a single justice of the peace, Mr. James A. Brennan. Mr Brennan did one wedding at the Duns and the other sixty-six in his office, and charged each couple eight dollars. One bride lent her veil to six others. “I got it down from five to three minutes,” Mr. Brennan said later of his feat. “I could’ve married them en masse, but they’re people not cattle. People expect more when they get married.”
What people who get married in Las Vegas actually do expect–what, in the largest sense, their “expectations” are–strikes one as a curious and self-contradictory business. Las Vegas is the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification, a place the tone of which is set by mobsters and call girls and ladies’ room attendant with amyl nitrite poppers in their uniform pockets. Almost everyone notes that there is no “time” in Las Vegas, no night and no day and no past and no future (no Las vegas casino, however, has taken the obliteration of the ordinary time sense quite so far as Harold’s Club in Recon, which for a while issed, at odd intervals in the day and night, mimeographed “bulletins” carrying news from the world outside); neither is there any logical sense of where one is. One is standing on a highway in the middle of a vast and hostile desert looking at an eighty-foot sign which blinks “STARDUST” or “CAESAR’S PALACE.” Yes, but what does that explain? This geographical implausibility reinforces the sense that what happens there has no connection with “real” life; Nevada cities like Reno and Carson are ranch towns, Western towns, places behind which there is some historical imperative. But Las Vegas seems to exist only in the eye of he beholder. All of which makes it an extraordinarily stimulating and interesting place, but an odd one in which to want to wear a candleight satin Priscilla of Boston wedding dress with Chantilly lace insects, tapered sleeves and a detachable modified train.
And yet the Las Vegas wedding businss seems to appeal to precisely that impuls. “Sincere and Dignified Since 1954,” one wedding chapel advertises. There are nineteen such wedding chapels in Las Vegas, intensely competitive, each offering better, faster, and by implication, more sincere services than the next: Our Photos Best Anywhere, Your Wedding on A Phonograph Record, Candlelight with Your Ceremony, Honeymoon Accomodations, Free Transportation from Your Motel to Courthouse to Chapel and Return to Motel, Religious or Civil Ceremonies, Dressing Rooms, Flowers, Rings, Announcements, Witnesses Available, and Ample Parking. All of these services, like most others in Las Vegas (sauna baths, payroll-check cashing, chinchilla coats for sale or rent) are offered twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, presumably on the premise that marriage, like craps, is a game to be played when the table seems hot.
But what strikes one most about the Strip chapels, with their wishing wells and stained-glass paper windows and their artificial bouvardia, is that so much of their business is by no means a matter of simple convenience, of late-night lliasions between show girls and baby Crosbys. Of course there is some of that. (One night about eleven o’clock in Las Vegas I watched a bride in an orange minidress and masses of flame-colored hair stumble into a Strip chapel on the arm of her new bridegroom, who looked the part of the expendable nephew in movies like Miami Syndicate. “I gotta get to the midight show.” “What you gotta get,” the bridegroom said, opening the door of a Cadiallac Coupe de Ville and watching her crumple on the seat, “is sober.”) But Las Vegas seems to offer something other than “convenience;” it is merchandising “niceness,” the facsimile of proper ritual, to children who do not know how else to find it, how to make the arrangements, how to do it “right.” All day and evening long on the Strip, one sees acutal wedding parties, waiting under the harsh light at a crosswalk, standing uneasily in the parking lot of the Frontier while the photographer hired by The Little Church of the West (“Wedding Place of the Stars” certifies the occasion, takes the picture: the bride in a veil and white satin pumps, the bridegroom usually in a white dinner jacket, and even an attendant or two, a sister of a best friend in hot-pink peau de soie, a flirtation veil, a carnation nosegay. “When I Fall in Love It Will Be Foreve,” the organist plays, and then a few bars of Lohengrin. The mother cries; the stepfather, awkward in his role, invites the chapel hostess to join them for a drink at the Sands. The hostess declines with a professional smile; she has already transferred her interest to the group waiting oustide. One bride out, another in, and again the sign goes up on the chapel door: “One moment please–Wedding.”
I sat next to one such wedding party in a Strip restaurant the last time I was in Las Vegas. The marriage had just taken place; the bride still wore her dress, the mother her corsage. A bored waiter poured out a few swallows of pink champagne (“on the house”) for everyone but the bride, who was too young to be served. “You’ll need something with more kick than that,” the bride’s father said with heavy jocularity to his new son-in-law; the ritual jokes aboud the wedding night had a certain Panglossian character, since the bride was clearly several months pregnant. Another round of pink champagne, this time not on the house, and the bride began to cry. “It was just as nice,” she sobbed, “as I had dreamed it would be.”