Discovering Nan Dorland: The Morenus Marriage Ends

Photo from Richard Morenus, "From Broadway to Bush," in MacLean's Sept. 1, 1946. Nan and Richard Morenus in northern Ontario, c1945.

by Joan Champ

The following is the tenth installment in a series about Nan Dorland, a radio star from New York City who struggled to become a writer and a prospector in northern Saskatchewan. Follow at or on Instagram @discoveringnan.

“Isolation is a special pitfall to the couples in the wilderness. Key to the domestic economy, as crucial as loading firewood, are measures the couple take to avoid crowding each other, rubbing up against each other to the point of irritation.”  – Randall Roorda, “Wilderness Wives,” 2005.

The Morenus’ first years at their cabin on the island near Sioux Lookout were busy ones, so there was little time for squabbles. Nan had found many activities to occupy her time while Richard wrote. She learned how to set snares, how to bake bannock and bread, how to drive a dog team, how to fish through the ice, and how to hunt and butcher venison. She also took her turns at the typewriter.

Was there competition between Nan and Richard as they navigated wilderness living? Whatever the causes of the Morenus’ tension in the wilds of northern Ontario, their marriage did not survive the strain. By early 1946 Nan’s marriage to Richard Morenus was over.

According to their divorce decree of June 1947, Nan had “wilfully deserted and absented herself” from Richard “without any reasonable cause and without fault on his part” since the day of February 22, 1946. It was one of the grounds for a divorce in the State of Illinois in those years. To achieve that, they had to live apart for over a year. Richard moved to Chicago.

On September 26, 1946, Richard sold his interest in their beloved island to Nan for a dollar. Six months later, Nan sold the island to a Chicago couple for $7500, making a tidy profit on the land sale. It is likely that Richard facilitated this sale to ensure that Nan was looked after financially after their divorce.

Nan continued to live in northern Ontario on her own throughout 1946 and at least part of 1947. On February 21, 1947, she was admitted to Sioux Lookout Hospital for eight days. It is possible, based on her article in Maclean’s called “The Woman’s Bushed” (August 15, 1947), that Nan had another emergency surgery for her chronic abdominal problems. In that article she mentions her long convalescence after “months of fever, pain and the smothering confinement of sickness.” 

About a month or so after Nan was released from hospital and while she was still recovering from her illness, Nan embarked on a major adventure with a man she refers to only as “Joe.” The twosome took a 240-kilometre, 20-portage canoe trip in search of high-grade ore. They did not find what they were looking for, but Nan was excited to get back into the bush and do some prospecting. It was her latest passion.

Meanwhile, by the summer of 1947 Richard was living with a woman named Nora Smith.

The Morenus’ divorce hearing took place on June 19, 1947 at the Superior Court of Cook County. Nan did not attend the hearing.

When asked about the circumstances leading up to his separation from Nan on February 22, 1946, Richard testified,“It was necessary for me to make a business trip and be away for a considerable length of time and she refused to accompany me and said she would rather live by herself. Living as we were it would be impossible for her to live alone. If I stayed there, it would mean giving up my business. We were living on an island and there was no one there to take care of the heat but myself and she couldn’t possible live there alone. She said, ‘You live your life and I will live mine’ and she took a place to live and we lived separately since.”

Richard also stated that he had tried to get Nan to come back to the United States with him, but she had refused to come back.

Frank Ross, a friend of Richard’s, gave a deposition in Toronto on June 6, 1947. Ross said Richard had left Sioux Lookout in August 1946 to take a job in Chicago, but that Nan had refused to accompany him. “I was advised by the husband that he had reason to believe that the wife had been unfaithful to him,” he testified.

On June 27, 1947, Richard and Nan’s divorce was official. Just over a year later, on October 1, 1948, Richard married Nora Smith. It was his sixth marriage. 

I have not been able to determine Nan’s whereabouts from August of 1947 until she turned up in northern Saskatchewan in the autumn of 1948. By then, she was determined to become a prospector.