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I, too, used to imagine getting married in Vegas. Not that I'd exactly fantasized about it—as a child of divorce, I'd grown up part dismissive, part terrified of marriage. I couldn't see myself ever doing it, I thought. But if I did, I'd make a statement by doing it with Elvis, in a drive-through, in Vegas. To a Brit like me, who'd never even visited, it seemed the ultimate rebellion.
And then I moved there.
Vegas weddings are a weird pocket of defiance and hope in the middle of Sodom and Gomorrah.
It's obvious, of course, but there's this bizarre juxtaposition of values in Vegas. On the one hand, you have Sin City in all its seedy glory: The "girls girls girls" card-snappers thrusting hooker ads at you as you walk down the Strip, the semi-conscious lightweights being wheeled out of pool parties at lunchtime, the losing-streak gamblers still hunched over the tables at 7am, the drug-taking and prostitution that isn't allowed to happen but happens all the same.
Yet you can't spend a day on the Strip without seeing a jubilant bridal party striding through the casino, a mature couple shyly walking hand-in-hand to an in-house chapel, or rental cars stacking up at the drive-through. Every casino has an ‘upscale' wedding venue. The Strip is topped and tailed by scores of chapels, teeny spires atop dowdy single-story buildings, their signs outside promising to cement true love. (Sometimes—as it turned out for my friend who had a shotgun wedding in downtown Las Vegas—the ‘chapel' is little more than a licensed room in someone's house, its location marked by a life-size Elvis in the garden.) Chapel pimps stand outside the Marriage License Bureau, touting free upgrades if you choose their services.
Even in Sin City, somehow, people love weddings. They're a weird pocket of defiance and hope in the middle of Sodom and Gomorrah. Yes, we can pledge our troth in the world capital of artifice; yes, we can build stability in the most transient place on earth.
Weddings are everywhere in Las Vegas, and once I became a reporter on the Strip, they became an integral part of my job. I covered bachelor and bachelorette dos of the rich and famous. I spent one night following a well-known musician around after a magazine I was working for had received a tip-off that he was cheating on his wife (he wasn't—not that night, anyway).
Marrying on a whim posits itself as rebellion, but the hope behind it, of living happily ever after, is, in a way, deeply conventional.
I once spent an entire day driving up and down Las Vegas Boulevard, stopping at every chapel I saw, in search of a British starlet who was rumored to be planning a quickie wedding with her boyfriend. They foiled my stalking by marrying at the Wynn resort—a move so upscale that I hadn't even entertained it. Because everyone knows that off-the-cuff weddings should be as tacky as possible, right?
Britney, Angelina, and Francesca Eastwood can all attest to the lure of the drunken Vegas wedding, but it's not quite all it seems. Marrying on a whim posits itself as rebellion, but the hope behind it, of living happily ever after, is, in a way, deeply conventional—the ultimate romance for those of us too scared to admit that we too want the fairy tale.
I only knew one person who married a stranger during my time there. (For the rest of us, living in a place where getting married is as easy as popping out for a pint of milk seemed to act as a deterrent.) I was smitten with Josh, a man I decided was The One as he wooed me assiduously during my last few weeks in town. I started imagining a future together—even though I was due to move back to England in a month, even though we'd met when he'd turned up for the moving-out sale I'd advertised on Craigslist. Then he went out on a 48-hour bender and came back married to a tourist. They lasted an admirable three months.
As for me, I did get my longed-for Vegas wedding, eventually. A local sandwich chain teamed up with the Little White Wedding Chapel to ‘marry' customers to their most popular sandwich, the Bobbie. The Little White Wedding Chapel was the scene of the crime for Frank and Mia, Demi and Bruce, and Britney and Jason; the Bobbie was turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and mayo mashed gloriously together. I say ‘marry' in quotes, but it was, we were told, a wholly legal ceremony. (Gay marriage was illegal in Nevada at the time—only in Vegas could marrying a sub be legit, but wedding the love of your life illegal.)
Las Vegans like to turn their noses up at the idea of a chapel wedding—"so tacky," says my friend Maria, who was born and raised there—and yet around 200 closet drive-through fantasists turned up for our special day. We were married in batches of five, and serenaded by an Elvis impersonator.
But the minister was snippy, the chapel was drab, and when I tried to strike up conversation with Elvis, he spurned me for the pretty girl behind me. I was horrified—at the wedding, and at myself. Here I was, the girl who'd never been interested in marriage, yet I'd somehow turned into the bridezilla of the drive-through. At a mass wedding. To a sandwich.
Here I was, the girl who'd never been interested in marriage, yet I'd somehow turned into the bridezilla of the drive-through. At a mass wedding. To a sandwich.
I'd been so hooked on my idea of it that I'd never stopped to think about the reality. Just like that, the bubble was burst.
But then my friend Cynthia brought her family to visit me for Christmas and asked me to chauffeur her parents to their drive-through vow renewal. Suddenly I was driving through the Tunnel of Love, my clapped-out car covered in tinsel, a rose tucked under the windscreen wiper, and a middle-aged couple dressed in mom and dad jeans in my back seat, smiling self-consciously. (They were doing it, they said, for our benefit.)
The minister slid open the window with all the ceremony of a guy about to hand over a tray of milkshakes. Cynthia's parents looked embarrassed.
He asked if they'd prepared any vows. They hadn't. So he asked if there was anything they wanted to say. And in the back seat of my car, dressed for the buffet we were en route to, each told the other how much their relationship meant. How grateful they were for the three decades they'd spent together, for their children, for the home they'd made.
There were no set lines, there was no dress, there was no audience, and they'd spent $75. It was entirely spontaneous and utterly devoid of self-consciousness. It was all about them, and only about them. And it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever been part of.
I'm still mainly terrified of marriage—drive-through or no drive-through, I have no idea whether I'll ever be brave enough to do it. But if I ever do, I'll remember that Christmas morning in the Tunnel of Love, when the only thing that mattered was the two people in the back seat in their buffet pants.