Miss Atomic Bomb and the Nuclear Glitz of 1950s Las Vegas

The decades-long search for a sex symbol of the atomic age.

Las Vegas News Bureau

Arms spread apart, blond curls bobbing in the wind, joyful bright red lips, and a cotton mushroom cloud affixed to her white bikini. The image of is unforgettable, and it's one that has been absorbed into our pop culture lexicon, from Halloween costumes to a to a . Yet there's very little known about Miss Atomic Bomb herself besides her stage name, Lee A. Merlin.

It was in the early morning of January 27, 1951 when the test of at what was then called the Nevada Proving Ground, located about an hour and half drive from Las Vegas. It was said the first explosion here was so great that the flash could be seen as far away as San Francisco. Over the next four decades, the U.S. Department of Energy conducted (most of them underground) in this . The site earned the nickname

"We see so many visitors posing with our cutout of Miss Atomic Bomb"

The Cold War testing revealed the remarkable power of these weapons. The government actually —all with top-secret clearance—to chronicle the tests. This footage, produced and edited at , showed the violent enormity of the blasts, which was seared into the public consciousness thanks to the infamous and the .

Las Vegas News Bureau

Today, we know the blast isn't the only deadly part of a nuclear detonation. But back then, a told people who lived near the Nevada Test Site that the radiation levels emitted were "only slightly more than normal radiation which you experience day in and day out wherever you may live." Booklets given to school kids said that Of course, . is still a very controversial thing, but it's clear now that the radiation emitted from atomic testing is . While the world gawked and shuddered in fear at the sight of these explosions, 65 miles southwest of the testing ground, the residents of Las Vegas reacted about the way you'd expect: with kitschy, light-hearted, commercialized giddiness.

Las Vegas was still in its infancy in 1951. The city's population had exploded because of the , with thousands of workers looking to spend their hard earned dollars drinking, gambling and fraternizing. In December 1946, the Flamingo opened to cater to this crowd. Named after the girlfriend of majority owner (and famed L.A. gangster) Bugsy Siegel, "The World's Greatest Resort Hotel" was a look into Las Vegas' future. Today, Vegas pulls . Back then, it was a town with a population still under 25,000 that was looking for an economic boost.

Las Vegas News Bureau

In the days after the first bomb was detonated, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce promoted the blasts as a unique Vegas attraction by giving out . A city official : "The angle was to get people to think the explosions wouldn't be anything more than a gag." Latching onto the Chamber of Commerce's enthusiasm, hotels began hawking their roofs and north-facing penthouse suites as perfect places to see the mushroom cloud, most famously the .

The city of Las Vegas transformed itself into with atomic cocktails, atomic hairdos and atomic parties. There was even a young rock n' roller playing nightly who was billed as His real name was Elvis Presley. And there were the beauty pageants and pin-up girls.

While Miss Atomic Bomb was the most famous apocalyptic pin-up girl, she was not the first. That distinction seems to have belonged to dancer and showgirl Candyce King (probably also a stage name), who was . Her photo appeared in newspapers nationwide with a caption declaring her to be "radiating loveliness instead of deadly atomic particles." , she was also awarded a ten-pound bag of real mushrooms by the Pennsylvania Mushroom Growers Association. In 1953, a Miss Paula Harris rode a parade float as "Miss A-Bomb." In 1955, there was "Mis-Cue," a play on the frequent delays of . According to Las Vegas's , Mis-Cue was a Copa showgirl named Linda Lawson who would go on to a long and varied performing career.

Photographers behold the blast
Las Vegas News Bureau

The iconic image of Miss Atomic Bomb dates to 1957, when Las Vegas News Bureau photographer Don English shot the photo of Miss Merlin. There was no official beauty pageant that granted her the title, though, which is one of the reasons that figuring out exactly who Merlin was and how she became the very embodiment of this weird period of Vegas history, this dichotomy between wanton destruction and carefree joy, has eluded more than one curious mind.

The National Atomic Testing Museum says its own search has hit several dead ends. Robert Friedrichs, formerly of the , has been , but seems to have come up with little to go on other than the fact that Miss Atomic Bomb, like Lawson, was probably a Copa showgirl. Same goes for the and . The only piece of potentially new evidence that's been uncovered is unsubstantiated: That Miss Merlin (again, likely not her real name) is now deceased and never had any intention of revealing herself as Miss Atomic Bomb during her lifetime.

"We would love to talk to her"


Atmospheric nuclear blasts ended in 1963 thanks to the . The DOE would continue exploding nuclear devices at the Nevada site until 1992, when the put a full stop to it. Six decades after the first blasts here, the giddiness of the '50s has given way to a more sober realization of what atomic testing and radiation do people and to the land. Yet there is something about this peculiar point in history, something about seeing Miss Atomic Bomb making a mushroom cloud sexy, that draws people. A few years ago, the Department of Energy because, according to the government, the site now . The tours are immensely popular and they fill up fast.

Besides this nostalgia, perhaps it is the unknown that gives Miss Atomic Bomb her enduring popularity. "(I think) some of the fascination may come from the mystery that now surrounds it," says Natalie Luvera, assistant curator at the National Atomic Testing Museum, "We see so many visitors posing with our cutout of Miss Atomic Bomb... ultimately, I think that's why people are drawn to her."

But if she or any family member of hers wants to come forward to tell Miss Atomic Bomb's tale, there will be plenty of people who want to hear it. "We would love to talk to her, interview her," says archivist Kelli Luchs. "We would love to hear her story."

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