Seeking the Smiling Face of Nevada’s Nuclear Heyday

Times Staff Writer

Long before Britney Spears’ wedding made headlines here, another blond held Sin City in thrall.

The giddy bombshell was photographed in 1957, red-lipsticked mouth in a gaping grin, arms aloft and wearing a makeshift mushroom cloud bathing suit of fluffy cotton blobs. With a ribbon of barren desert horizon stretching behind her lithesome, high-heeled figure, Miss Atomic Bomb is emblematic of a bygone American era, part of Las Vegas’ flamboyant past.

And one man is out to find her.

She’s “truly a piece of our popular culture,” said Robert Friedrichs, a physical scientist with the National Nuclear Security Administration who has spent the last six months sleuthing to uncover the identity of Miss Atomic Bomb.


During the 1950s heyday of nuclear testing, the Nevada Test Site -- about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas -- was a tourist attraction.

“It was new, it was different, it was exciting,” Friedrichs said. People “wanted to see it and be a part of it.” The atomic craze spawned cocktails and happy hours scheduled around watching the nuclear blasts poolside, and spurred families to head up nearby Angel Peak to see the flashes.

Residents “also were caught up in the whole revelry of it,” said Bill Johnson, director of the Atomic Testing Museum, slated to open in February.

“It was a symbol of American power and might,” said Jon Hunner, a history professor at New Mexico State University who specializes in the atomic West.

With the Atomic Testing Museum a stone’s throw from the Strip, Friedrichs thought it was time to put a name with that former showgirl’s famous face, likely to appear in exhibits and on merchandise.

He combed through news archives and university libraries in his spare time, and with the help of a local newspaper article, Friedrichs made contact with two former Copa Girls who worked with Miss Atomic Bomb at the Sands Hotel. They knew her name -- Lee Merlin -- but couldn’t tell him much else.

She performed there from 1954 to 1957, but “was very bookish,” said Carolyn MacMullen, 78, of Las Vegas, a retired Copa Girl who danced alongside Merlin. “She had a little bit different sense of humor ... very dry.”

Recalling glamorous days of parties with Red Skelton, gifts from Marlene Dietrich and Sammy Davis Jr. and invitations to fly from Howard Hughes, MacMullen described Merlin as “always part of the group, but she was very quiet.”

And Merlin apparently never mentioned a hometown or family that might give clues to her current whereabouts.

“She dropped off the face of the Earth,” Friedrichs said.

And Lee Merlin could have been a stage name.

That leaves the amateur historian with little besides a couple of three-ring binders of photos and documents. If he finds her, he’d love to show her how iconic her image has become -- and invite her to speak at the museum.

Merlin’s carefree visage endures as a nostalgic symbol of a particular place and time in the American psyche, said Dina Titus, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the state Senate’s minority leader. Titus is also on the board of directors for the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation, which runs the museum.

“Everyone loves Miss Atomic Bomb,” Titus said. “You take something that was frightening [the bomb]; you make it more mundane or comical -- you make it something you can deal with,” she says of the photo.

Merlin’s picture is one of hundreds of nuclear-themed shots that Las Vegas produced in hopes of drawing visitors to what was then an out-of-the-way spot. The mushroom cloud, which appeared everywhere from the Clark County seal to a local high school’s yearbook cover, gave Las Vegas “legitimacy,” said Titus, author of “Bombs in the Backyard.”

“We were doing our part to win the Cold War; we were more than just gambling and prostitution,” she said of Vegas, which then had a handful of one- or two-story hotels and plenty of open space.

But of all those snapshots, Miss Atomic Bomb remains the most famous.

Retired Las Vegas photographer Don English photographed her and dreamed up the mushroom cloud swimsuit.

“We were shooting so many atom bombs, we tried to do anything that was a little bit different,” said English.

One of English’s shoots featured a chorus girl performing an interpretive dance at Angel’s Peak, a mountain lookout, against the backdrop of a mushroom cloud.

Later people learned of the dangers of radioactive fallout, which harmed those downwind in St. George, Utah, more than it did Vegas residents.

“In the course of trying to win the Cold War, [the Atomic Energy Commission] felt that concerns of danger from radioactive fallout clouds was not as important as testing new and improved nuclear weapons,” Hunner said. The government “knew a whole lot more than they let the public know about,” Titus said. Nuclear advocates contend such weapons were vital to ending World War II and maintaining American security.

The new Atomic Testing Museum seeks to present these differing perspectives in a multimedia exhibit on the UNLV campus. The material takes visitors from the test site’s establishment in 1950 to today’s moratorium on nuclear testing, and includes context of the weapons’ effects on scientists, the local environment and nearby Native American tribes. One exhibit has objects that are slightly radioactive, and includes a Geiger counter to test their radioactivity. An orange-red Fiestaware plate discontinued in 1943 emits a small amount of radiation from the uranium used in its glaze.

The Nevada Test Site, about the size of Rhode Island, remains in a state of “official readiness,” Johnson, the museum director, said.

Johnson hopes the museum’s estimated 100,000 annual visitors will understand the historical circumstances that produced nuclear testing.

And Friedrichs said he believed that an examination of our nuclear past could shed light on “decisions today in how we deal with the threats that exist.” Meantime, his search for Merlin continues. “This is one of these things I’ll keep working at it until I die,” he said.