Museum looking for Las Vegas’ 1957 blonde atomic bombshell
LAS VEGAS – She may be the most famous pop-culture image of aboveground nuclear explosions at the Nevada Test Site.
Her photograph, snapped in 1957, shows a young, high-heeled woman attired mostly in a frothy cotton mushroom cloud, gleefully throwing her hands in the desert air.
Her identity has been lost, but Robert Friedrichs is doing his best to find her.
Friedrichs is employed by the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is responsible for the test site and monitors Bechtel Nevada, the test site operator. His agency is assisting in the upcoming opening of the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas.
Friedrichs wants to properly credit the mystery woman when the museum has its grand opening in February with her likeness on gift shop products and written materials.
The museum is near the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Its mission is to show the scientific, political and economic role the test site played in the Cold War.
It will depict what Director Bill Johnson called a “crisscross” of viewpoints, including the experience of “downwinders” who lived in areas affected by radioactive fallout, and American Indians who consider the test site their tribal land.
“It’s about balance (of viewpoints). It’s about equity. It’s about preserving what happened,” says Vanya Scott, museum registrar, who has been collecting and organizing artifacts for display. The museum is a project of the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation.
In the 1950s, many Americans saw the mushroom cloud as “a symbol of American power and our greatness,” Scott said. “And Las Vegas was the epicenter of that.”
The federal government was reluctant to publicize its atomic testing program, even after World War II. But Johnson says that when the government opened the test site in 1951, Las Vegans used it as an attraction.
Businesses incorporated the term “atomic” in their products and services. Some used the mushroom cloud as a visual element in promotions.
One of the best-known icons became the blonde, whose image will appear in a section of the museum dealing with the popular impact of atomic testing on Las Vegas, and in the wider pop culture.
Friedrichs knows a lot about her, but not her name. He hopes news accounts can provide tips about who she was, and how to locate her or her family.
She was a Copa Girl at the Sands Hotel, now the site of The Venetian hotel-casino. The girls performed in the hotel’s Copa Room and appeared at special events.
For the picture, the Las Vegas News Bureau dispatched photographer Don English in May 1957 to snap a picture outside the Sands Hotel in connection with aboveground testing at the test site.
Friedrichs interviewed English, and emerged with details that dispelled several myths surrounding the photo.
English, who is retired but still lives in Las Vegas, said the blasts were considered a chance to draw publicity for Las Vegas. But it had become repetitious to photograph a mushroom cloud for each atomic test.
So he and co-workers devised the cotton mushroom cloud, consisting of cotton wadding glued to cardboard. It was attached over the model’s swimsuit.
The vibrant woman is sometimes described as a Miss Atomic Blast, but English confirmed that no beauty pageant occurred in connection with the atomic test.
English did not photograph her at the exact moment of a test blast, as is sometimes claimed. The landscape behind the model shows the photo was taken facing east – away from the test site.
The 1,375-square-mile federal reservation, 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas, hosted 1,021 full-scale nuclear blasts from 1951 to 1992.
Friedrichs researched Sands hotel documents archived by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas library. He found some promotional material from May 1957 that includes biographies of Copa Girls, but none are the woman in the photo.
He hopes that some other former Copa Girls may still live in Southern Nevada and provide information about the woman.
Friedrichs’ work is complicated by the fact that turnover was high among Copa Girls. Many used the position as a springboard to higher-paying positions in Hollywood or elsewhere.
Friedrichs also uncovered a wealth of related information about showgirls of the day, and other women who were photographed with atomic-related props. The 1957 photo is far from the only Las Vegas publicity shot to link beautiful women to nuclear detonations.
Entertainment executive Jack Entratter, who produced shows for the Sands during the era, paid Copa Girls $125 a week, according to a Sept. 11, 1957, memo by Sands publicist Al Freeman.
Copa Girl Linda Lawson was photographed on May 1, 1955, being crowned “Mis-Cue” by six Army soldiers. Her crown is topped by a mushroom cloud. Lawson went on to become an actress and singer.
The Sands used the image to win space in newspapers across the country, in connection with a test site detonation called Operation Cue. When bad weather delayed the test shot for several days, the hotel devised the “miscue” title.
The soldiers depicted were from Camp Desert Rock at the test site. Military personnel present for testing were allowed trips into town.
Friedrichs found an obituary for another Southern Nevada woman who had been photographed with atomic regalia. Paula Margaret Hamilton Davis died in February 2002 at age 65. Her obituary reports that she participated in a 1953 Miss North Las Vegas Atomic Bomb contest.
“That was her prize moment, to tell you the truth,” her son, Stutz Davis, recently recalled. His mother, who competed under the name Paula Harris, rode a North Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce float in the 1953 Helldorado parade.
The float belched smoke in a mushroom shape as it carried Harris. Its banner touted North Las Vegas as “new and modern as the A-Bomb.”
The atomic testing program was a source of civic pride because it demonstrated U.S. might. Friedrichs believes it helped force the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.