A writer witnesses Loretta winning a beauty pageant during an atomic bomb test.
| Click, point, and click. I can manipulate my computer mouse and within seconds the internet will provide me with more information than I possibly could ever use. All I do is type in a name, click, point to an item, and click again. My search is satisfied; my quest is completed. This task is so simple for a writer these days.
I have been using the internet for a number of years. Search engines have saved me immeasurable amounts of time compared to how I previously had to research libraries physically for my writing projects. I am fortunate, as well, to be employed as a fact-checker for a regional magazine. We have a placard hanging in the office that constantly reminds us: We Print It—So It Must Be True. The sage posting warns us about the inaccuracies floating throughout the World Wide Web. Just because material might be printed online, the information isn’t necessarily true, accurate, or factual. Hence, I have a job.
About two months ago, the year-end cycle for our “thankful remembrance” issue was nearing. This year, my editor specifically has targeted publishing anniversary stories about World War II veterans, the bombing of Hiroshima, or the birth of America’s atomic age. During my stint with the publication, I had proposed a number of nostalgic or historical projects for her—unsuccessfully. I imagine that most of my submissions are still in her slush pile. Anyway, about six weeks ago, she approved one of my projects and even offered a small advance in case I needed to travel—fact-checking, you know.
I had no budget for this project because my research travels went only as far as my PC in my den and any online searches aren’t really that expensive—that is a fact. But I was approved to develop my story about Loretta Lovenski. She had come into my life in the 1950s, and she made quite an impression on me then, although I mostly had forgotten her. In January 1952 I had my last boyhood glimpse of Loretta Lovenski. So I needed to capture 50 years’ biography in 5,000 words. For this assignment also, I needed to rely on yesterday’s memories while using today’s technology to develop my profile piece. And I think I have been quite successful during the past month.
My family had moved near Las Vegas in the late 1940s when my father had been stationed at Nellis Air Force base. Back then, the area had not quite achieved its playground appeal. During my school days, I learned that my hometown had been a desert town at the turn of the 20th Century. At that time, the place had been little more than a whistle-stop on a rail line that featured plenty of water for folks passing through our part of the desert between Salt Lake City and Southern California.
Las Vegas had transformed during the 1920s and 1930s. During Prohibition, it had been a drinker’s paradise that offered legal alcohol while the rest of the country suffered or sinned. Some legislative quirk—or perhaps a sheriff’s blindness—allowed resort owners to pour booze as fast as the customers could drink it. During the Depression, the town offered a diversion for the workers on the WPA’s Boulder Dam (now called Hoover Dam) project, which lies about 40 miles away.
After World War II, the military presence north of Las Vegas sprouted population growth. During the same period, Bugsy Siegel and others relied on Hoover Dam’s electrical output to build a glittering, neon gambling oasis in the desert. By then as well, legalized outlets for prostitution, known as bunny ranches, offered sensual, fleshly pleasures. Thus, Las Vegas sprang from water, to alcohol, to electrified glitz, to gambling, to sex, to what it might be today: a family amusement Mecca. But there has been one phase of my hometown’s history that I have wanted to write about, and now I had a green light: above-ground atomic bomb testing.
Trailing the Manhattan Project work in New Mexico and when we were well into Cold War years, there was an area about 60 miles outside of Las Vegas that had been dubbed “Frenchman’s Flat.” This dried lake area had been deemed a suitable site to test our country’s new atomic weaponry. The site offered another novel attraction that also helped the Las Vegas boom: atomic bomb watching.
During the fifties, my Uncle Andy—otherwise known as Antonio Scarzano—had been an executive at the old O.K. Corral, which had been one of the original Las Vegas casinos. He was known to his counterparts as Tony; but he was always Uncle Andy to me and my family. During his time at the gambling emporium, he had masterminded several slick promotions to lure tourists into the desert. One of his first brainchildren had been to insert the tagline above the casino’s name on its advertising flyers: “It’s Better Than Okay … O.K. Corral.”
Uncle Andy had been inspired to capitalize on the atomic bomb blasts in the desert. In the early 1950s, hotels like the Last Frontier boasted how much fun it was to watch mushroom clouds spreading above Frenchman’s Flat. The atomic blast could travel 100 miles in seconds. Since the Atomic Energy Commission alerted the population about the next above-ground test—usually a bomb explosion of only about 1 kiloton—promoters had plenty of advanced notice and tourists had enough travel time to fill the hotels to watch the blasts. The partiers would enjoy poolside picnics while viewing the bomb blast through their sunglasses. They would cheer the first flash, endure the slight blast wave, and tolerate the warm-air rush before continuing to party. We were all totally ignorant about the effects of fallout. Radiation was a concept that had yet to become common knowledge to us in this innocent age of early atomic experimentation.
Uncle Andy had considered the O.K. Corral’s western-themed waitresses might be too passé to draw the sophisticates into his casino for the bomb watching. The cocktail waitresses wore sassy white cowboy boots, suggestively short red skirts with matching briefs, and alluring peasant blouses similar to the type that Jane Russell had made popular in the 1943 movie The Outlaw. Uncle Andy knew his wait staff was attractive; so he decided to run a beauty contest featuring his stable of waitresses. He also contrived that the pageant would appeal to local talent who later might be recruited into his employ. His competition was dubbed as the O.K. Corral’s first “Miss Atomic Bomb” contest.
Uncle Andy ran the casino but he would often look the other way when I sneaked into the facility. He let me have the run of the place and eventually I knew the gambling den’s layout as well as my own home. And I was quite adept at blending into the background. I could gallivant through the complex and I would snitch things from the kitchen or even a storeroom. But I never fooled around with money or chips. Such an act of pilferage would bring down the wrath of the family—not my parents; Uncle Andy’s bosses.
Unbeknownst to my parents, I visited places where no nine-year-old should have been. I was a curious lad then; perhaps I was more prurient than puerile. My best snooping lair was the waitresses’ locker room. I knew their shift changes. I would slip into an empty locker and peek through the slits to watch the women change into their uniforms. After a while, I became quite knowledgeable about women’s costuming tricks that they applied to make a skimpy outfit look even more suggestive. Before I was ten years old, I knew how women holstered their bosoms and cinched up their stockings.
The “Miss Atomic Bomb” contest, as I have said, was another of Uncle Andy’s ploys to recruit females into his stable of waitresses. Previously he had pleased his bosses with the successes of bikini contests that had attracted local women to be harnessed into casino help. Pretty women in high heels and two-piece swimsuits parading through the casino, of course, had enticed more male tourists into the casino so these men might be converted into chronic gamblers.
One day during Uncle Andy’s promotion for the Atomic Bomb babe, I pulled a prank where I used a purple crayon on a printed black-and-white poster in the lobby. I had crossed out the M in bomb and replaced it with an O. I swear I only did this to one sign. Laying low for a day or two, I thought for sure Uncle Andy would find out who had played the practical joke and I would be the recipient of some avuncular punishment. When I returned to the casino a few days later, however, I spotted more printed signs with the colored amendment. Uncle Andy’s contest was suddenly called “Miss Atomic Boob.” The tag line was that the O.K. Corral would crown the flashiest woman of the nuclear age.
The change in terminology hadn’t dissuaded the bevy of entrants. Plus, the alteration seemed to appeal to rather than discourage a curious crowd of guests. The prize for the winning finalist would be $200 plus future employment. The runners-up also would be offered permanent jobs in the casino. Now that I think of it, it must have been Uncle Andy’s prequalification test on the day of the competition to have all entrants mingle with the crowd, pass out the eyeshades, and help serve the refreshments to the poolside partiers.
The standard costume for beauty pageants in the 1950s was high heels and near ankle-length froufrou dresses—the type Loretta Young wore when she would swoop into the room to introduce her television show during that decade. True to that fashion, the first eleven contestants promenaded on stage bedecked in their taffeta gowns or floral chiffon dresses, coifed in their Donna Reed hair styles, and sporting their Jayne Mansfield pointedly enhanced bustlines. Most of the contenders sedately swished their skirts to reveal naughty flashes of their legs. A few blew coquettish kisses to the all-male jury. But then Loretta strutted onto the stage.
Before that afternoon, I hadn’t known Loretta Lovenski. She was probably only 16 or 17 years old at the time, but she looked much older to me then—possibly in her mid-twenties. At least her svelte figure seemed mature enough to allow her to enter my uncle’s competition. She wore a slinky, tight red evening shift and red elbowed gloves—the type of costume a chanteuse in a French movie might wear. Her skirt was slit up one side, revealing a naked leg nearly up to her hip. The dress’s back plunged to her waist, where material was gathered into a kind of cauliflower floret; although, I suppose, the effect was meant to be a mushroom cloud. She was a tawny brunette; but it was how she wore her hair that grabbed the judges’ attentions. Her shoulder-length locks were swept up and ratted in front; the tips were powdered white and splayed over a top knot. To me, her hair looked like a spewing water fountain. But again, her design might have suggested an atomic bomb’s mushroom cloud. Loretta left no doubt about her entry. When a judge asked her name, she huskily responded, “Call me Miss Mushroom.” Then she wiggled back in line with the other hopefuls.
The contest’s judging went quickly. Loretta won hands down. Someone tried to plop a flimsy tiara crown on top of her atomic coif and then showered a sash over her naked shoulder. After prolonged bows to the audience, she joined the other contestants in passing out refreshments.
I had overheard Uncle Andy bragging about some big show-business publicity stunt when the bomb detonated. I hadn’t learned all the details but I wanted to get into a good position to witness whatever he had planned. Prior to the bomb blast show, however, I hadn’t been able to get to my voyeur’s roost because of the increased activity in the women’s locker room. Without seeing what preparations the ladies might be engaged in, I knew I had to find a good vantage point in the adult audience.
Although there were some women in the audience, the majority of bomb watchers seemed to be men. They sipped their drinks and talked loudly. Some nudged one another with salacious comments, some were smoking, others sat squirming in anticipation, and all the audience seemed giddy about the historic happening. Children were not allowed in this adults-only gathering; but I was safely sequestered in bushes near the side of the stage.
Fanfare ushered Loretta—Miss Atomic Bomb—to the stage. She sauntered back and forth in front of the audience, acknowledging catcalls, wolf whistles, and applause from her well-wishers. Although only nine years old at the time, I was familiar with publicity photos of several women who were adult entertainers: Lil St. Clair and Gypsy Rose Lee among others. That afternoon, Loretta could have been a member of that club. Nevertheless, despite my peeks at the undressed and hurriedly changing waitresses in Uncle Andy’s resort, I had not been exposed to the sultry dances of strippers. I was an innocent to all things burlesque.
The audience hushed as the bomb-blast countdown began. Loretta stood at center stage, smiling a siren’s toothy grin as the watchers began to call out the numbers. At “five,” Loretta tossed off her sash and reached behind to loosen her dress’s halter. At “four,” she peeled off her dress. At “three,” she shoved the red dress in front of her and swung it forward like she was unfolding wings. When “two” came, she released one side of her dress and thrust her gloved arm above her head. And when the audience called out “one,” Loretta dropped the dress and raised her other arm. When “zero” came, the bomb blast flashed. Within seconds, our afternoon sky darkened and then the entire pool area was illuminated so brilliantly that we seemed to be inside a spotlight. All the while audience members gasped at the sight of Loretta. Her dress lay puddled at her ankles, both arms were raised in victory formation, and her body stretched in frontal nudity. Her breasts were bare but her nipples were covered with sparkling pink mushroom-shaped pasties. The whole scene made me feel like I was inside a camera when the flashbulb goes off. That is, I was the camera until I was belted by a surge of hot air. I fell deeper into the bush and covered up as quickly as I could to avoid the rush of that hot breeze.
I peeked up in time to notice one of Uncle Andy’s assistants rushing on stage with a voluminous purple cape to wrap her highness in regal fashion. Loretta finished the afternoon serving refreshments to her adoring subjects. I went home to nurse a strange burning sensation on the back of my hand, which I had used to shield my face when a gust of dusty wind hit me like a roller coaster jolt.
Now, I could use my story as my subject’s introduction to readers, but I would need a lot more material to bring her profile up to date. Initially I began my investigation online with Google, surfing in San Francisco. I had been a student at Berkeley in the late ‘60s and I had done extensive bar-hopping there. I recalled that I almost had met up with Loretta then. I had spotted a club’s marquee that had posted publicity shots of a dancer simply named “Lotty.” Part of Lotty’s pose had featured her mushroom pasties. Unfortunately, I hadn’t gotten to see her dance then. Oh, I was there, but that was her night off. Also at the time, my curiosity about Loretta hadn’t been strong enough for me to return. And now that I was interested, I have discovered that my lead was fruitless: the club no longer exists.
During my key-stroking process, I recalled Sid, my college roommate who had worked in the Embarcadero. I remembered that he once had brought home a man’s calendar that was sponsored by the USPS. I recalled being shocked that the post office would produce such a risqué product that it would have confiscated if it were sent through its own mails. But Sid pointed out that the calendar had not been a product of the United States Postal Service; it had been printed by the Unified Syndicate of Produce Suppliers, which was a group of a dozen vegetable growers and suppliers on the West Coast. Anyway, the calendar had featured nude poses of “La La Lolita” in suggestive positions with various vegetables. Despite the pseudonym, I recognized Loretta as the model—her mushroom pasties had become her trademark. I smiled with the memory that my favorite picture had been her pose with cucumbers for the month of August.
I don’t know what might have happened to Sid’s calendar; I haven’t been able to locate a copy. Sid might still possess it. Unfortunately, I lost track of him during the Vietnam draft era, and my current People Search couldn’t find him either. I also discovered that the USPS is defunct—the fruit peddlers not the U.S. Postal Service.
During the 1970s, I had been employed in outside sales with Hewlett-Packard. One night while in Los Angeles, I had visited the Magic Castle, which was a marvelous showcase for magicians and a popular entertainment venue for traveling salesmen. During the performance I had attended, the magician’s assistant, named “Miss Lola,” was burned slightly when too much flashing powder ignited as she exited a cabinet. I knew the assistant had to be Loretta. She had filled out her figure more than when I had last seen her; but she had that disdainful, sensual smirk that I had remembered. Plus, she had flashed her trademark mushroom pasties at one point during the magic act. So, inspired by this memory, I had clicked my mouse on some online connections for entertainment agencies in the Los Angeles area. I had worked as a skiptracer some years ago, and with that skill, I located the talent agency that had represented Loretta during most of the ‘70s and into the ‘80s. Unfortunately, I discovered that the agent who personally had represented Loretta had died several years ago and that the agency’s contact files proved useless: the supplied phone number was not in service and her home address was now a parking lot.
Last week, I scrounged through my video collection to find the pornographic tape that my neighbor once had loaned me in 1993 and which I had neglected to return. He had remembered my story about Loretta Lovenski, “Miss Atomic Boob” of 1952,” when he spotted the cast members in the skin flick. Billed in the cast as “Lotta Love,” Loretta seemed to have drifted to some underground production studio in San Diego. What I had noticed from watching her nude video scenes was that, once her pasties were removed, the white shapes of mushroom clouds remained outlined on her darkened skin. I also had noticed that she had aged considerably and had grown quite pudgy. Her eyes were lackluster, her movements were lethargic, and the age wrinkles around her mouth were quite distinctive during her fellatio performances.
I used the information on the cassette’s jacket and a number of internet connections to gather additional contact information. That task turned up nothing useful, so I tried some blogs until I found a movie chat room. I posted my simple, direct query: “Does anyone have information about Loretta Lovenski, Miss Atomic Bomb in 1952? Mushroom pasties were her signature; also used stage names of ‘Lotty,’ ‘La La Lolita,’ or ‘Lotta Love.’” I received several wisecracks from jokers who responded immediately. After a couple of days—which is an eternity in cyberspace—I got a message from Miguel, who apparently had an idle moment on his job. He wrote that he had encountered a woman in his clinic about a year ago and that the actress had gone by the name Leila Lovely. He recalled that she had curious mushroom markings on her body. Our further correspondence revealed that she might still be residing near Oaxaca, Mexico.
With a few clicks of my mouse to Travelocity, I was able to pony up some of my editor’s expense money to fly to Mexico and trek to Oaxaca. Three days ago, I met Miguel at a pre-arranged cantina there. He was swarthy, handsome, and a highly corruptible fellow. I slipped him $100 for Loretta’s private information, and, for an additional $50, he drove me to her address.
Loretta’s apartment was squalid and would never make a travel piece in any AARP publication. It was a hot day when I arrived at her home. I was sweating even before I knocked on her door. Flies buzzed furiously throughout her rooms that lacked any air conditioning. The woman who met me at the door was gaunt and coughing continuously. Most of her hair had fallen out, her flesh—and there was plenty of it—seemed to hang on her bones. Although she should have been perhaps in her late-sixties, she looked over 90 years old.
At first, Loretta had mistaken me for a paying customer. Apparently these days, she took in photograph voyeurs or she was willing to perform private sex shows. She offered to bare one boob for $20 and to go topless for $50. For $100, she would give me full frontal nudity. She had other rates for other performances, she explained. She said that she was holding her terminal life together—she claimed to be dying from radiation poisoning—with any odd or sordid job she could wangle. She showed me her webcam set-up that she occasionally used when she felt well. Apparently, she ran a website for men with tastes for older or plumper women. All of her money, she told me, went to buy marijuana or other narcotics to offset the effects of her nuclear debilitation.
When I explained my mission to her, she became somewhat nostalgic. Of course, she didn’t recognize me at all. She did remember Uncle Andy with both tenderness and scorn. He had propelled her in show business; but that road eventually evolved into the destitute flesh trades she now endured. I fabricated a tale on the spot about being Uncle Andy’s executor and how he, out of cherished memory for her, had bequeathed her $2,000. She refused my phony uncle’s largess. At first, she told me where I could shove it. Late, she relented and suggested that I establish some kind of scholarship for young women to develop legitimate show business careers. A few minutes later and upon further reflection, she thought that I might start a fund to help the participants in bomb-viewing audiences.
Before I left, Loretta had undraped herself to show me—gratis—the permanent burn scars that tattooed her body. The atomic bomb blast had created her stardom, but now it was slowly killing her. I secretly shoved a couple C-notes into her smock before I exited.
I spent about an hour gathering her updated biographical information. But I wanted to escape her house as soon as I could because I wanted to keep pristine my childhood visions of Miss Atomic Bomb. And I needed additional time to fact-check her new background material before my deadline.
When I returned to Las Vegas yesterday, I consulted my attorney about establishing a charitable trust. He immediately saw dollar signs and kept pressing me to start a class action suit against the hotel owners, promoters, and anyone connected with the bomb-watching picnics in the 1950s. I couldn’t dissuade him from his new obsession so in my frustration I dropped him.
Tonight, I am sitting in my den and in front of my computer. I have zipped my piece to editorial and now I am viewing our local Atomic Testing Museum website. I have decided to send Uncle Andy’s bogus bequest that I had taken from my savings as a donation in the name of Miss Atomic Bomb of 1952. This is my memorial to the sultry beauty queen who is dying with mushroom-cloud burns radioactively scorched on her body.
With a click, a point, and a click, my mission is accomplished.
Of course, now that I’ve noticed my hairless, red-scarred right hand hovering over my mouse, I probably should have kept that money for my own future medical bills.
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