Orson Welles’ Bikini bombshell

Thursday, 4 March 2010 — 10:54pm | Film, Science

While reading up on the Bikini atomic experiments for my post on Three Tales, I came upon a most interesting find: a contemporaneous broadcast about the tests by America’s greatest radio voice and one of my personal heroes, Orson Welles. It was the second episode of Welles’ short-lived 1946 series of political radio commentaries, and runs fifteen minutes in length. Listen.

Around this time last year I spent an inordinate portion of my time rediscovering the early radio work of Orson Welles, which I so fondly remembered from my childhood—The Shadow, Suspense, The Mercury Theatre on the Air and so on—so I had come across this series before. (“The Affidavit of Isaac Woodward”, Welles’ unforgettable diatribe about the vicious assault of a black American soldier who had returned from decorated service in the war, is required listening for anyone interested in the oratory of civil rights.) Somehow I’d missed the episode on the hydrogen bomb. No matter; I’ve listened to it now. And here’s something else I’ve learned: painted on the first H-bomb to see a practical test was the likeness of Rita Hayworth.

Welles had this to say about the glamorous actress who was then his wife:

Not long ago I watched quite another sort of young lady paint her lips with something called, over the counter, the Atom Lipstick—the case of the cosmetic being fashioned according to the popular conceptions of the original war-engine. I’m sure you all need to be told that Miss Hayworth is not one to use such a thing or to hold it as anything less than a very hideous conceit.

Her face is not on the atom bomb, then, by her own choosing, but by election of the flyers who will drop the bomb and work clearly for business according to their tastes. As regards selection I find their taste beyond reproach, but the bomb-dropping itself had better be worthy of the accompanying photograph.

Is this, Faustus claimed of Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Ilium? Well, I want a better toast, a better boast, for Rebecca. I want my daughter to be able to tell her daughter that Grandmother’s picture was on the last atom bomb ever to explode.

As we all know, the world didn’t heed his words, and the shadow of nuclear annihilation is now an ordinary background to our lives. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

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