This iconic photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt is one of the most famous images ever published by LIFE magazine. Eisenstaedt was at Times Square on the day Japan’s surrender was announced. Joyful, exuberant people filled the streets, as did photographers. Eisenstaedt took four photos of this couple (as well as photos of other people celebrating). There is quite a story behind this image.
The photo did not actually appear on the cover of LIFE magazine (despite the fact it shows up with LIFE magazine’s logo from time to time). It did get a full page of it’s own (page 27) in the August 27, 1945 issue.
Lots of people were kissing in the streets that day and there were other photographers around grabbing photos of the spontaneous celebration.
U.S. Navy photographer Victor Jorgensen caught the same couple kissing that are in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s classic image, but from a slightly different angle and pretty close to the same exact moment in time. Look at the sailor in black whose right leg is crossed over in front of his left leg, and the legs of the sailor in white. Then look at their legs in the LIFE magazine photo at the top of this article. Incidentally, the Eisenstaedt photo has some blurred areas that are less blurred in the Jorgensen photo. Look at the left hand of the sailor in black and the right foot of the sailor in white.
With several people kissing and more than one photographer around, there has been some debate as to who the people are in the photo. Several people have come forward to say they are the people in this photo. All of them probably were kissing in Times Square. Eisenstaedt was busy taking pictures and didn’t write down any names.
Most experts have decided the people in the photo are sailor George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer Friedman, a holocaust refugee who came from Austria to the United States. She was a 21 year old dental assistant dressed in a nurse’s outfit on V-J Day.
After doing facial recognition, 3D remodeling, checking scars and birthmarks, the scar over the right eyebrow, the dark mark on the right arm, the lump on the left wrist, and comparing them to George, they are confident he is the sailor.
Greta looked at all of the photos by Eisenstaedt and Jorgenson, recognized the purse in her hand, the comb in her hair, and the body type of the woman in the photo as compared to her own body type. Experts are pretty confident she is the woman in the photo. Another woman who came forward who was also kissed by a sailor in Times Square is shorter than the woman in the photo and has a different body type.
George and Greta did not know each other. George was on a date with another woman. He saw Greta, was reminded of all the wonderful work nurses did during the war, and grabbed her and kissed her.
George’s date, Rita Petry, did not mind the kiss. In another of Eisenstaedt’s photos of the kiss (immediately above), you can see Rita smiling. She is behind George in this photo and right above his right arm. In the classic Life magazine photo you can only see her face. Rita and George got married a year later and they were married for 70 years.
Eisenstaedt tells two somewhat different stories about this series of photos.
In The Eye of Eisenstaedt (1969), he wrote:
“I was walking through the crowds on V-J Day, looking for pictures. I noticed a sailor coming my way. He was grabbing every female he could find and kissing them all — young girls and old ladies alike. Then I noticed the nurse, standing in that enormous crowd. I focused on her, and just as I’d hoped, the sailor came along, grabbed the nurse, and bent down to kiss her. Now if this girl hadn’t been a nurse, if she’d been dressed dark clothes, I wouldn’t have had a picture. The contrast between her white dress and the sailor’s dark uniform gives the photograph its extra impact.”
In Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt (1985) he wrote:
“In Times Square on V.J. Day I saw a sailor running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight. Whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin, old, didn’t make a difference. I was running ahead of him with my Leica looking back over my shoulder but none of the pictures that were possible pleased me. Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse. If she had been dressed in a dark dress I would never have taken the picture. If the sailor had worn a white uniform, the same. I took exactly four pictures. It was done within a few seconds. Only one is right, on account of the balance. In the others the emphasis is wrong — the sailor on the left side is either too small or too tall. People tell me that when I am in heaven they will remember this picture.”
This is a contact sheet of all four of Eisenstaedt’s negatives (#24 – #27) in order from top to bottom. The classic Life image is the second, #25. This is the one both he and the Life editor’s liked best
What led George to kiss her? NPR tells the story:
“As a sailor in the Pacific, Mendonsa had been aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill when Japanese kamikaze pilots attacked. Men were trapped in the fires of the ship, he said, and others jumped overboard and waited to be picked up.
“Hours later, Mendonsa’s ship transferred the injured to a hospital ship called the USS Bountiful.
” ‘I was watching how the nurses were taking care of the wounded as we were sending them over,’ he told the Library of Congress. ‘And I believe from that day on I had a soft spot for nurses.’
“A few months later, fueled by jubilation and a few drinks, Mendonsa walked up to the woman in Times Square.
” ‘It was the uniform she had,’ he said. ‘If that girl did not have a nurse’s uniform on, I honestly believe that I never would have grabbed her.’
“Mendonsa didn’t say anything to the woman; he just kissed her. ‘It happened. She went her way and I went mine.’ Why didn’t he ask for her name? ‘I was with a date,’ he said. His date didn’t mind — in fact, the two went on to marry.”
As for Greta, ” ‘It wasn’t a romantic event,’ she said of the surprise kiss. ‘It was just an event of ‘thank God the war is over’ kind of thing. … It was a day that everyone celebrated because everyone had somebody in the war and they were coming home.’ ”
As a result of the search to find the original two people in the photograph, George and Greta met again in 1980 when Life magazine brought them together.
They did several public appearances together over the years, autographed photos of “the kiss in Times Square”, became friends and stayed in contact.
The photo has become quite controversial. Grabbing a woman and kissing her without permission is sexual assault. But that is not how Greta described it for an interview with the Military Times.
” ‘I can’t think of anybody who considered that as an assault,’ said Friedman, who exchanges Christmas cards with Mendonsa every year and has appeared with him at several reunion events. ‘It was a happy event.’ “
I am sure the controversy will continue.
George Mendonsa died Sunday in Rhode Island, just two days short of his 96th birthday. Greta Zimmer Friedman died in 2016 at the age of 92.