Three random people, plus one random kiss. On August 14, 1945 those things combined to make, arguably, one of the most memorable photographic moments of the 20th century. Hyperbole? Perhaps, but not to many of those who had just lived through the horrors of WWII.
August 14, 1945 was a day of unrestrained, spontaneous joy and unfettered celebration. Why? It was the day Japan surrendered, marking the end of WWII. It quickly became known simply as “V-J Day.” As word spread, people began to celebrate. In NYC people gathered in public places, such as Times Square, to share in the momentus occasion.
Alfred Eisenstaedt, a photographer for “Life Magazine,” was patrolling TS. He was hoping to take photographs that would capture the essence of the moment. As he related in his book, “Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt,” “I saw a sailor running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight…. 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. I took exactly four pictures. It was done within a few seconds.”
Native New Yorkers might be able to discern the exact location of “The Kiss” based on the background. It was at the confluence of Seventh Avenue and Broadway, just south of 45th Street, looking north.
Eisenstaedt said the contrast in color between the man’s dark uniform and the girl’s white dress “made” the picture. If they had both been in dark or both in white he would not have bothered to snap it. Indeed, there were many other pictures taken that day all over the world, but this one captured the mood and the moment perfectly and, thus, became the enduring symbol of the event. E called it “V-J Day in Times Square.” The caption read “In New York’s Times Square a white-clad girl clutches her purse and skirt as an uninhibited sailor plants his lips squarely on hers.”
Unfortunately, E was unable to obtain any personal information regarding the couple, and neither person’s face is clearly seen. Thus, for many years it was unclear who they were. Various persons have made claims over the years. Some had been the subject of similar pictures, but not “the one.” Others were out and out impostors.
Finally, many years later, their identities were established definitively. The sailor was identified as George Mendonsa. The “nurse,” who actually was a dental assistant, was identified as Greta Zimmer.
Mendonsa was identified conclusively through analysis by personnel from the Naval War College based on identifying scars and tattoos visible in the picture. Apparently, he was on leave from his ship, the “USS Sullivan.” He said, he and his future wife were watching a movie at Radio City when people came bursting into the theatre announcing the end of the war. Immediately, they went outside to join in the celebration. After he had had a few drinks he noticed a woman in a white dress. Assuming she was a military nurse he grabbed her and kissed her.
Greta Zimmer makes for an interesting story independent of the photo. She was born Grete Zimmer in Wiener Neustadt, Austria on June 5, 1924, the second oldest of four sisters. The family was Jewish. In 1939 Grete and two of the sisters managed to emigrate to the US (The eldest emigrated to Palestine.), but the parents remained behind. Unfortunately, they both perished in a concentration camp. Zimmer studied fashion and costuming at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the New School of Social Research’s Dramatic Workshop. She was supporting herself by working as a dental assistant. She would wear white, which was why she was mistaken for a military nurse.
Her version of the event: “It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed. That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me. I did not see him approaching, and before I kn[e]w it I was in this tight grip.” Not to be a “killjoy,” but under today’s mores Mendonsa would likely be accused of sexual assault.
Eventually, Zimmer married, adding the surname, Friedman, raised a family and worked as a book restorer.
Eisenstaedt was born in Germany in 1898. After emigrating to the US he established himself as a renowned photographer. During his career at “Life,” he became known for his ability to “capture memorable images.” He published some 2,500 photos, 90 of which were “covers.” Other than “The Kiss,” he is, perhaps, best known for his portraits of the actress, Sophia Loren. The Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for Magazine Photography bears his name.
As they say, timing is everything. Eisenstaedt just happened to be in the area taking pictures. He just happened to notice Mendonsa. Mendonsa just happened to grab Zimmer and kiss her at that precise moment. They just happened to be wearing contrasting colors and just happened to be of compatible sizes.
All three principals lived long lives. Eisenstaedt died in 1995 at the age of 96. Friedman died in 2016 at the age of 92. Mendonsa died this week at the age of 95.
Finally, for you amateur historians, another historically-significant event occurred on August 14, 1945. Ho Chi Minh commenced an uprising in Vietnam against the French. We all know the end result. The French abandoned Indo-China; and the US entered the arena, eventually becoming embroiled in a long and fruitless war.