On August 14th 1945, photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt was out capturing the incredible V-J day celebrations on the streets of Times Square with his 35mm Leica camera when a flash of white movement grabbed his eye.
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.
One of these four pictures, went on to be published on the August 27 cover of Life Magazine and assumed an almost immediate iconic status.
It became known as ‘The Kissing Sailor’ or simply ‘The Kiss’.
It was a crazy day indeed, and Eisenstaedt never recorded the names of the two individuals he had just snapped.
Edith Shain was a 27 year old nurse who worked part time at the Doctors Hospital in Manhattan and was in Times Square that day.
She later recounted:
“Someone grabbed me and kissed me, and I let him because he fought for his country. I closed my eyes when I kissed him. I never saw him.”
She believed she recognised herself from her shoes, and her stocking seams on the LIFE magazine cover but was too embarrassed to tell anyone.
In 1980 she decided to write to Life magazine to solve the mystery.
And in what was probably just a savvy publicity motivated response, Eisenstaedt personally flew out and whisked her away to a New York luncheon.
“He looked at my legs and said I was the one”, Shain later recalled.
Much later, in 2008, one of the editors from Life Magazine, would tell the Associated Press that Eisenstaedt never really believed that she was the nurse he had photographed.
After Ms Shain came forward Life Magazine asked the public for assistance to identify the Sailor in the photo, resulting in a flood of Sailors and indeed other nurses all claiming to have been kissing in Times Square that day.
Greta Zimmer a 21 year old dental assistant from Queens who fled Austria in 1939 had walked across to Times square from her office on Lexington Avenue after hearing that the war had ended.
Greta remembers that after a few minutes of standing in the square, a sailor approached:
“And then I was grabbed,”…. “That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.”
She remembered owning a small tapestry purse that can be seen in the picture. She was also fastidious about maintaining straight seams in her stockings.
Confounding her identity with multiple nurses and a prevalent obsession for straight stocking seams, it looked like confirmation of who exactly was kissing who, was unlikely.
The Mystery Solved?
Then, earlier this year, George Galdorisi and Lawrence Verrie published a book called ‘The Kissing Sailor’ in which they undertook a forensic, anthropological analysis and used facial recognition technology on 4 or 5 strong candidates for the sailor and 3 potential suspects for being the nurse.
They concluded the Sailor was George Mendosa, a 22 year old navy quartermaster who had been on leave after returning from action in the Philippines.
During his time at war, his witness to the actions of the nurses caring for wounded sailors had left a deep impression on him.
The day the photo was taken he was out on a date with a pretty girl that he had met at a family barbecue a few weeks previous.
George had taken Rita Petry to a movie at Radio City Music Hall.
Shortly after the movie had started there was a terrific commotion outside. Eventually the movie stopped, the lights came up and an announcement was made that the Japanese had surrendered.
‘In the emotion and exhilaration of someone saying, “The war was over,” he streamed out of Radio City Music Hall bound and determined to kiss the first nurse he encountered.’
That nurse, Galdorisi and Verrie believed, was indeed Greta Zimmer the dental assistant.
She would later recount: “I felt that he was very strong. He was just holding me tight. I’m not sure about the kiss… it was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event. It was just an event of ‘thank god the war is over’ … ”
Was it George and Greta? Or Edith? Or two completely unknown individuals?
It is likely we will never really know for sure.
But there they are.
For a brief moment they came together amongst the chaos of celebration.
They kissed, frozen forever before the flip of the Leica shutter, and moved off on their separate lives without a further word being spoken.
Eisenstaedt died in 1995 aged 96. His last photographs were of President Bill Clinton and his family on Martha’s Vineyard where he loved to vacation taking pictures of the lighthouses.
Edith Shain died in 2010 from liver cancer.
She worked as a nurse for some time in Los Angeles before becoming a kindergarten teacher at Hancock Park Elementary School.
During this time she became known as ‘The famed kissing nurse’ and participated in many celebrations of that photo including the 60th anniversary of V-J Day in 2005 where she re-enacted the kiss before a large crowd in Times Square.
She told reporters that she wished to use her celebrity to honour the men and women of the World War II generation and indeed became a national spokesperson for this cause.
Edith Shain was was 91 when she passed away.
Greta Friedman lives in Maryland. She is married now. After her children left home she returned to school and completed a degree in art.
Greta has reunited with George on several occasions, but has never kissed him since the photo.
She has worked as a book restorer and binder and likes to paint in watercolour.
George Mendosa now lives in Rhode Island.
And yes indeed, he married Rita Petry.
In fact, it was Rita who could be seen standing witness behind the kissing couple in the other unpublished photos, that helped to confirm George as the Sailor.
A framed copy of the photo hangs in their hallway.