There are few photos taken in the 20th century as famous as that of the photograph of the sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-J Day in August 1945. You only have to Google 'sailor kissing nurse,' and your screen will be littered with this renowned image – even with your safe search off. That's how enduringly revered this picture is – it beats porn on the Internet.
The photo has been replicated in the form of wedding cake toppers and has been referenced in the opening credits of Zach Synder's Watchmen adaptation. It has been debated, discussed, and dissected in numerous articles debating its origins and just how romantic or exuberant that kiss really was... So what's the true story of the sailor nurse kiss? It's not as romantic as you might have thought.
The major issue with the most memorable V-J Day image is that it might just be a documented example of sexual assault. Because of the photo's legendary status, people became pretty interested in tracking down the couple featured in it, and they found them: Greta Zimmer Friedman and George Mendonsa. Those hoping to learn of the couple's many children and long-term love affair were to be sorely disappointed, however. In 2005, Friedman came forward as the woman in the photograph, and she explained just exactly what happened on that exciting day. Friedman remembered that spirits were high, the alcohol was flowing, and "[it] wasn't that much of a kiss" – in fact, the two didn't even know each other. Can you look at this photo the same way after finding out the real story behind it?
It Was Taken Moments After World War II Ended
This photo was snapped by Alfred Eisenstaedt (pictured above) moments after it was announced that Japan was surrendering in the War in the Pacific (a day that would later be known as Victory Over Japan Day or V-J Day), and World War II was finally over. The photo was published in LIFE magazine a week later as part of a 12-page spread that featured other similar – but far less memorable – photos of joyful reactions to the news, titled "Victory Celebrations."
With that in mind, you'd be correct in assuming that this photo depicts a moment of pure, unfiltered euphoria – a mixture of relief, joy, and exuberance shared between two people who can't contain themselves. Well... kind of. Decades after this photo was taken, more accurate accounts of the events depicted in it have come to light.
As This Video Shows, There Was Lots Of Great Footage From The Day – But Only One Photo Became The Perfect Image
One of the reasons the photo is so enduring might have something to do what TIME magazine was searching for in their quest to capture this moment. They weren't going to be content with a frozen image of people cheering, all of them indistinguishable in their joy. They wanted something special – they wanted to capture the feeling of the war ending. The editors weren't sure what form this visualization of exuberance would come in, so they left capturing this feeling in the hands of their photographers.
Eisenstaedt was the perfect man for the job; not only was he a Jewish man of German nationality, but he had also been chronicling the growing unrest in Germany that resulted in the war. He had taken photographs of Mussolini's first meeting with Hitler in Venice on June 13th, 1934, among other similarly foreboding images before deciding to focus on the American home front. And that takes us all the way to 1945, where he was primed and ready to capture a moment that – despite its dubious origins – is no less significant than his earlier work.
The video above captures V-J Day in Times Square – and the exuberance is contagious.
In Reality, The Sailor And The Nurse Were Strangers – And Some View This Photo As Documenting A Sexual Assault
The photograph might look as if it's capturing a moment of joyful romance, but as it turns out, neither the sailor, a man named George Mendonsa, nor the "nurse" (she was actually a dental assistant), Greta Zimmer Friedman, had been acquainted before that moment. The pair were total strangers. In fact, Mendonsa was on a date with another woman at the time. Rita Perry, Mendonsa's date and future wife, can be seen in the background of the kiss, looking on with surprise. Mendonsa has admitted that he was blind drunk at the time, so he might not have had all his decision-making brain wires firing on all cylinders. A combination of booze and the end of war will make people do crazy things.
Friedman said of the surprise kiss:
“Suddenly, I was grabbed by a sailor. It wasn’t that much of a kiss... 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.”
So there you have it. Not romantic in the least. Context like this has prompted debate over whether or not the photo depicts sexual assault, something that casts a dark shadow on a previously mysterious but enduringly quintessential piece of photography.