You’ve seen this picture before. The one of a sailor home on leave from WWII holding tight to a nurse as they kiss in Times Square, celebrating the official end of the war.
Except, is that really what was captured in that moment?
In some ways, yes. But in others, no.
We had no way of knowing the circumstances surrounding the two – who they were, what they were doing there – until Life magazine wanted to start selling prints of the iconic photo in the 1980s. That’s when all kinds of people started coming forward, claiming to be the sailor and the nurse in the famous photograph.
The people who actually were in the photograph were slower to reveal themselves – for different reasons. Sailor George George Mendonsa dismissed the idea that it could be him, while hygienist Greta Zimmer Friedman “of course” recognized herself right away, but had never talked about what happened to her that day.
“You don’t forget this guy grabbing you!” she exclaimed.
For George’s part, he claims he didn’t see the photo until 1980, 35 years after it was taken, and even then it was a friend who pointed out the resemblance. At first, he thought the idea was crazy, but after taking a look at the photograph himself, George said “Damn! That IS me!”
It was George who set about proving his identity, since so many people had claimed to be the couple in the iconic photograph, and the proof, oddly, came from a third person captured in the happy frame: his wife, Rita Petrie.
Rita and George were on their first date that day, and had gone out celebrating after hearing the news that the Japanese had surrendered. On a drunken whim, George decided to grab another woman and plant one on her in Times Square. Rita wasn’t upset (she says), given the excitement of the moment and the fact that she and George were just getting to know each other.
“A lot of people want to know what I was thinking. It was a happy day; I was grinning like an idiot. The kiss really didn’t bother me at all. If I had been engaged, maybe.”
As far as Greta, her situation was a bit different. She, too, had heard about the end of the war and walked over to Times Square on her lunch break. But as an immigrant from Austria who didn’t know what had become of her parents during the war (she would later find out that they’d died in one of Hitler’s camps), she didn’t experience the euphoria George did at the news.
George was so blitzed he doesn’t remember kissing her. Greta says she’ll never forget it.
“And then I was grabbed. That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.”
Greta’s husband noticed something else – the stiff angle of the woman’s thumb.
“You know, when you get very tense, your arm stiffens up and your thumb sticks out just like that.”
Proof that the woman in the photo is Greta Zimmer Friedman, and a comment on the picture in general – that it’s not the romantic moment people imagined when they first glimpsed it. It’s not a snapshot of a couple celebrating the end of the war, but instead a drunken man forcing himself on an unsuspecting, unwilling woman before stumbling off to continue his celebration.
Maybe you want to excuse him – it was the end of the war, after all. He was drunk. But maybe, for all of these years. we’ve been making too many excuses.
Which can be seen in the actions of the man in the photograph, who has never apologized for grabbing and kissing a complete stranger without permission. When he received a “fan” letter (because he gets a lot of them!) that said, “It must be something great to be involved in a photo that means the end of WWII.”
His response? “Well, I’m proud of that.”
Not only that, but his wife of 66 years talks about what it’s like when women approach George in person:
“It’ll come up that he’s ‘The Kissing Sailor.’ So the kissing sailor has to think he has to kiss everybody. So he does!”
One can’t help but wonder whether she’s still so dismissive of those kisses now that she’s not a first date flying high on good news and alcohol, but a wife who also claims, “In all these years, George has never kissed me like that.”
Well, she might be disappointed by that fact, but by all counts, Greta Zimmer Friedman wishes she’d never been kissed like that, either.