The Kissing Sailor, Take 2

Published:October 3, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

An interesting bit of history: everybody knows the photograph above, taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt in Times Square on V-J, or Victory over Japan, Day, August 14, 1945. It was published in Life magazine on August 27 with the following caption:

In the middle of New York’s Times Square a white-clad girl clutches her purse and skirt as an uninhibited sailor plants his lips squarely on hers

Eisenstaedt never got the names of the two people, and since Life magazine first attempted to identify them in 1980, there have been several competing claims. Now a new book convincingly argues that they are, in fact, George Mendonsa, a sailor, and Greta Zimmer Friedman, a dental assistant. In 2005, back when she was just one of a number of women who claimed to be the one in the iconic photograph, Friedman told an interviewer for the Library of Congress about what it was like to be kissed like that:

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’ …

But of course it has been romanticized. How could it not? The statue below left, before recently being removed for refurbishing, stood on San Diego’s downtown waterfront, near the USS Midway as part of artist Seward Johnson‘s “Icon” series. And one of the reasons it’s an icon (the image, not the statue) is that it is such a powerful example of a kind of photograph already very popular in 1945 America. Take for example the GI, below right, from the troopship Monticello, planting one on Marlene Dietrich (Life, August 6). Or, below that, a photograph from the page in Life that preceded the famous Kissing Sailor.

The caption for Kissing Sailor: Miami provides an interesting contrast to its New York counterpart:

In turbulent Miami a longing, determined sailor grabs a willing light-o’-love and hoists her into position for a prolonged, determined kiss.

Aside of all of the romantic adjectives (longing, determined, and determined again) there is the word willing. It almost feels a little strange: why wouldn’t she be willing? I mean, he’s a sailor. She’s a nurse (or whatever). We just won the war! But it reminds me of how Greta Zimmer Friedman described her moment: “I’m not sure about the kiss … It wasn’t a romantic event.”

Mendonsa recently told CBS News: “The excitement of the war being over, plus I had a few drinks. So when I saw the nurse, I grabbed her, and I kissed her.”

“I did not see him approaching, and before I know it, I was in this vice grip,” Friedman said.

“That man was very strong,” she told the U.K.’s Daily Mail. “I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.” This is certainly evident in the pose: look at Mendonsa’s left arm; look at Friedman’s arms; and now look at the Miami image again: they’re holding hands! Perhaps the caption-writers were on to something. And perhaps it’s not quite right for the Daily Mail to write of “that moment of wild elation, gratitude and passion.”

Anyway, the blog Crates and Ribbons highlights some of these details and then describes this iconic moment between Mendonsa and Friedman as an example of “sexual assault.” The writer goes on to argue that our unwillingness to recognize as much is a symptom of “the rape culture in which we live.” This may be an overreaction, but click on the links, read the stories, and judge for yourself. It certainly provides a new way of looking at an old photo.

IMAGES: A sailor kisses a woman in Times Square on August 14, 1945, by Alfred Eisenstaedt (Life magazine); Kissing Sailor and Midway by Peter Kapasakis; a GI from the troopship Monticello kisses actress Marlene Dietrich, published August 6, 1945 (Life magazine); a sailor kisses a woman in Miami, published August 27, 1945 (Life magazine)