Celebrating the V-J Day Kiss Seen ‘Round the World
Edith Shain didn’t think much about the kiss after it happened 60 years ago Monday. Oh, it was a long one all right -- a doozy -- but a moment that came and went.
And she didn’t mind that she’d never met the guy before. The context was too glorious -- Times Square, V-J Day, with thousands of people celebrating the Japanese surrender and the end of World War II.
What better place to kiss a stranger, especially a young sailor dressed in Navy blues who made his way through the throng, kissing any woman he could find, young or old.
In the crowd that day, Aug. 15, 1945, was a photographer for Life magazine. Alfred Eisenstaedt, one of the pioneers of the candid photo, was looking for the perfect shot to reflect the euphoria of the moment.
“I saw a sailor grabbing every woman in sight,” he recalled. “So I ran ahead of him. He was in dark blue, so I waited until he grabbed someone in white.”
The photo that appeared in Life -- the nurse in a white uniform being dipped and kissed by the sailor -- is the most reproduced picture in the history of the magazine. Only decades later did Shain write to Life and say she believed she was the nurse in the photo.
Eisenstaedt is long dead. He didn’t take down any names when he was shooting the scene, and the sailor has not been identified to anyone’s complete satisfaction. Life has never officially said who the magazine believes is the true couple among the many who have made the claim.
But Shain, 87, a retired Los Angeles school district teacher, is certain she’s the nurse in the photo, and she wrote to the magazine in 1980 to stake her claim. And at least in the mind of the photographer, Shain was the one, and he said so when they met years later.
“I wouldn’t say it’s changed my life so much as enriched it,” she said while sitting in the living room of her small but comfortable home off Olympic Boulevard in West Los Angeles.
Shain, who has been in demand for 60th anniversary commemorations of V-J Day, has served as the honorary grand marshal of the Canoga Park Memorial Day Parade and also rode in the gay pride parade in West Hollywood.
She has three children and has gone through three marriages during her lifetime, most of which was spent teaching in Los Angeles public schools.
But The Kiss has brought her a small measure of fame, if not fortune. The picture adorns everything from purses to wristwatches. It’s standard poster fare in college dorms.
There have been charges that the photo was posed and that it didn’t happen on V-J Day, but few dispute that this was one of those great moments in the history of photography.
Shain was a 27-year-old native New Yorker, still married to her first husband but separated and working as a nurse at Doctors Hospital in Manhattan.
Eisenstaedt was one of the most famous photographers of his time, widely considered the father of photojournalism, described in a 1954 New York Times article as “a master of the little detail, the homely trifle, that tells a big story.”
Both of them headed for Times Square when news of the Japanese surrender was announced over the radio -- Shain from the hospital, where her shift was just ending, Eisenstaedt from the magazine’s office.
“You can imagine how people felt. They were just elated,” she said. “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.”
But Eisenstaedt caught the moment with his Leica, and the picture was published the next week in Life. Shain said she saw the photo and recognized herself but didn’t say anything because she was embarrassed. She didn’t even keep a copy of the magazine.
“But I knew it was me,” she said. “I was wearing the same kind of shoes, and I had the same kind of seams in my stockings. And a little bit of my slip was showing.”
After she kissed the sailor, Shain turned away, only to be met by an Army man who wanted a smooch as well. She and the friend who’d gone with her decided to leave Times Square before things got out of hand. She never even mentioned the picture to her parents.
A few years later, Shain moved to Los Angeles, intent on continuing her nursing career. But she switched to teaching, the profession she followed until her retirement in 1985.
As the years went on, she kept seeing pictures of The Kiss and finally decided that she wanted a copy. She wrote to Life and said she was the nurse in the picture. Eisenstaedt, then in his 80s but still a working photographer, flew to Los Angeles to see if she was the real person.
“Now that I was of a certain age, I wasn’t embarrassed about it any more,” she said. “He looked at my legs and said I was the one.”
Shain ferried Eisenstaedt around Los Angeles in her bright red Cadillac convertible (“I’ve always liked big cars”). He delivered an 8- by 10-inch glossy print of the photo, and Life flew her back to New York for a luncheon.
Later, Eisenstaedt, known as “Eisie” at Life, inscribed one of his many books to her: “The one and only nurse photographed on Aug. 15, 1945 at Times Square, New York City. With love, Eisie.”
The identity of the sailor has never been positively established, though not for lack of trying. In 1980, Life ran an article in which it listed 10 men who claimed to be the sailor.
They included a refrigeration mechanic at Harvard University and a New Jersey history teacher.
One who later received a good deal of attention was Carl Muscarello, a retired New York policeman who made his claim in 1995, amid the hoopla of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. He even showed up on Shain’s doorstep with a bouquet of flowers.
Muscarello said he kissed Shain, then shipped out for three months and never thought much about the picture again.
Shain went along with the story then, appearing on a number of network talk shows. But now she says she doesn’t believe he’s the guy.
“There was nothing to indicate he was the sailor,” she said. “He just repeated all the things that I had said.”
Another man, Rhode Islander George Mendonsa, sued Time in 1988 -- not for money but for recognition that he was the sailor. He dropped the suit because of high lawyer’s fees.
“Not only am I the sailor, I’ve got the proof,” said Mendonsa, a retired fisherman. He said he even had the backing of the dean of the Yale University School of Art, Richard Benson, who made a careful study of the photo. The key, said Benson, is a lump on the sailor’s arm, which matches one that Mendonsa still has.
“I decided it was George,” said Benson. “The guy looks like him. He’s a massive guy with great big hands. But the mystery will always continue.”
Mendonsa said that if he’s the sailor, Shain isn’t the nurse because, at 4 feet, 10 inches, “she’d only come about halfway up me.”
His money is on a woman named Greta Friedman, who also came forward in 1980, in response to the magazine’s search for those in the picture.
“There’s no doubt that Mrs. Shain was there and got kissed,” she said back then, “because every female was grabbed and kissed by men in uniform.”
In a recent interview, Friedman, 81, who lives in Frederick, Md., said the woman in the picture had a hairdo just like hers. And she was a dental assistant, and in those days, women in that profession wore nurse’s uniforms. “The sailors grabbed all the women,” she said. “The war was over, and it was a time of great joy.”
Another former sailor claimed that he was the man in the picture but said it was not taken on V-J Day but more than three months earlier, on the day Germany surrendered. His logic was that sailors did not wear blues in August, when Japan surrendered.
The claim created a stir when it was made in 1996, and Life turned up a work schedule for Eisenstaedt showing that he was not in New York on V-E Day.
None of these claims fazes Shain, who remains certain she’s the one and only. And there have been some perks.
She met several former first ladies at a speakers’ conference in Bakersfield, where she was a part of a 1940s retrospective.
She also met Aaron Rosenberg, a paralegal who was also at the conference. Now they get together once a week or so for dinner or a movie.
Rosenberg first saw the picture as a teen, while taking a road trip with his family. He tried to draw it while sitting in the back seat of the car.
“I just loved that picture,” said Rosenberg, who drove her in the gay pride parade. “It’s amazing to drive her in the car. It’s like the wave at Dodger Stadium. People are really passionate about that picture.”