Edith Shain dies at 91; WWII nurse in iconic Times Square kissing photo
It’s one of the most iconic images to emerge from World War II.
Life magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photograph of an anonymous young sailor in a dark-blue uniform dipping a white-uniformed nurse backward while giving her a long kiss in the middle of Times Square on Aug. 14, 1945, symbolized the euphoria surrounding the news that the Japanese had surrendered and the war was finally over.
Edith Shain, a retired Los Angeles elementary school teacher who claimed to be the mystery nurse in the photo seen by millions around the world, died of cancer Sunday at her home in Los Angeles, said her son, Michael. She was 91.
Shain was a married, 27-year-old part-time nurse at Doctors Hospital in Manhattan when she joined the jubilant crowd in Times Square celebrating V-J Day.
“You can imagine how people felt. They were just elated,” Shain said in a 2005 interview with The Times. “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.”
When Eisenstaedt’s photo ran in Life magazine the following week — he had neglected to get the names of his subjects, whose faces are obscured in the picture — Shain recognized herself but was too embarrassed to tell anyone it was her.
“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.”
Immediately after the sailor kissed her, Shain said, she encountered a soldier who also wanted a kiss. But that was enough for her, and she and the friend she was with left Times Square.
Shain later moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as a nurse before becoming a longtime kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Hancock Park Elementary School. She was married and divorced three times and had three sons.
In 1980, no longer embarrassed by her Times Square encounter with the anonymous sailor and wanting a copy of the famous photo, Shain wrote to Life magazine and identified herself as the nurse.
Eisenstaedt himself flew out to meet her.
“He looked at my legs and said I was the one,” Shain recalled.
Eisenstaedt gave Shain a copy of the photo and, according to The Times article, Life flew her to New York for a luncheon.
In one of his books that he later inscribed for her, Eisenstaedt wrote that she was “the one and only nurse” whom he had photographed in Times Square.
But Bobbi Baker Burrows, a Life editor familiar with the subject, told the Associated Press in 2008 that Eisenstaedt, who died in 1995, was never sure that Shain was the nurse in the photo.
Burrows recalled that when interest in the photo was renewed, Life ran an article saying, “If you are the sailor or the nurse in the picture, please step forward.”
“We received claims from a few nurses and dozens of sailors, but we could never prove that any of them were the actual people, and Eisenstaedt himself just said he didn’t know,” she said.
Carl Muscarello, a former New York City police detective, was one of the men who have claimed to be the sailor in the photo.
“Everything points to him,” Shain told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in 1995. “He was tall enough that he could execute that form.”
During the 60th anniversary of V-J Day in 2005, Shain and Muscarello appeared together in Times Square, where they exchanged a kiss for photographers and a large crowd.
Shain, however, was still not convinced that Muscarello was the sailor who had bussed her.
“I can’t say he isn’t,” she said. “I just can’t say he is. There is no way to tell.”
Born July 29, 1918, in Tarrytown, N.Y., Shain graduated from a nursing school in New York and earned a bachelor’s degree in education at New York University. She retired from teaching in 1985.
“The famed kissing nurse,” as the New York Daily News once called her, often served as honorary grand marshal of Veterans Day and Memorial Day parades and spoke to World War II veterans’ groups.
She was scheduled to appear in Times Square in August for a V-J Day celebration.
She also had been serving as national spokesperson for a grassroots initiative to establish a permanent national day of remembrance on the second Sunday of every August to honor the men and women of the World War II generation.
“She used to call herself an accidental celebrity, and she felt she should use that celebrity for the common men and women of the World War II generation,” said Warren Hegg, national supervisor of the Keep the Spirit of ’45 Alive initiative.
In addition to her son Michael, Shain is survived by her sons Justin and Robert; six grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.