"This guy grabbed me and we kissed, and then I turned one way and he turned the other, I closed my eyes when I kissed him, and I never saw him."
This was how Edith Shain described the famous Victory over Japan Day sailor's kiss in the middle of Times Square, immortalized in one of the most famous and joyous photographs of World War II.
Many years later, she expressed regret that she had not asked his name. Shain, who recently died at the age of 91, was attired in a white nurse's uniform, and the sailor in dress blues and traditional white "dixie cup" hat. The enthusiastic embrace evoked a scene from a ballet, with Shain bent backwards, one leg extended behind her for balance, the toe of her polished white shoes touching the ground and the seams of her nylon stockings clearly visible.
As photographer Alfred Eisenstadt described the setting on Aug. 14, 1945: The sailor was kissing every female in sight, "young girls and old ladies alike, stout, thin or old." Eisenstadt claimed that the black and white image was so strikingly vivid because of the contrast between the nurse's white dress and the sailor's navy blue uniform.
Immediately after her naval encounter, Shain was approached by a soldier obviously intent on proving that a soldier could outperform a sailor in any hug-and-kiss competition. Concluding that the lengthy kiss and photographic record were a good start toward doing her part for our boys in uniform, Shain fled the scene before a line of uniforms could form, leaving the young trooper sadly disappointed and the Navy ahead 1-0.
In 1980, Shain, a teacher in Los Angeles, revealed to Life magazine that she was the unknown nurse in the celebrated picture. Embarrassment and the fear that her employer might not appreciate the photo prompted her to keep it a secret for 35 years.
Shortly thereafter, she met with Eisenstadt, and after examining her legs, he proclaimed her "the one and only nurse" in the photo. In 1980, Life magazine asked the sailor in the picture to come forward and 11 men claimed the honor, in addition to three other women. The faces in the picture being largely obscured, lie detector tests, forensic analysis of facial features and the matching of scars and tattoos failed to definitively identify the actual "kisser." One individual sued to no avail, claiming that he was the sailor in the photo, and that his privacy had been violated.
Describing herself as an accidental celebrity, Shain used her fame to bring attention to the "Greatest Generation" and the sacrifices they and their families had made on behalf of the country. Appearing at veterans' homes and hospitals, wreath-laying ceremonies, Veterans and Memorial day parades and other celebrations, she was a strong advocate for having the second Sunday of every August set aside as a day to honor the men and women of World War II.
At age 88, she was present for the dedication of the 25-foot-tall sculpture next to the USS Midway Museum in San Diego — later that evening, dancing a lively version of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" with a Pearl Harbor survivor at a reception on the hangar deck of the Midway.
Shain retired after a 30-year career teaching kindergarten and first grade in the Los Angeles school system. She is survived by three sons, six grandchildren and eight great grandchildren. She had been planning on attending last week's 65th anniversary celebration in Times Square.
The photograph has been memorialized in bronze, Styrofoam and aluminum and given various descriptive titles including: "Kissing the War Goodbye," "Unconditional Surrender" and simply "The Kiss."
Tourists recently passing the San Diego statue and unaware of Shain's death probably wondered why there was a flower placed at the foot of the nurse.
PAT GRANT has lived in Glendale for more than 30 years and was formerly a marketing manager for an insurance company. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.