An exhausted nation had just gotten the news it was waiting for: Japan had surrendered, ending World War II after more than three and a half years of American involvement. The scene on August 14, 1945 was chaotic, as celebrations—some jubilant, others destructive—unfolded all across the United States, but in Times Square one photo in particular was about to etch its way into our collective memory. This photo, taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt, has come to symbolize everything that was right about that day—and the post-World War II boom period to follow.
Known as V-J Day in Times Square, or even just The Kiss, it depicts an elated sailor and a woman in a nurse's uniform locked in a bent-over kiss with Times Square standing watch in the background. It was romantic. It was hopeful. It was what the country was in desperate need of at the time.
Since it was printed in the August 27, 1945 issue of Life magazine, the picture has gone on to become one of the most iconic—and controversial—of the 20th century. But despite how memorable the photo has become over the years, we still don't know the whole story behind it. Here are nine things you might not know about Eisenstaedt's V-J Day in Times Square.
1. EISENSTAEDT WASN'T THE ONLY ONE WHO CAUGHT THE KISS.
V-J Day in Times Square is an unforgettable part of 20th century photography, but which version do you see when you picture it in your mind? Arguably the most popular one was printed in Life magazine by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt. With the couple firmly placed in the center of the image, the photo's composition is structured so you can see their full bodies with the distinct presence of Times Square serving as the backdrop. It was the perfect moment in the right location on a historic day.
As it turns out, Victor Jorgensen, a photographer for the U.S. Navy, caught the same kiss at nearly the same time. Jorgensen’s image, however, was taken much closer, with less of Times Square’s familiar aura in the background. While it never reached the heights of the Life image, the picture by Jorgensen does have the benefit of existing in the public domain, meaning it’s far easier to use for promotional purposes.
2. THIS WAS FAR FROM THE ONLY KISSING COUPLE PHOTOGRAPHED FOR LIFE.
Eisenstaedt’s photo wasn’t the only piece of V-J Day PDA that graced the August 27, 1945 issue of Life. The issue also featured photos of servicemen from Washington, D.C; Kansas City; and Miami sweeping women off their feet for a celebratory kiss. None of those quite entered the zeitgeist like Eisenstaedt's, though.
The magazine’s editors must have also seen the potential in the Manhattan photograph, as it was given a full-page spread, while the others all had to fight for attention on a shared page. Life had more pictures of couples embracing in the heart of Manhattan that went unpublished in the issue—some of them, once again, shot by Eisenstaedt, who also got in on the action with a picture of himself planting a kiss on a woman in Times Square.
3. THE DUO’S IDENTITY HAS NEVER BEEN OFFICIALLY ESTABLISHED.
Due to the chaos in Times Square that day, neither Eisenstaedt nor Jorgensen thought to get the kissing couple’s names. This bit of anonymity led to a mystery over who exactly these two were, and over the decades numerous people have come forward claiming to be from the photo.
After years of questions and false leads, the names of two people pop up the most: George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer Friedman as the sailor and nurse, respectively. This was achieved through firsthand accounts from the duo and other witnesses, and analysis from far-ranging experts, including a professor of photography from Yale (who recognized a bump on Mendonsa’s arm in person and in the picture) and a forensic anthropologist named Norman Sauer, whose research was used in a 2012 book on the subject called The Kissing Sailor by authors Lawrence Verria and George Galdorisi.
4. THE PHOTO IS STILL BEING DISSECTED BY EXPERTS.
Despite the conclusions reached by many experts, there is still plenty of doubt clouding the couple’s identity. A man named Glenn Edward McDuffie was one of the most prominent other possibilities for the sailor; major news outlets even wrote obituaries for the self-proclaimed “Kissing Sailor” when he died in 2014.
Mendonsa has always been steadfast in his belief of his involvement in the picture (even bringing the magazine to court over the whole ordeal), but McDuffie came along in 2007 with evidence from a forensic artist to back up his role in the kiss.
The mystery even caught the attention of astronomers and physicists, who spent four years researching every shadow in the picture, placing the kiss at 5:51 p.m., which lines up with McDuffie’s account of the day. Conversely, in The Kissing Sailor, Dr. Sauer noted how the facial structure of the sailor in the picture could only match Mendonsa. More than 70 years later, each potential sailor has his own group of believers.
Those in the know don't believe we'll ever have an official answer. Liz Ronk, who serves as the photo editor of Life, has said, "So many people have come forward and said, 'That was me.’ So we really don't know."
5. FRIEDMAN AND MENDONSA DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT THE PICTURE UNTIL YEARS LATER.
Greta Friedman had no clue about her contribution to the country’s cultural consciousness until years later, when, as she told the Veteran’s History Project, she stumbled upon the photo.
“I didn't see the picture until the 1960s when I looked at a book called The Eye of Eisenstaedt,” she said. She immediately contacted Life magazine, but at this point, someone had already come along, claiming to be the nurse in the picture.
“I didn't believe that because I know it happened to me, and it's exactly my figure and what I wore and my hairdo especially, and I sent them some photographs,” she explained. “So time went by, and in 1980 they contacted me, LIFE Magazine contacted me, and I brought the picture to Mr. Eisenstaedt, and he signed it and apologized.”
It took Mendonsa even longer—he wouldn’t see the picture until 1980. Though doubts will remain about their identity, both Friedman and Mendonsa have been more widely recognized as the two in the picture in recent decades. When Friedman, who passed away in 2016, was honored by the Veteran’s History Project in 2005, the organization also made reference to Mendonsa as the sailor in question. Shortly after, Mendonsa himself was interviewed by the organization.
6. FRIEDMAN WASN’T A MILITARY NURSE.
The image on that day in Times Square is perfect: The sailor, fresh from war, is seen giving a passionate kiss to a military nurse as victory is proclaimed. It makes for a nice photo, but, as always, the truth isn’t quite so storybook.
Friedman was born in Austria and came to America when she was 15 to escape the Nazis; her parents stayed behind and later died in concentration camps. She worked in Manhattan as a dental assistant and rushed over to Times Square to soak in the victory celebration.
Her dental office’s unique uniforms, with the white dress and stockings, inadvertently caused many people to believe she was a nurse, perhaps even for the military. When asked by the Veterans History Project, Friedman confirmed her civilian status at the time. Though she had no military background, her outfit fed into the national mythology (and made for an unforgettable photo-op).
7. AT LEAST ONE PERSON WAS POSITIVELY IDENTIFIED IN THE PICTURE.
George Mendonsa’s very public kiss may seem like the work of a bachelor serviceman looking to celebrate victory with a pretty, young nurse, but if you look closely over his right shoulder, you’ll see a beaming smile from a woman in the background named Rita Petry. She and Mendonsa (who was on leave from the Navy at the time) were on their first date on August 14, 1945 when the celebration broke out, leading to him kiss another woman in front of her. Not a great start for a budding romance.
Petry isn’t featured in Eisenstaedt’s most famous angle of the picture, but she is prominent in one of the other three he took of the kiss in quick succession. Claiming not to be bothered by the kiss, she would eventually become Mendonsa’s wife. Though in 2012 she told the New York Post, “In all these years, George has never kissed me like that.”
As Mendonsa points out, his wife is the “biggest proof” of his identity in the picture, as she has been determined to have "considerable physical resemblance to" the woman in the background and was witness to the kiss.
8. THE CELEBRATIONS WEREN’T EXACTLY PEACEFUL …
V-J Day in Times Square focused on the romantic, joyous side of a country celebrating the end of war. But there was a fair amount of mayhem among all the revelry. As Time magazine explained:
“Booze flowed; inhibitions were cast off; there were probably as many fists thrown as kisses planted: in other words, once the inconceivable had actually been confirmed and it was clear that the century’s deadliest, most devastating war was finally over, Americans who for years had become accustomed to almost ceaseless news of death and loss were not quite ready for a somber, restrained reaction to the surrender.”
Pedestrians and servicemen alike took part in the debauchery. Additional photos in that famous Life magazine show sailors breaking into liquor stores in San Francisco to secure some celebratory libations, as New York City apartment-dwellers littered the city with a parade that left paper debris and mangled fabric ankle-deep on the city streets.
More serious hazards included drunken joy-riders in Hollywood, mobs of people in Washington D.C. charging toward the White House, and other San Franciscans inexplicably dropping potted plants onto the sidewalks below. After nearly four years of war—and a devastating Depression before that—the country allowed itself to cut loose.
9. … AND SOME ARGUE THAT THE PHOTO ISN'T WORTH CELEBRATING AT ALL.
One 2012 blog post inspired a heated debate about the dynamic depicted in the image, pointing to interviews Friedman did over the years, saying in 2005. "It wasn't my choice to be kissed," she said. "The guy just came over and kissed or grabbed," and in 2012 saying, "I wasn't kissing him, he was kissing me." The kiss Einsenstaedt captured constitutes sexual assault, the blogger argued, and anyone who interprets it as a romantic, passionate embrace is exhibiting "willful blindness." According to her son Josh, Friedman "always had an appreciation for a feminist viewpoint, and understood the premise that you don't have a right to be intimate with a stranger on the street." Still, he added, "she didn't assign any bad motives to George in that circumstance, that situation, that time."