The Story of Iconic Photos: The Kissing Sailor

There are a few kisses that have become so famous, it’s hard not to think of them. If someone were to ask me to name one, I would immediately think of the famous painting “The Kiss” by Gustave Klimt and “The Kissing Sailor” cover photo for a 1945 issue of Life magazine.

There’s something symbolic about a kiss. The emotion behind it cannot be ignored, though it can be categorized. Most often we think of a kiss as an expression of love, but in the instance of “The Kissing Sailor,” it was really just an expression of celebration; a combination of relief and joy due to the ending of World War II. There is a common misconception that the smoochers in this V-J Day photograph were a happy couple, perhaps just reunited. In reality, it was a jovial sailor memorializing Japan’s surrender by laying a kiss on a nearby nurse.
The photograph was taken in Times Square on August 14, 1945 by Alfred Eisenstaedt. Published on Life’s cover shortly thereafter, the picture ignited a sense of triumph and revelry in its viewers. People began to wonder about the identity of the couple. For some time it was thought that the woman was Edith Shain, but that supposition was refuted by the research of Lawrence Verria and George Galdorisi. In their book The Kissing Sailor, Verria and Galdorisi verified that the couple were not actually a couple at all, but total strangers. They also identified the sailor and the nurse upon whom he planted the unexpected kiss as George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer Friedman.

The information that the two subjects in the photograph were strangers stirred quite a bit of controversy and criticism. Both Mendonsa and Friedman were interviewed by The Veterans History Project. In the transcript for Friedman’s interview she admitted that she was not a nurse, but a civilian dental assistant, didn’t expect Mendonsa’s kiss, and had no idea her photo was even taken until she came across a copy of the famous Life magazine cover years later. Despite the fact that there are those who point out that kissing a woman without her consent is an act of assault, this iconic photograph remains an image of victorious celebration and perhaps idealistic romance in the minds of many who have laid eyes on it. Just check out the hashtag #thekissingsailor on Instagram, and you’ll see how abundant re-enactments and artistic renditions are. Now that you know the story behind “The Kissing Sailor,” what do you think about it?
Related: The Story of Iconic Photos: Lunch Atop a Skyscraper
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