When Japan’s surrender was announced on Aug. 14, 1945, George Mendonsa grabbed his date, ran out of a Rockettes performance at Radio City Music Hall and headed for a nearby bar in Times Square.
He was a Navy quartermaster on leave, dressed in uniform, and after downing a few drinks began walking the streets, where he spotted a young woman in a white nurse’s outfit. Buzzing with joy, now jolted by a memory of the nurses who cared for his wounded comrades at sea, he put his arms around the woman, tipped her back and kissed her.
By most accounts, a photographer took notice. Wielding a Leica camera and looking for pictures,Alfred Eisenstaedtcaptured what became one of the most memorable images of the 20th century, a work of photojournalism that has since vaulted to the realm of art.
Formally known as “V-J Day in Times Square” and more commonly called “The Kiss,” the image was published two weeks later in Life magazine, and ranks alongside Gustav Klimt’s gold-leaf painting “The Kiss” and Auguste Rodin’s marble sculpture of the same name as one of the most famous depictions of a kiss in history.
Although Eisenstaedt never got the names of the man and woman at the center of his photo, Mr. Mendonsa was widely believed to be the image’s “kissing sailor,” a claim that he buttressed by pointing toward a tattoo on his right arm, a growth on his left, analysis by facial-recognition software and sworn testimony from his wife.
He was 95 when he died Feb. 17, two days before his birthday, at an assisted-living facility in Newport, R.I. Mr. Mendonsa suffered from congestive heart failure and had suffered a fall and seizure, said his friend Jerry O’Donnell. The death was also confirmed by Lawrence Verria, who co-wrote “The Kissing Sailor,” a 2012 investigation of the Eisenstaedt photo.
Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
After running as a full-page spread in Life magazine, “The Kiss” was reproduced on posters and inspired a 25-foot sculpture titled “Unconditional Surrender.” But the identity of its subjects has spurred ongoing debate, as dozens of sailors and nurses have seen themselves in the image and sought to seize a place in history.
For years, the woman in white was thought to be Edith Shain, a nurse working at Doctors Hospital in Manhattan. She once recalled that Eisenstaedt flew to her home in 1979 for a Life magazine story about the photograph. “He looked at my legs,” she said, “and said I was the one.”
Yet Shain, who died in 2010, was found to have a far different height, physique and hairstyle than the woman in the photo, according to “The Kissing Sailor,” which Verria co-wrote with naval aviator George Galdorisi. The authors concluded that the photograph showed Greta Zimmer Friedman, an Austrian-born Holocaust refugee who worked as a dental assistant but wore the white uniform of a nurse.
“I know it happened to me,” Friedman told the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Projectin 2005. “It’s exactly my figure, and what I wore, and my hairdo, especially.”