A PICTURE WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS
Life in these Times
LIFE’s sister publication, Time Magazine, in 2014 wrote, “many people view the photo as little more than the documentation of a very public sexual assault, and not something to be celebrated.”
This view is supported by the female subject’s words, since the “nurse” described, as far back as 1980, how she was forcefully grabbed and kissed without her consent:
Greta Zimmer Friedman
Greta Zimmer was at work as a dental assistant on Lexington Avenue in New York on Aug. 14, 1945, when she heard the Japanese had surrendered, and the war was over. On her lunch break, she walked to nearby Times Square to see if it was true.
Zimmer, 21, was an Austrian Jew whose parents in 1939 sent their daughters to safety in America. She didn’t know where her parents were or even if they were alive. She would discover later that they had likely been murdered at Auschwitz.
Times Square was filled with people. Greta looked up at the electronic news crawls, which read, “V-J DAY, V-J DAY.
Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a man wearing a sailor’s uniform plowed into her, knocking her off balance.
He bent her over backwards and forcibly kissed her. She tried to push him away, then went limp. In early media interviews, she said she could not breathe. Based upon the 4 frames shot by LIFE photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, the encounter lasted about 10 seconds.
George Mendonsa, Navy Quartermaster 1st Class, 21, was on his last day of leave and his first date with 20-year-old Rita Petry. They attended a matinee at Radio City Music Hall when people outside pounded on the theater doors, shouting, “The war is over!”.
Mendonsa and Petry made their way to Childs Restaurant, where the bartender lined up glasses and kept pouring, and then to Times Square. The sailor admits he ‘popped quite a few drinks’.
Caught up in the excitement and emboldened by alcohol, Mendonsa grabbed a woman wearing a white uniform, who reminded him of the nurses who tended the wounded on his ship. In what he later recalled as gratitude, he pulled her into her into an embrace and forcibly kissed her.
His future wife, Rita, is visible in the background of one of the final of the 4 frames Alfred Eisenstaedt shot of the two strangers.
One of several claimants among the many men who forcibly kissed strangers on VJ Day in Times Square, Mendonsa was the most persistent in his pursuit of the dubious honor of being identified as the man breaking military protocol. Indeed, at one point, he sued Time Inc. to try to win the rights to profit from sale of the the famous Eisensteadt photograph.
The famed photographer was born in Poland, where he worked as a freelance photographer, gaining mastery of his 35 mm Leica camera.
A veteran of World War I, he emigrated to New York in 1935 to escape Nazi Germany and was hired as one of the first four photographers by LIFE Magazine.
His careful eye for composition let him capture some of the most definitive moments of the 20th century. Although he shot many iconic portraits, he considered “VJ Day in Times Square,” (the third of the the four photos he took of the encounter between George and Greta) his masterpiece.
In his memoirs, Eisenstaedt described spotting the sailor weaving drunkenly through the crowd grabbing women at random. Eisenstaedt noticed the woman in white and ran ahead hoping the sailor would kiss her as the bright color of her uniform was an aesthetically pleasing contrast to his dark apparel.
In the caption Eisenstaedt provided for the image when it first ran inside LIFE magazine, he made clear that the sailor appeared to be intoxicated, both by drink and elation, and that he had grabbed a woman wearing a white uniform out of the crowd.
Caught up in the the moment, the photographer didn’t ask for the names of his subjects, which led to years of speculation and false claims of their identity.
Although despite the myths around that subject too, Alfred Eisenstaedt’s V-J Day in Times Square photo never appeared on the cover of LIFE. It was initially featured on a full page interior spread of the August 27 issue of LIFE, and appeared inside the magazine on 4 other occasions.
Copyright was registered in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s name, although as a work-for-hire, LIFE magazine’s parent company, Time, Inc. retained legal ownership of the image.
Today, responsibility for defending the creator’s rights to the captivating photo which Alfred Eisenstaedt considered his masterwork, lies with The Meredith Corporation, which could, at any time in the next 19 years, choose to fulfill its obligation under the U.S. Constitution to uphold the copyright to one of the most famous, and treasured, photographs in American history.