THE TIMES SQUARE KISS - AN AMERICAN MYSTERY
August 14th 1945. The Japanese have surrendered, World War 2 has ended, America erupts into the wildest of celebrations. The nation takes to the streets in joy and relief, knowing their boys fighting overseas are now safe. After years of worry, fear and anguish, it's time to let loose. August 14th 1945. The day America blew the lid off its pressure cooker.
And in the giddy chaos of Times Square, New York, a young US sailor grabs a nurse in white uniform, kisses her squarely on the lips. Time Life photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt captures the moment. It becomes one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century. It becomes history; perfectly capturing the sense of unbridled euphoria that erupted across the nation. Our sons are coming home. Life can begin again.
I first saw the photo as a boy and wondered who the sailor was, who the nurse was. Eisenstaedt didn't get their names, but in the London Evening Standard, 28th August 1987, I read that US Navy veteran, George Mendonsa, who claims to be the sailor, is suing Time Life for using his image without permission. Mendonsa's story is extraordinary, magical, packed with vivid detail. I get fascinated.
Here's George himself: "We went to Radio City Music Hall. There was pounding on the doors from outside on the street. They put the lights on and stopped the show and yelled, ‘The war is over and the Japanese have surrendered.' Everyone rushed out to celebrate. Rita and I got bombed in Child's Bar down the street. The bartenders had lined up glasses all along the bar and just kept pouring. Whatever they poured, you drank. I popped quite a few drinks. Then we walked a couple of blocks to Times Square. Another girl walked by, a nurse. The excitement of the war being over, plus I had a few drinks, so when I saw the nurse, I grabbed her and I kissed her. I grabbed the nurse because I saw what the nurses did on the hospital ships out there in the Pacific."
But as it turns out, Mendonsa was one of eleven men claiming to be that sailor, albeit one with a witness; his girlfriend and future wife Rita Petry, seen grinning in the background in Eisenstaedt's photo.
She testifies that the sailor is her George.
Enter star witness. Photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt: "In Times Square on V.J. Day I saw a sailor running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight. Whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin, old, didn't make a difference. I was running ahead of him with my Leica looking back over my shoulder but none of the pictures that were possible pleased me. Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse. If she had been dressed in a dark dress I would never have taken the picture. If the sailor had worn a white uniform, the same. I took exactly four pictures. It was done within a few seconds. Only one is right, on account of the balance. In the others the emphasis is wrong — the sailor on the left side is either too small or too tall. People tell me that when I am in heaven they will remember this picture."
Here was a meticulous man, an acute observer of detail, a silent watcher who chose his subjects carefully, methodically. He analysed, weighed up the possibilities, waited for the right moment. And when that moment arrived, he clicked the shutter. His testimony? Let's call it the Gospel.
So judging by the Gospel, was Mendonsa my man? He was my kinda guy. A war hero, who only two months earlier, while serving on board USS The Sullivans destroyer in the Pacific, had rescued dozens of badly injured seamen from shark infested waters, after two Japanese Kamikaze pilots flew their planes into the USS Bunker Hill, blowing it to smithereens. Mendonsa, as did every Allied serviceman and woman in that war, deserved our praise and thanks.
Apart from Mendonsa, all but one of the ten other sailors' claims were discounted. That one remaining claim was verified, in 2007, by Houston Police Department’s world renowned forensic artist, Lois Gibson. Eighteen year old Glenn McDuffie, who was serving onboard the Liberty Ship, SS Alexander Lillington, happened to be in Times Square that day.
Glenn gave several interviews. Here's excerpts from two of them: "I was on a subway train on VJ Day, heading to Brooklyn to see my girlfriend Ardith Bloomfield. At Times Square, this woman ran up to me and said, 'Sailor, I'm so happy for you!' I asked her why? She said the war was over. It meant my brother, prisoner in a Japanese POW camp, would be coming home. I was so happy. I ran out in the street. And then I saw that nurse. She saw me hollering and with a big smile on my face. I just went right to her and kissed her. I heard someone running and stopping right in front of us. I raised my head up, and it was a photographer. I tried to get my hand out of the way so I wouldn’t block her face, and I kissed her just long enough for him to take the picture. We never spoke a word. Afterward, I just went on the subway across the street and went to Brooklyn."
"When I got off the subway I got to the top of the stairs and the lady up there said, 'Sailor, I'm so happy for you.' I asked her why and she told me the war was over and I could go home. I ran into the street jumping and hollering. That nurse was out there and she turned around and put her arms out and that's when I kissed her. Then I heard someone running and I lifted my head and it was that photographer. It was a good kiss. It was a wet kiss. Someone asked me if it was a tongue kiss. I said, 'No tongue, but it was a nice kiss.'"
The nurse 'turned around and put her arms out''? Not according to Nursie, she didn't. Greta Zimmer Friedman was 21 years old, a Jewish refugee from Austria, who lost both her parents in the Holocaust. A dental assistant on Lexington Avenue, she'd gone to Times Square in her lunch break.
Here, let Greta tell you herself: "I went straight to Time's Square where I saw, on the lighted billboard that goes around the building, 'V-J Day, V-J Day!' Suddenly, I was grabbed by a sailor. That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me. He was just holding me tight. I'm not sure about the kiss... it was just somebody celebrating. It wasn't a romantic event. It was just an event of 'thank god the war is over."
Look at that photo again. Check out Greta's body language. No way has she opened her arms to anyone. She's been grabbed out of the blue, almost lifted off her feet, kissed. She clutches her purse tightly. Her left hand holds down her skirt defensively. No way did she see a dashing young sailor approaching. A sexual assault by today's standards? Oh, for sure. No doubt about it, but... be wary of judging the actions of others 70 years ago, in an extraordinary period of history few of us will ever live through, much less comprehend.
Or to paraphrase historical novelist, Hilary Mantel: "The essence of historical perspective is not to pass judgement from our lofty prerch in the 21st Century."
Here's Lawrence Verria, co-author of The Kissing Sailor: We need to be careful how we characterize a kiss from over 60 years ago, far removed from the day and its circumstances. Calling it a sexual assault caught on film is not accurate, but also viewing the kiss as romantic as it's often characterized is not accurate. It's a celebration of a war's victorious end."
And in case you're still not convinced, check out this photo, taken in Times Sq that same afternoon.
Now, if your sensibilities are deeply offended by by this image, I suggest you head straight to Emergency Trauma at your local hospital. Tell them you're so outraged, you'll probably not survive the night. They'll put you on Life Support. I mean, that's what being offended does to people. Doesn't it?
Greta herself is pretty cool about the whole thing: "I can't think of anybody who considered that as an assault. It was a happy event. There is just no way that there was anything bad about it. It was all good news, the best news we'd had for a number of years."
In fact 'Kissing the Soldier / Sailor / Airman' was encouraged by media photographers during World War 2. It was viewed as a positive, uplifting image, a great morale booster. Lois Gibson even refers to Glenn raising his arm, so as not to block Greta's face in the photo, as 'chivalrous'. Eh, that's pushing it now, Lois...
In 1980, Life Magazine ran an article featuring all those who'd claimed to be the sailor or the nurse. It also got George and Greta together in Times Square. They didn't kiss. By all accounts it was an awkward 'reunion'. Alfred Eisenstadt photographed the occasion.
OK, so Greta is definitely the nurse. But the sailor? George? Big man, John Wayne persona. I could easily see him as the swaggering, drunken sailor. But would a guy, however happy and drunk, grab and kiss every woman in sight, according to the Gospel, while his girlfriend, on their first date together, tags happily along, thinking to herself, 'Wow! I gotta marry this dude!'? George, by his own admission, was plastered drunk. He probably did kiss a nurse, yet he's also claimed he was so drunk, he couldn't remember kissing anyone. So where does that leave him? Still a war hero to me.
Christmas 2015, I phone the big man. We chat for a while, then I say, "So tell me George, are you really the sailor who kissed that nurse?"
"Well, no one's yet convinced me I ain't," he booms down the phone. I loved him for that.
Now I know Lois Gibson claims Glenn is the 'forensic match', but his story? Never bought it. Not for an instant. It bothered me, because as sure as he could have been the sailor, his story's a load of bollox. It's claimed he passed ten lie detector tests, but did anyone ever question him about the nurse 'turning around, holding out her arms' to him, when it's clear from the photo, she did no such thing? Or him 'grabbing every woman in sight, young and old', according to Alfred Eisenstadt, before he finally gets to Greta? Or him exiting 'the Subway across the street and seeing the pretty nurse' when 42nd Street Subway Station is three blocks south from where the photo was taken? Seriously, what questions did they actually ask the man? "OK Glenn, this one's a toughie. Now, what did you have for breakfast? Take your time. Think carefully now... Eggs is the right answer! Congratulations! You've passed!"
Time to look at the photo again. See those two sailors on the left? Grinning like Cheshire cats, they are. Turns out they and Glenn are buddies. Close buddies, as in, 'Ahoy there me hearties!' Sailor boy in the dark uniform is Jack Holmes from Pittsburg, who served on...? Have a guess... You got it! The SS Alexander Lillington. Same boat as Glenn's. My, what a coincidence you are thinking. And the boy in white? Bob Little from Buffalo, New York. Who also served on? Correct! So little Glennie was not alone in Times Square that day. He didn't leap out of a hole in the ground, into the welcoming arms of a pretty nurse.
Know what I think? I think... No... I know... Glenn, Jack and Bob went on the lash when the good news broke. They docked, they rocked, they partaaayed like every other serviceman in NYC that day. They got plastered, got up to high jinks and for a bet, for a laugh, for a dare, our Glenn, pissed as a rat, egged on by Jack and Bob, starts grabbing and kissing every woman in sight. Which is where camera wielding Alfred comes in, clocks Glenn, waits for the right moment. That iconic photo now takes on a whole new meaning, does it not?
Of course Glenn's testimony refutes that version of events. Let's not beat about the bush here. Glenn lied about the Kiss. Lied his wee socks off. He paints a right Fairytale of New York; the devoted boyfriend, who, on his way to see his new girl, leaps out of the Subway, a-jumpin' and a-hollerin' like some crazed Cowpoke, gets a 'Phwoarr! Givvus a kiss sailor!' come-on from a pretty nurse, happily obliges, then scuttles back down the Subway like a little mole, leaving his two shipmates, who, of all the Times Squares in all the world, just happen to be standing a few feet from him and just happen to get included in one of the most famous photos of the 20th century.
So why did Glenn change his story? Simple. He got embarrassed by what he'd done. Perhaps even ashamed that he'd gone on a bender and started grabbing women left, right and centre. Waking up the next morning, head like Mount Rushmore, thinking, 'Oh no. Oh God, did I really do that?' Definitely not the sort of thing you'd want your children to know about, eh?
So when, in 2007, our Glenn gets hailed, as 'the real sailor, the real deal, no argument!' he'd been a long time grown up. He'd married, had kids. A respectable family man, who didn't want his family or the world to know about his drunken exploits 60 odd years before. So he badly needed a good story, a 'nice' story in place of his real story. A wholesome, folksy, Jimmy Stewarty, "Aw shucks Harriet, I brung you some flowers" kind of story. So he invents one. Invents that, 'Well I was just on my way to see my dear little blossom of a girlfriend, when suddenly...'
Glenn Mc Duffie. Gotta love him. I prefer the real Glenn to the pretendy, pious boyfriend he created. And another thing. How come so many US Navy veterans claimed to be that sailor? And two other women besides Greta, claimed to be the nurse? Well, a whole lotta kissing went on in Times Square that day.
There was certainly a whole lotta drinking. Probably a good few punches thrown too. Happens when Army, Navy & Air Force drink together.
A whole lotta fuzzy, blurry heads the next morning. A good few black eyes and swollen faces, I'd say. A lotta mixed up facts. Over to you Greta:
"We established that many ladies were kissed by sailors that day in celebration of the war ending. These other ladies, and sailors may all have been in Time's Square on V-J Day, and kissed... but the photo that Albert Eisenstaedt took was of Greta Friedman and George Mendonsa. I looked again at the LIFE magazine with the photos of the various men who claimed to be the sailor. Maybe all these people were at Times Square kissing pretty ladies?"
I love Greta. I love her calm, quiet dignity. Her aloofness from the event, while being inextricably bound within it. And Glenn? And George? Love 'em both. Both men deserve credit, gratitude, admiration. As does every Allied serviceman and woman who risked their lives during the War.
So who's the sailor? George? Glen? Strong evidence for either, but in the final analysis, does it really matter? To me, they're two war heroes whose lives glided through one another on that mad August afternoon. They may even have bumped shoulders in that crazed, happy crowd.
No, in the end, it doesn't matter. Best to leave it as an unsolved American mystery. Mysteries are far more fascinating than facts. Wouldn't you agree?
So there you have it. The Times Square Kiss. An enduring American mystery. One gloriously happy event on the day World War 2 ended.
This has been Paul Bowen, Irish musician... and on this occasion, Irish detective.
© 2023 Paul Bowen