70 Years After V-J Day: The Story Behind the Longest Kiss

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In the 70 years since a sailor and a nurse were photographed locking lips in Times Square—an iconic moment between two strangers celebrating the end of World War II—dozens of men and women have claimed to be the kissers. The story has all the makings of a Nicholas Sparks novel, except that it’s missing an ending: We still don’t know the kissers’ identities, and, barring the discovery of a message in a bottle, a Dear John or, you know, a notebook, we may never know. To solve this alluring mystery, forensic artists have scrutinized every glint and shadow in the photograph and sifted through hours of witness testimony. When all the evidence is taken together, the list of legitimate candidates narrows to two for the sailor and two for the nurse.

Edith Shain’s Story

On August 14, 1945, Edith Shain was working as a nurse in downtown New York City. When she heard the news of Japan’s surrender on the radio, she waited until the end of her shift and then booked it to Times Square to catch the celebration. As she emerged from the subway, a black-clad sailor with a distinctive widow’s peak planted one firmly on her mouth. Swept up by the moment, she submitted, as two photographers snapped away. (Victor Jorgensen’s photo, below, ran in The New York Times the next day; Alfred Eisenstaedt’s, the more famous of the two, was published a week later in Life magazine.) As soon as it was over, the mysterious Man in Black disappeared down a subway entrance.

Shain first came forward as the nurse in a 1979 letter to Eisenstaedt. “Dear Mr. Eisenstaedt,” she wrote, “now that I’m 60—it’s fun to admit that I’m the nurse in your famous shot.” For three decades, all the way up until her death in 2010, Shain’s account seemed irrefutable. More recent scrutiny, however, throws doubt on her story: Standing at four feet 10 inches, Shain is much too short, relative to details in the photo’s background, to have been the Woman in White.

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

George Mendonsa’s Story

Around one p.m., as George Mendonsa was watching a film with his girlfriend at Radio City Music Hall, someone outside pounded on the doors and announced that Japan had surrendered. The audience poured into the streets and began merrymaking. Mendonsa made a little too merry. “I remember seeing this nurse approaching on my left. I didn’t think about it…I grabbed the nurse. I thought nothing of it.” Despite his girlfriend standing a few feet away, the sozzled sailor bent the woman over backward and laid one on her.

In October 1980, one year after Shain came forward as the nurse in the photo, Life magazine ran an article investigating 11 men and three women (including Shain) claiming to be the famous kissers. Mendonsa was one of them. In 1987 he doubled-down and sued Time Inc., the owners of Life, for using his photograph without permission way back in 1945. The lawsuit was dismissed. In 2005 Mendonsa’s claims were apparently confirmed by a team of volunteers from the Naval War College, who compared Mendonsa’s scars and tattoos with those of the man in the photograph and found that they matched up.

Greta Friedman’s Story

On V-J Day, Greta Friedman was employed not as a nurse but as a dental assistant; in that era it was customary for female assistants to wear a white nurse’s uniform. She was on her lunch break, at around two p.m., when she heard a rumor of Japan’s surrender. She walked briskly to Times Square to check the news scrolling along The New York Times Building. Suddenly: “This sailor grabbed me, and I don’t know how many seconds he held onto me, but the photographer, he just made the best of his opportunity.”

VJ_Day_connects_sideFriedman’s account ran along with 13 others in the October 1980 issue of Life. When the claimants were called in for a photo shoot, George Mendonsa recognized Friedman immediately as the Woman in White. But the chronology of their account doesn’t quite hold up. In 2015 a team of astronomers and researchers in Texas studied the shadows in the photograph, as well as the clock in the O of the “BOND” sign (seen more clearly in the Eisenstaedt photo). They concluded that the photo had been taken at roughly 5:51 p.m.—more than three hours after Friedman and Mendonsa were allegedly kissing in Times Square.

Glenn McDuffie’s Story

On August 14, 1945, Glenn McDuffie was on his way to visit his girlfriend in Brooklyn. He was changing trains in Manhattan when he heard the news, and he came out of the station into the heart of the celebration. “I was so happy. I ran out in the street,” said McDuffie. “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.”

McDuffie didn’t come forward publicly as the sailor until 2007. To corroborate his story, a forensic artist from the Houston Police Department had him simulate the iconic image—this time kissing a pillow instead of a woman. “I could tell just in general that yes, it’s him,” said Lois Gibson, a 25-year veteran of the forensic department. “But I wanted to be able to tell other people, so I replicated the pose.” She snapped about 100 photographs of McDuffie, meticulously analyzing his muscles, ears and facial bones. Comparing them to the 1945 photograph, Gibson stated conclusively that McDuffie was the man in the original photo.

Epilogue

The morning after V-J Day, The New York Times noted how the jubilant atmosphere in Times Square had turned “kissing [into] a popular and a public pastime”; everyone was kissing everyone. Seventy years later, the image of two of these kissers—whoever they were—has become a symbol of the joy and relief felt by a war-weary nation. The kiss lasted only 10 seconds, but, in a way, it still hasn’t ended. To quote that master of romantic mystery, Nicholas Sparks: “It wasn’t that long, and it certainly wasn’t the kind of kiss you see in movies these days, but it was wonderful in its own way.”

Feature photo courtesy of Stephanie Adams

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