explainer

The true story behind one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century.

As throngs of people danced around him on August 14, 1945 – the day the Allies declared victory in Japan – photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt raised his camera. Through his lens, framed among the pulsing crowds in New York’s Times Square, he saw a moment in time. Complete strangers, a man and woman, locked in an embrace.

Alfred’s shutter clicked four times in a matter of seconds. But among those four shots, was an image that would ultimately become one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century. The Kiss.

Caught up in the jubilant chaos, Alfred never took the couple’s names or asked where they were from. And in the decades since the photograph was famously published by LIFE magazine, many men have come forward claiming to be the amorous soldier. But after extensive expert analysis, most of those who have studied the image settled on one: First Class naval officer George Mendonsa.

George, a Rhode Island man, died on Sunday at his assisted living facility. He was 95.

The truth behind The Kiss.

George was on a first date the evening of The Kiss. On leave from service, he’d taken Rita Petrie to a show at Radio City Music Hall when the news broke. Speaking to CBS, George recalled that the show was interrupted for the announcement: “The war is over. The Japanese have surrendered.”

Like countless others, George and Rita went to a bar to celebrate and later spilled out onto the streets to share in the joy.

George Mendonsa with his famous photograph in 2009. Image: AP
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It was then he saw a woman nearby in a white nurse's uniform. During an address to Rhode Island State House in 2015, he explained that his mind leapt back to the nurses who had cared for the sick and wounded during his tour.

"We had the wounded on my ship and we put the wounded on the hospital ship. I saw what those nurses did that day, and now back in Times Square the war ends, [I'd had] a few drinks, so I grabbed the nurse," he said, according to WPRI-TV.

He put his arm around her, dipped her, and kissed her.

For the woman he embraced, a dental nurse named Greta Zimmer Freidman, it was somewhat of a shock.

"It wasn't my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and kissed or grabbed [me]," she said in a 2005 interview with the US Library of Congress.

Given Friedman's account, there are many who question whether the photograph ought to be romanticised in the way that it is, with some arguing its popularity demonstrates a selective blindness to sexual assault.

Friedman, who died in 2016, never used those words, but she acknowledged that people seem to ascribe more magic to the moment than she felt: "It wasn't that much of a kiss, it was more of a jubilant act that he didn't have to go back," she said. "It was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event."

In fact, in another photographer's image of the same moment, George's date, Rita, can be seen watching on (see left of frame in featured image). "Either I was dopey or something, but it didn't bother me!" she told CBS. In fact, she and George later married, and remained so for 70 years until his death on February 17.

According to The Providence Journal, the father of two suffered a seizure after a fall. He is survived by Rita, their two children, and a split-second moment in time, forever immortalised in black and white.

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