When World War II finally came to a close on August 14, 1945, Americans all over the country took to the streets to celebrate the end of a long and brutal war. All the outpourings of relief and happiness seemed to be summed up by Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photograph of a sailor kissing a woman in a white dress in the middle of Times Square. The woman in the photograph was named Greta Zimmer Friedman. Her family announced that she died earlier this month at the age of 92.
The photo was originally published a week after what became known as “Victory in Japan,” or “V-J Day” as a full-page spread in Life magazine, securing Eisenstaedt’s fame and cementing it as an iconic image. However, for years, the identities of the two people went unknown, Sarah Cascone reports for artnet News. Eisenstaedt didn’t get identification from his subjects at the time, and over the years several women came forward claiming that they were the recipient of the famous kiss. However, when Friedman first saw the photograph in the 1960s, she says she instantly knew it was her.
“It's exactly my figure, and what I wore, and my hair-do especially,” Friedman told Patricia Redmond in an interview for the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project in 2005. “I sent them some photographs. Time went by, and in 1980 LIFE Magazine contacted me and I brought the picture, and Mr. Eisenstaedt signed it and he apologized.”
At the time, Friedman was working as a dental assistant in an office in Times Square. She had stepped outside to see what all the commotion was when she suddenly found herself in sailor George Mendonsa’s embrace. But while many people have interpreted the photo as a loving kiss, Friedman’s account tells a very different story.
“I felt that he was very strong. He was just holding me tight. I'm not sure about the kiss... it was just somebody celebrating,” Friedman told Redmond. "It wasn't a romantic event. It was just an event of 'thank god the war is over.'”
In the years since, the moment has been reinterpreted based off of Friedman’s account and a closer examination of the photograph, which appears more forceful than affectionate. Some have called it documentation of a sexual assault, and while Friedman reportedly did not view it that way, she understood that reading of the moment, Eli Rosenberg reports for the New York Times.
“It wasn't my choice to be kissed,” Friedman told Redmond. “The guy just came over and grabbed!”
Friedman and Mendonsa’s story might have been made famous by Eisenstaedt’s photograph, but this sort of spontaneous celebration was pretty common. In large cities people flooded the streets, while others celebrated in quieter ways, like filling up their cars with extra gas or bringing home a case of soda for their kids, as readers told Smithsonian Magazine in 2005. For still others, the end of the war brought fear that their jobs might disappear, or that loved ones still might not return from the fighting. Friedman’s account just goes to show how feelings around the end of the war were often much more complicated than it might seem looking back at it now.