Greta Zimmer Friedman, who died of pneumonia Thursday at the age of 92, was an unsuspecting 21-year-old dental assistant on a lunch break in Times Square during V-J Day in 1945 when she says she was suddenly swept into the arms of a sailor and into one of history’s most famous photographs.
Throughout the morning of August 14, 1945, Greta Zimmer had heard the rumors circulating New York City. Japan had accepted the Allied terms for surrender. The world war that had torn her family apart was finally over.
The 21-year-old dental assistant hoped that the reports of Japan’s surrender that had been broadcast over Tokyo radio were indeed true. Six years earlier, as the Nazis tightened their grip on her homeland of Austria, Zimmer’s parents had sent her and two of her sisters to safety in the United States and another sister to the British mandate of Palestine. Zimmer’s parents were due to follow closely behind, but she had not seen them since. Zimmer may have had suspicions about their ultimate fate, but she had no way of knowing on that day in August 1945 that her parents had died in the Holocaust.
When her lunch hour arrived, Zimmer’s only hunger was for news about the war. She took off her white cap, revealing her braided hair, and stepped out from the Lexington Avenue dental office clad in an all-white outfit that resembled a nurse’s uniform. Zimmer joined tens of thousands of other New Yorkers who had been pouring into Times Square to keep watch on the headlines scrolling across the electronic news ticker that wrapped around the exterior of the New York Times Tower.
Crowds had been gathering in Times Square since well before dawn when the first reports of Japan’s possible surrender had been broadcast. “Tokyo Announces Japanese Government Has Accepted Allied Surrender Ultimatum” read the message scrolling along the Times Square news ribbon. New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia had taken to the radio airwaves requesting the city remain calm until the announcement of a formal proclamation, which President Harry Truman eventually delivered that evening, but the revelers in Times Square were getting an early jump on the celebration.
The scene in Times Square was like New Year’s Eve, Zimmer thought, only better. Smiles matched the wattage of the blinking lights on theater marquees. Cars crawling down 42nd Street honked their horns as vendors blew the whistles they were peddling. Papers tossed out of skyscraper windows rained down on young boys carrying placards that read “Hang the Emperor!” With traffic on Broadway shut down, those sailors not packed four and five deep into nearby bars danced in the middle of the street. “In Times Square and in near-by bars kissing became a popular and public pastime,” reported the New York Times. “It was evident that formal introductions were definitely non-essential.”
As Zimmer navigated through the jubilant crowd, a sailor in a white hat and navy blue uniform suddenly grabbed her, dipped her backwards and planted a kiss on her lips. “It wasn’t that much of a kiss. It was more of a jubilant act,” she told an interviewer with the Veterans History Project in 2005. “I found out later he was so happy that he didn’t have to go back to the Pacific where they had already been through the war. The reason he grabbed somebody dressed like a nurse was that he felt so very grateful to the nurses who took care of the wounded.”
Not every woman who received a spontaneous smooch in Times Square welcomed it. “They don’t ask a girl’s permission,” one woman with smeared lipstick told the New York Times, “they just grab.” Zimmer, however, was not bothered the unsolicited lip-lock. “It was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event.” It certainly wasn’t a romantic gesture on the part of the sailor, George Mendonsa. The Navy quartermaster on leave from the Pacific theater was in Times Square with his date—Rita Petry, an actual nurse who would later become his wife—after they had seen a movie at Radio City Music Hall.
Both Mendonsa and Zimmer were unaware that their kiss was being recorded for posterity by famed photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, who snapped four shots of the embrace. (Petry could be seen smiling in the background of several angles.) The photograph titled “V-J Day in Times Square,” but more popularly known as “The Kiss,” was published in the August 27 issue of Life magazine and quickly became one of the most recognizable images of the 20th century.
Eisenstaedt had never asked the couple in the photograph for their names, and their identities remained a mystery for decades. In 1956, Zimmer married Dr. Mischa Friedman, a U.S. Army scientist she had met while acting in a summer theater, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that she saw the iconic image while leafing through a book called “The Eye of Eisenstaedt” and recognized herself in it. “It’s exactly my figure and what I wore, and my hair-do especially,” she told the Veterans History Project. “I said, ‘Wait a minute…that’s me!’”
Over the decades, dozens have claimed to have been the sailor and woman in the photograph.
A 2012 book by Lawrence Verria and George Galdorisi, “The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo That Ended World War II,” presented evidence that Friedman and Mendonsa, now a 93-year-old retired fisherman living in Rhode Island, were indeed the couple in the famous snapshot.
Friedman received an arts degree from Hood College in 1981. In addition to becoming skilled at painting and silk-screen prints, the woman in one of history’s most notable photographs became a skilled photographer herself. According to the New York Daily News, Friedman had lived in an assisted care facility for the two years before her death. She will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery next to her late husband, who died in 1998.