May 19, 2023 | Dancy Mason

The Disturbing Story Behind One Of History's Most Famous Photos

You almost certainly know the photograph V-J Day in Times Square by Alfred Eisenstaedt. Its backstory, however, isn’t what you think.

V-J Day In Times SquareFlickr, Chic Bee

On August 14, 1945, President Harry S. Truman announced that the war with Japan was over. His message sent the ecstatic citizens of New York running to congregate in Times Square. Alfred Eisenstaedt rushed along with them, camera in hand, to document the celebrations. What he photographed—apparently a sailor and a nurse locked in an embrace—made him famous.

Yet despite this mise-en-scene, the couple in the photo aren’t lovers reuniting, and the woman isn't even a nurse. But that's just the beginning.

An Artist's Instinct

According to Eisenstaedt's version of events that day, he watched as a happy US sailor went around and smooched every woman he came across. The photographer then quickly took four snaps of the man kissing a particular woman in a white dress. After that, Eisenstaedt walked off in search of more subjects.

Eisenstaedt's quick-fire instincts about the kissing man and the white-dressed woman were good. The best of his four images of them, the photograph, landed in Life magazine a week later and transformed into a cultural icon overnight. Yet with this fame came a lingering question: Just who were that man and that woman?  This is where it gets really interesting.

Four Sides To Every Story

When Life ran the photograph, it included a plea for the subjects to identify themselves. After all, their position in the photo obscures both their faces, and Eisenstaedt never stopped to get their information. Surprisingly, no one came forward at the time. But over the next decades, multiple people began to claim they were either one of the subjects.

Each of them had their own particular memories of the event and reasons for being at Times Square when Eisenstaedt took the photo. Each of them didn't quite fit. Except, that is, for one.

The Man Himself

In 2007, a man named Glenn McDuffie came forward as the photo's sailor. Though many had before, this time was different: Experts examined McDuffie's facial features and confirmed they matched. If that weren't enough, he took no fewer than five polygraph tests to prove it was indeed him.

According to McDuffie, that evening he was traveling through the subway to visit his girlfriend when he saw everyone celebrating the victory over Japan when he came out at Times Square. McDuffie's own brother was a POW in a Japanese camp, and the young man was over the moon at the news.

McDuffie claims that, in the middle of all this, he saw a "nurse" open her arms to him. Reciprocating, he went over and planted one on her. More than that, McDuffie remembers seeing Eisenstaedt angling for a photo of the two of them, so, "kissed her as long as took for him to take it." But what of this woman? Well, she comes with a big plot twist.

V-J Day In Times SquarsWikimedia Commons Kissing the War Goodbye by Victor Jorgensen, a similar angle of the same scene

Calling Jane Doe

All the way back in the 1960s, a woman named Greta Zimmer Friedman happened upon V-J Day in Times Square and immediately recognized that she was the "nurse" in the piece. Except Friedman wasn't a nurse at all. She was a dental hygienist, and only wore a uniform similar to a nurse. She had just left her office to see what all the commotion was about in Times Square when a sailor came up and kissed her.

Despite writing to Life right after her realization, it took until the 1980s for the magazine to write her back. Even then, Friedman had to contest with other claimants until further research and more facial analysis in the 2000s proved beyond a shadow of (much) doubt that it was her. But there's one more thing.

While McDuffie claimed Friedman seemed to welcome his embrace, she remembered it as something much different. Friedman recalled that the sailor "just came over and kissed or grabbed," her, mistakenly thinking she was a nurse, and that "It wasn't my choice to be kissed." She insisted, "it wasn't a romantic event."

A picture really does say 1,000 words.

Sources:  1, 2

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