On August 14, 1945, 21-year-old dental assistant Greta Zimmer Friedman joined a rejoicing crowd in New York City’s Time Square to celebrate the end of World War II. Shortly thereafter, sailor George Mendonsa approached and, with great theatrics, kissed her on her lips. Alfred Eisenstaedt caught the moment with his camera, and the resulting photograph has since become one of the most iconic images in American history. Today, Friedman, paradoxically famous and obscured, passed away in Richmond, Virginia.
ABC News reports that Friedman, who was 92, died “from complications of old age” in a Richmond hospital.
The picture, known as “The Kiss,” is admired for its seeming depiction of passion born from patriotic fervor. But over the years Friedman has explained that the circumstances were anything but romantic. For one thing, she and Mendonsa were strangers, and the kiss was wholly unexpected.
“It wasn’t that much of a kiss,” Friedman remarked in 2005 during an interview with the Veterans History Project. “It was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event.”
For Mendonsa, “celebrating” apparently meant skipping away from his future wife, nurse Ruth Petry, and planting a kiss on a woman who didn’t know him and by all accounts did not ask to be kissed. Lucky for him that Friedman and Petry were both so tolerant of the behavior. (Apparently Petry is even smiling in the background.)
By V-J Day Friedman had been living in the United States for roughly six years, after fleeing Austria at age 15. Both her parents are believed to have been killed in the Holocaust. Friedman’s husband, Dr. Misha Friedman, is buried in Arlington Cemetery, and she will join him there.
The photograph was first published in Life magazine and wasn’t immediately featured on the cover, or even in the opening pages. But it gradually gained notoriety and, ultimately, popularity. (You may have spotted it on many a college dorm room wall, next to Audrey Hepburn or Bob Marley.) And because the faces of both Mendonsa and Friedman are obscured, many people have claimed to be the anonymous subjects.
Even CBS, in their news brief, refrains from definitively stating that Friedman is the woman in the photo. Perhaps the illusion of ambiguity preserves the romance.