Obituary: Greta Friedman
Austrian-born 'nurse' who featured in famous VJ Day kiss photograph
Published 18/09/2016 | 02:30
Greta Friedman, who has died aged 92, became part of one of the most evocative images of the Second World War when, as a young dental assistant in nurse's uniform on August 14 1945, she was photographed being swooped down on and kissed by a sailor in Times Square, New York.
The Life magazine photograph, which caught the euphoria of VJ Day and the war's end, was taken by the great photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt with his Leica 35mm camera and published a fortnight later.
The sailor in the picture is now thought to have been George Mendonsa, who was on leave from the Navy after serving two years in the Pacific and had been having a drink with his girlfriend, as thousands thronged Times Square to celebrate the spreading news that Japan had surrendered.
"I saw this nurse coming down," Mendonsa told an interviewer in 2015. "The war is over. The excitement of the war, and the drinking - and when I see the nurse, I grabbed her."
Greta Friedman did not see the photograph until the 1960s. Although her face is obscured by the sailor's left arm, she recognised her hair and outfit straight away. But Eisenstaedt had not taken the names of his subjects, and there were many other claimants, notably a kindergarten teacher called Edith Shain.
She died in 2010, and in 2012 in The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II, the authors Lawrence Verria and George Galdorisi claimed to have established after exhaustive study of the details and circumstances that Greta Friedman and Mendonsa were indeed the "nurse" and the sailor in the famous photograph.
Greta was 21 at the time and taking a lunch break from her job in a Manhattan dental surgery.
The kiss was not "a romantic event", she would remember in 2005, in an interview recorded for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project: "I went straight to Times Square, where I saw on the lighted billboard that goes around the building: 'VJ Day, VJ Day!…
"Suddenly, I was grabbed by a sailor. It wasn't that much of a kiss. It was more of a jubilant act that he didn't have to go back… to the Pacific… 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."
She was born Greta Zimmer on June 5, 1924, at Wiener Neustadt, Austria. As war loomed, her parents, Max Zimmer, who owned a clothes shop, and Ida, sent her and two sisters to America (her other sister went to Palestine). Max and Ida Zimmer are thought to have perished in the Holocaust.
Greta arrived first in New York and in 1956 married Mischa Friedman, a US Army scientist, and moved to Maryland. Having studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, she designed dolls' clothes for the toy industry, and then in 1981 took an arts degree from Hood College in her home town of Frederick. She also painted, and restored books.
Talking of her notoriety, she said: "The fame belongs to the photographer. He provided an art… I just happened to be there."
In the book Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt (1985), Eisenstaedt explained that the bright white of Greta Friedman's nurse's uniform, contrasting with the sailor's, was what had prompted him to take the photograph: "If she had been dressed in a dark dress I would never have taken the picture."
Greta Friedman's husband predeceased her and she is survived by her son and daughter. She died on September 8.