Making a Connection With a 1944 Eisenstaedt Photo

1

August 14, 1945, VJ Day, the day Japan surrendered in World War II, is probably one of the most historic days for our nation. We were at least for a moment at peace. Word spread through the streets and people rushed out to celebrate. Whether or not anyone was aware of the looming cold war probably didn’t matter much at that second. Whatever was to come was unimportant on August 14, 1945. This was a day Americans had been yearning for for almost five years and it had suddenly come; it was simply a time to be joyful.

Eisenstadt HImself Having A Little Fun WIth His Photo on VJ Day

Alfred Eisenstaedt Himself Having a Little Fun With His Photo on VJ Day (Shrout / LIFE)

The photo that has come to epitomize the day is that of the sailor kissing the nurse as taken by esteemed LIFE magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt. While the picture itself is considered iconic, it also inspired a great photographic mystery: who is really in the photo? Since Eisenstaedt didn’t get the names of the kissers, it was not documented. Anyone could come forth and make a claim to be in the picture. As a result, at least three different women and 11 different men have at one time or another made seemingly legitimate claims to be one of the two in the photo.

In 2005, the Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories (MERL) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, extensively examined the height, weight, and facial features of the sailor and nurse to make the determination that it was at Navy Quartermaster George Mendonca kissing nurse Gretta Friedman. In 2012, the book The Kissing Sailor by George Galdorisi and Lawrence Verria was published, detailing the lives of Mendonca and Friedman.

lifecover

The April 19, 1943 LIFE Cover

Two years earlier in April 1943, Eisenstaedt had walked into Penn Station to capture a much more ominous and somber mood. He photographed men kissing their loved ones for possibly the last time as they went into service for their country during wartime. Their embraces were caught with Eisenstaedt’s always captivating photographic eye in uniquely touching and emotional images. These were people in love who did not know if they would ever be reunited to build the dream of a life together or be eternally separated and left with only thoughts of what might have been.

LIFE published five Eisenstaedt Penn Station farewell kisses in its April 19, 1943 issue. The uncredited article in the piece stating “neither Eisenstaedt or his candid camera were noticed as they recorded these little dramas of women saying goodby (sic) to the men they love.” The issue also included shots of nurses, mothers, and women in the service as they, too, waited for trains with nervous, pensive expressions on their faces.

lifegoesback1

February 14, 1944 LIFE (1)

LIFE sent Eisenstaedt back to Penn Station for another set of photos which were published in its February 14, 1944 issue. Whether it was because of the Valentines Day date, or just because romantic shots seemed most compelling, this issue included 19 shots of couples embracing in emotional goodbyes. This series was titled “Life Goes Back to Pennsylvania Station” and it explained that “Boys and Girls say their tender, sad goodbys, (sic) unmindful of their part in a great, familiar drama.”

In the end that was all there seemingly was to this story. We have the legacy of these touching photos, but we also do not know what happened to these people after the pictures were taken. Like the VJ day photo, we have a photographic mystery. The suspense and uncertainty that we see in the couple’s expressions still hang over us because we do not know what their endings were.

1944eisenstadt2

February 14, 1944 LIFE (2)

It was with that in mind that I decided to find out what happened to at least one of the people in these photos. I didn’t have much information–of the 24 pairs pictured in both issues, only five couples’ names are provided in the text. This is probably because as the first issue stated, the photographer went virtually unnoticed. And so it was with the five sets of names that I set out on my search.

penneis1944

Unidentified couple, Penn Station 1944

From the beginning, I could not find any trace at all of three sets of the names–nothing in any census or any database at all. Who knows if these three gave Eisenstaedt their real names and if he wrote them down correctly. I did get a match on a fourth set but the trail ended with a Queens death record from 1985 and a corresponding one-line obituary in The New York Times that did not mention any surviving family. And so I was only left with names from number five. I found a matching last name in a phone listing in New Jersey of a sailor shown on the second page of the 1944 series. I made a call and it was returned. It was this sailor’s younger brother, who was happy to speak with me about his sibling; I had made a connection at last.

I now know that the sailor did return from the war, that he settled down in New Jersey and raised three children with his wife. He had a successful career working mostly for the Port Authority and worked in of all places, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. He lived into his 70s and passed away in 1998. He did not marry the woman with whom he is pictured in the photo, but a woman he had known since childhood. I have since met his wife and spoke with her about her husband’s life. I was able to put the pieces of his life story together, and I’ll provide that story in an upcoming piece.

About these ads
Leave a comment

4 Comments

  1. Mike

     /  August 14, 2013

    Great, well-researched story!

    Reply
  2. This is wonderful, and just the kind of “history detective” human interest stuff that captivates me, and that I occasionally pursue myself (tho not on such a grand scale as this!)

    Reply
  3. Scott Berkun

     /  August 29, 2013

    Good essay. Really enjoyed it.

    The wikiipedia article on the original photo does offer some names. What do you think of their conclusions? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V-J_Day_in_Times_Square

    They claim George Mendonça was the man in the original photo, but given your research I wondered what you thought of the quality of this claim.

    Reply
  4. I think most people on the scholarly end are going to nowadays accept that Mendonca and Friedman are accurate as being the two in the photo. We have to trust that the Mitsubushi Electric folks know what they are talking about when they say they examined the height and facial features of the two in the photo and that it is them..For the sake of science it would be good for someone else come forth and examine Mitsubishi’s claims and make sure they are in fact as truly accurate as they say they are..

    Edith Shain who gained semi-celebrity status because she claimed and was often recognized to be the woman in the photo before the study came out, went to her grave believing it was her in the photo, and maybe it was better that way, but it would have been interesting had she been around so we could have seen what she might have said to refute the study.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 406 other followers

%d bloggers like this: