Collective euphoria? Or pardonable sexual assault? I say ‘pardonable’ since you can see even the other women in the image smiling. (Pic courtesy: Life Magazine)
On the morning of Aug. 14, 1945, 21-year-old Greta Zimmer reported to work as a dental assistant and nurse on Lexington Ave, New York City.
All morning, Greta had been hearing rumors that the Japanese had surrendered after being hammered by those two atomic bombs, ending World War II. And then the announcement came over the radio and businesses across New York (and in fact all over America and the world) downed their shutters and countless men and women spilled into the streets in a giddy and chaotic release – a cathartic revelry that gave vent to the pent-up anxieties, fears, sorrows of not only the six years of brutal warfare but also the bottled up anger of the previous three decades of economic meltdown that the Great Depression had brought.
Greta Zimmer’s joy was sobered by her past – she had landed in America as a Jewish refugee who escaped Austria in the nick of time in 1938, leaving her parents behind. As of that euphoric day in the photo, she hadn’t heard from them and presumed they didn’t survive. Nevertheless she took off and for an hour, simply wandered aimlessly west toward Time Square, which was – as it is even now – the go to place for spontaneous celebrations.
At the very moment when Greta Zimmer was wandering into Time Square, 21-year old US Navy Ensign, George Mendosa was inside a cinema with his date, Rita, watching a war movie with Robert Mitchum in it. All of a sudden the show was halted and the lights came on and over the theater’s PA system came the announcement that the war had ended. Those inside the theater, George and Rita included, sprang up and rushed out into the street.
They couldn’t find a bar that wasn’t jam-packed, so the couple decided to simply mingle into the crowds that meandered around Time Square and just soak up the historic moment. George had been enjoying the last few days of his shore leave and now he was overjoyed that he wouldn’t be redeployed in the Pacific.
If you were a woman on Broadway or Times Square that day, chances were good that you too would be scooped up and kissed by random strangers and most likely you wouldn’t mind it even a bit. Still, Greta Zimmer was shocked when she suddenly found herself jostled and then before she could gather her wits, grabbed and kissed by a brawny young man in a sailor’s uniform, George Mendosa.
Every man was kissing every woman, so George’s date, Rita, wasn’t even a bit ruffled when he scooped Greta up and gave her a huge sloppy kiss. In fact if you check out the photo closely, that’s Rita, visible over George’s right arm, with a grin on her face.
I am sure the feeling among most women in America that day must have been one of gratitude, like they owed the men in uniform a debt. Letting themselves be grabbed and kissed (aka sexually assaulted) was seen by them as a gesture of that appreciation perhaps.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the two kissers, noted Life Magazine photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt, had captured the moment. The photo was published a few weeks later but both, Zimmer and Mendonsa, would go decades without knowing about “the photo that ended the Second World War” and of their newfound status as icons.
The sailor kissing nurse photo has since spread around the world, as an iconic representation of the power of collective euphoria. I recall feeling that feeling once, in 1983, when India won the cricket World Cup. The whole city of Pune had gathered on the Lakdi Pul and girls were letting themselves be squeezed and cuddled openly, by total strangers. Of course, straight-laced as I am, I found all that open rub-a-dub very very gross.
Historic moments seem to bring out the basest bacchanalian instincts in us humans. I am sure that would hold for even impending events of historic proportions. Like for instance, just suppose an asteroid, the size of ten city blocks, was a week away from wiping out all life on earth and any hope that it would pass us by had evaporated. I am certain you would be able to walk out into the streets and make love to just about anybody right then and there, wouldn’t you?
Rita and George later married and stayed that way until 2012, when George passed on, at 90. Greta meanwhile lived to be 92, passing away in September 2016. Folks who knew both are unanimous that they lived happy and healthy lives.
But don’t get carried away thinking the moral of the story is – ‘grab and kiss any random woman and you’ll live a happy and healthy life’. It works only if there’s been a World War and your side won or the world is coming to an end. Other times you’ll end up with a slap across your cheek and a knee in the nuts.