The Kissing Sailor and what really happened that day

In the early 1980′s I was enjoying a nice party in the Soho District of Manhattan.  The setting was someone’s loft design with an interior second floor overlooking a larger first floor.  There were many interesting and famous artists there.

Including Alfred Eisenstaedt, the photographer who caught on film a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-J Day.

I joined his little group, where he was happily recounting the event.  I could tell it was a story he’d told many times before.

He was dressed well.  Almost as if his apparel were designer quality.  His hair was perfect.

As was the way he told his story.  He was standing in Times Square, looking for some moment to photograph that would capture the exuberance of the day.  World War II was over.  We’d won.  Our men and women who’d served were coming home.

From a distance he could see a sailor approaching.  This sailor, more than any other person in Times Square that day, was walking with a little kick to his step.  By his walk, and facial expression, Eisenstaedt could tell this sailor was a little drunk.  Because of the day, this sailor had every right to be.

Eisenstaedt also saw the nurse standing several feet in front of the direction this sailor was walking.  He could see that his sailor had noticed this nurse.  The nurse was completely oblivious of the sailor approaching.  She was looking in a totally other direction.  Presumably waiting for someone – perhaps her boyfriend, or husband?

Eisenstaedt, sensing a moment about to happen, raised his camera.  Expecting ‘something’, he began to click.  He took photo after photo, capturing the sailor approaching, reaching to hold this nurse, taking her in his arms, bending her over, and giving her a kiss.

“And that’s how I got that picture!” he happily concluded his memory to all of us standing around him that evening at that party in someone’s loft in New York’s Soho District.

I could tell he was proud.  That photo was a career changer for him.  A lucky break.

I’ve seen this image, as have so many others, many times during my life.  Yet, with me, it has always left a “yucky” feeling.  If I had been this nurse’s boyfriend or husband happily looking forward to seeing the one who filled my heart, I would not have wanted to hear about, much less see, another man planting a big kiss on her.  It would have spoiled her lips, for me.

I’ve also thought that this woman, who served taking care of our armed forces, did not willingly give up her lips that day to some drunken stranger.  If this had been any other setting, a street anywhere in the U.S., where a drunk came up, grabbed a young woman, held her tight and forced a kiss on her, charges would have been pressed.  Today, and even back then.

In the Florida city where I now live there is an oversized statue of this moment.  It is very popular as a setting for photographs.  Romantics and war veterans, among others, use it as a backdrop.  I also notice many people try to look up the skirt of this statue of the nurse.  Her image, still today, is being sexually taken advantage of.  In a manner, mocked.

It would be difficult, based on how strangers presently treat her image, to say that what that sailor did on that day back then was isolated and cannot be condemned by today’s standards, when people still today use this nurse for a moment’s sexual thrill, when she’s not looking.

Also at this party was the photographer Andreas Feininger, accompanied by his very sweet and charming wife.  I found him to be so fascinating, as he spent considerable time at this party speaking with just me.  He shared about his early beginnings.  How he had worked as a young architect for Le Corbusier in Paris – who was my personal idol when I studied architecture.  How he’d built his very first camera by hand, and so much more.  He and his wife, though infinitely more famous than most other artists there that evening, were also so humble, and delightful.

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