An old photograph has come back to life. The V.J. Day Kiss, surely you know it. Times Square, Aug 15, 1945. The tall sailor. The nurse he seized and bent over backwards, one enormous arm around her tiny waist.
Talk about pictures that captured a moment: This one had it all. Looking at it, every man was the sailor, every girl the nurse bent backwards in his arms, and a war was over, all over the world. One kiss, held forever. One moment, frozen in time. And so what if no one knew their names?
Then, 35 years later, the nurse, a Mrs. Edith Shain, 62, from Beverly Hills, broke the silence. Contacted the photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt, indentified herself, and asked for a print. At Life, where the publisher keeps the picture on his wall,there was great jubilation.
Eisenstaedt, who at 81 considers this his most famous shot, was also thrilled and amazed. The mystery woman, however, was nonchalant. "Eisie was more excited when he called than I was," she said.
Shain hates to disappoint you, but being in the photo -- the great postwar national fantasy -- didn't affect her life.
She didn't know, at the time, that her picture was being taken. When she learned that it had -- months later from a friend -- she was more embarrassed than anything else. "I felt it was kind of undignified," she said, "being kessed that way, and inyour uniform. Those were the days when you weren't supposes to wear your uniform in the street." She kept her identity in the photo a secret, rarely telling anyone, because she didnht think that anyone would be interested.
Only when she turned 60 did she finally feel it might be nice to own a print, and contacted the photographer. But before then: "Lemme tell you the sun goes up, the sun down goes down.It didn't change things. It wasn't a big deal."
So how have you been doing all these years, Fantasy Nurse, since the price of film went from half a dollar to more than $2 a roll? Long time no see. Other war images more recent: the girlscreaming at Ken State; the North Vietnamese soldier getting his head blown off. Nobody sweet as you in your giddy V.J. Day clutch.
Very fine indeed. True, she's been divorced twice now -- she was a divorced mother at the time of her famous picture -- but don't worry about that. She doesn't worry aboutthat. She likes being single, she likes dating. She's glad the time has come when you don't have to get married anymore. She has a good social life. A good professional life, too: elementary school teacher, senior citizen, activist, fledgling writer. Also a grandma. But a grandma in the Beverly Hills style Stupendous body in fuchsia blouse and short white skirt and red open-toe high heels.
Now a feminist and a student of phychoanalysis, she discusses her picture in terms of Nancy Friday's book on femal sex fantasies: "Well, you know, the idea of being grabbed by a stranger and raped, they say some women like that . . ." She sees the sexist implication of her photo as well: "Oh, there's no question, that big strong sailor, the tiny passive girl." Feminism is a big issue with Sahin, who hates being called Mrs.
Sorry, sailor. What can we tell you? Only in pictures do people not change.
Shain was in New York recently at the invitation of Life. It is the 35th anniversary of her picture this month, that's why they asked her, so she went and they gave her a luncheon and she and Eisentaedt did the talk-show route.
then -- that's what they want to talk about on the talk shows, that moment in the summer of'45. It is not Shain's preferred time. Lissen , she'll tell you in that fast, gravelly voice, that photograph was just one moment in her life; she didn't say that she never thought about it; only her family knew it was her. And lemme tell you it wasn't a bad moment, but it wasn't, just because a photographer was there and it grabbed the heart of the nation, it wasn't the top momment in her life.
Her top moment, if she'd had a photographer to record it, would show her watching her oldest son growing "Antigone"; or her three boys growing up; or her dancing in the street with some man at 3 in the morning, laughing, oh that's important in a man, she loves it when they can make her laugh.
But if you insist, if you really wanther to talk about the then , to go back to Times Square, chasing anold moment, then okay, she'll do it, she'll be a sport.
"What do you want me to do, grab a sailor?" she laughs.
Crosstown, backward in time she goes.She thinks she remembers the spot where she came out of the subway that day; but not the spot where the sailor kissed her. It takes the picture to make her life imitate art. The it all comes back.
"He bent me backwards -- it was almost like a dance step, the way we used to dance," she remembers. "And hewas very tall, so I had to bend back, but I had gone out with a lot of tall guys, I still go out with a lot of six-foot-tall guys, so I was used to that."
She is thoughtful for a while, comparing this self to the other.
"Eisie says I was much thinner then," she says . . . "My legs are just as skinny now, though."
One moment out of Edith Shain's lifetime -- what was that -- figuring a second per moment, maybe a one in 2-billionthe chance. Snap, click. And no matter how much your life changes, no matter how much your attitudes toward sailors evolve, there you are. Vacuum-packed. Freeze-dried. Anthologized. sFrozen in time. Could happen to you. Like it happened to Edith. Like it happed to George Mendonsa, the sailor she's kissing. Oh, yes. Life found him too. A commerical fisherman, living in Rhode Island. Father of two, grandfather as well. To you the truth,he doesn't even remember the kiss, he says.
Snap, click. Nonetheless immortality. Makes you cautious, doesn't it? Snap, click. Over your shoulder. Right Now. Watch Out. Essentaedt says he had been working several hours when he froze that moment 35 years ago. Snap, click. Shooting soldiers, shooting confetti. Most of that film is lost today; even the photographer cannotcheat mortality. How many couples did he photograph kissing?
"Seven, eight, not that many," he said. "Because they didn't look too good.
This is, you know; talking esthetically."
But he keeps shooting, and as he doeshe sees his sailor grabbing every woman in sight. Fat ones, homely ones, old ones, young ones, he's seizing them one after the other, running down the street. He's grabbing and kissing and grabbing and kissing, and then -- the moment accelerating -- Eisenstaedt sees in his path a very pretty girl and he knows the sailor will grab her and he runs ahead to make his shot. It came fast, that moment.
"My brain did't react, only my eyes saw the image and my fingertips reacted . . . It was if there was a shortcut between my eyes and my fingertips . . . But I had no time to think, it happened so fast."
He knew that instant that he had a good picture. He did not know that it would be so successful -- the picture, he jokes, by which they will know him when he goes to heaven. The "one in a million" composition; the contrast between the sailor's blue uniform and the nurse's white suit; the beautiful arc of the girl's back.
"They were very elegant. Like a sculpture," he says.
He is speaking, of course, as an artist -- outside looking in -- as a purveyor of photography, a deceptive art.
But inside looking out, to the Fantasy Nurse in the big hands of the sailor, what was it like? A kiss on the street from a stranger. Was his breath some sweet mixture of whiskey andtobacco? Did she close her eyes when it happened or did she open them or did she never get a look at his face? Did she resist or did she struggle? Or didshe never want to get away? Was it, in short, as good as it looks?
The Fantasy Nurse starts at the question. She looks shocked for a minute, then laughs. Then she answers,remembering, quite clearly, one private moment in the public moment of the past.
"It was a good kiss," she says. "Itwent on for a long time . . . I closed my eyes . . . I didn't resist . . . I think, sometimes, if I hadn't been with my girlfriend, I might have stayed."