Following the death of George Mendonsa — the sailor who grabbed and kissed a stranger in Times Square on V-J Day — questions have resurfaced about whether Americans should continue to celebrate the now-iconic embrace. First published in Life magazine, the image has since been honored by magazine covers, life-size statues in Sarasota, Fla., and San Diego and posters pinned to girls’ bedroom walls. But this week, someone scribbled graffiti on the statue in Sarasota: #MeToo in angry red paint.
In heated debates about the vandalism, defenders of the kiss claim that it simply took place during a different time. The historical record suggests otherwise. Coming to terms with what happened on V-J Day helps to show how deeply seated sexual prerogatives are for some, and how easy it is for assault to transpire in plain view of others.
Greta Zimmer (later Friedman), the woman in the photograph, was far from the only person who was groped, kissed and, yes, sexually assaulted on the streets of American cities during the V-J Day celebrations. Moreover, grabbing and kissing a stranger without their consent was recognized as assault in the 1940s. But it mattered very much who was being kissed and who was doing the kissing.
If Mendonsa had been in civilian clothing, police might well have been called. Or if he had done this to a male stranger, he could have been dishonorably discharged from the military and institutionalized as a sexual deviant or psychopath. If he had been black, he may have been beaten or killed; African American men were lynched for simply looking or whistling at a white woman (as 14-year-old Emmett Till would be accused of a decade later).
Mendonsa enjoyed special consideration because of who he was and what men like him had just gone through.
Having finished a year and a half of grueling sea duty in the Pacific, Quartermaster 1st Class Mendonsa was enjoying five weeks of shore leave before returning to his ship, the USS The Sullivans. The dreaded possibility of an invasion of mainland Japan loomed. When news broke on Aug. 14, 1945, that the Japanese surrender was imminent, Mendonsa celebrated with multiple drinks at Child’s restaurant, then joined the thickening crowds in Times Square.
Life photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt caught sight of the ecstatic sailor “running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight.” When Mendonsa reached a woman in white, Eisenstaedt snapped four exposures, the second of which appeared two weeks later in a Life magazine spread commemorating the victory celebrations, titled “The Men of War Kiss from Coast to Coast.”
The body language in Eisenstaedt’s shot contrasts sharply with the photographs of consensual kissing that appeared alongside it. Other couples are pictured collapsing into each other. Women are at ease, kicking their heels or hiking their knees into the air. Their arms are not trapped against their torsos. Men do not immobilize them in headlocks. Viewing all four of Eisenstaedt’s exposures in sequence, it becomes especially clear that Zimmer was defensively pulling down her skirt, not swooning in his embrace.
Zimmer, a Jewish refugee from Austria who lost her parents in the Holocaust, had gone to get the news off the ticker-tape sign at Broadway and Seventh Avenue during a work break. Probably Zimmer, like other women, knew of Times Square’s seedy reputation, which had grown during the war, when it became a beacon for soldiers and sailors on shore leave. Complaints about rowdy servicemen trickled steadily into Third Naval District headquarters. “Sailors call you the vilest names if you ask them to leave you alone,” one area resident complained. Zimmer later related that she had not felt comfortable going out that day in her bright white dental assistant uniform and was anxious to get back to her office.
“It wasn’t my choice to be kissed,” she told one interviewer. “The guy just came over and grabbed!” Another reporter asked what she was thinking at that moment. “I hope I can breathe,” she said in local news footage since removed from the Internet: “I mean somebody much bigger than you and much stronger, where you’ve lost control of yourself, I’m not sure that makes you happy.”
Zimmer was not alone that day. Indeed it took so long to identify the famous kissing couple because at least a dozen sailors confessed to grabbing women in Times Square during the celebrations. Photographs and moving images stored at the National Archives show other women being accosted, chased and kissed against their will. One man sat on the curb and pulled passersby into his lap. Other “exuberant soldiers and sailors” tore clothes from a woman’s body, The Washington Post reported, “and a policeman who attempted to intervene was knocked down.”
Many women protested, fled or avoided the celebrations altogether. “They don’t ask a girl’s permission,” said one as she stormed away. “They just grab.” Ensnared by a soldier, another woman objected: “I’m married! I’m married!” He responded, “Well tell your husband this is with the compliments of the Third Division,” before giving her a “resounding smack.”
Similar scenes unfolded in other cities. The Boston Globe relayed news of servicemen in Scollay Square “attacking women and girls.” In Chicago’s Loop, a 13-year-old girl who had never been kissed panicked at the sight of a sailor coming toward her. She tried to evade him in the crowd, but he caught her and took her on the mouth. The worst unrest occurred in San Francisco, where during three days of “peace riots,” rampaging sailors looted, overturned cable cars, “molested” women or stripped them of clothing and, in some cases, beat their escorts. Many allegations of sexual assault described by witnesses, including gang rape, surfaced, and in subsequent weeks city officials admitted that at least six rapes took place.
Women walked a fine line protesting such incidents. Some laughed off the unwanted attention, recognizing how overwhelmed servicemen felt, perhaps not yet processing what had happened or feeling powerless to stop it. Women who did complain were dismissed as poor sports or worse: unpatriotic. Girls who grew up in the mid-20th century, after all, had been taught to politely suffer unwanted advances — catcalls, pinching and so on — and to interpret them as flattery.
But the sexual etiquette of American streets also served as reminders to women that they were different and less powerful, that they owed their freedom of movement to others’ self-restraint, which might at any time be rescinded. War intensified this compact, as obliging men in uniform became a national duty.
As Eisenstaedt’s photograph became a central object of the “good war” mythology that now surrounds World War II, Zimmer faced pressure to remember the embrace positively. In 1980, Life reunited her with Mendonsa in Times Square and, though she did not want to, coaxed her into kissing him for the camera … again. Times do change. But sometimes not all that much.