The Not so Romantic Side of the V-J Day Photograph

The year is 1945, the black paved street surrounding Times Square is filled with unknown faces. The sound of cheers fills the air circulating around the tall buildings. Tears of joy leave the eyes of the people. Suddenly, a sailor reaches his arms out to grab ahold of a woman dressed in all white. He dips her and tenderly covers her lips with those of his own. Click! The shutter sound of the camera goes off and the Kodak moment that will soon become every hopeless romantic’s favorite snapshot. 

There was a time when I once thought that this photograph depicted the perfect kind of loving kiss that every woman has dreamed about in one flawless picture. There was just something about the way the man held the woman while kissing her lips. As years went on, I quickly discovered the true story about that kiss. I realized that the stories about this iconic picture were actually false. To begin with, they were not lovers. In fact, they were complete strangers who just shared a kiss. They never talked after that, or even went on a date. As stated in an article was written for New York Post it states, that George, the sailor, and Greta, the “nurse”, never discussed the kiss. All the memories they had of each other remained in that one still moment back in the middle of the street, in the year of 1945. 

Over the years, I have become so fascinated by this photograph, chances are it was because I am hopeless romantic myself and I become intoxicated by anything that is even remotely close to romance. However, the romantic perspective of this famous photograph shifted gears for me the moment I discovered the true story of that kiss and the faces that are within in the image.  

 I think the reason why I had become so captivated by photography in the first place is because each picture taken has a mystery within it. Every photograph that I have holds a story that no one else knows about. It’s as if it’s a secret that only I and the person in it only share. Which is another reason why I become so in love with this photograph because it was a mystery. What really made me believe that this was not a romantic story, was the story of the woman who is seen in the background of the story. 

In the original photograph, if you take your eyes away from the main focal point and scan the sea of faces behind them, a person can see the face of a woman who is looking over the sailor’s shoulder. To most people, this may just be another face in the crowd nothing more and nothing less. However, to the sailor, George Mendonsa, that woman meant the world to him. The mystery face that appears to peek over Mendonsa shoulder is known as Rita Petry. The reason why Petry meant so much to him in the year 1945 is that she was, in fact, his lover. In an article, George stated, “She was beautiful, I think I fell in love with her the first time I saw her.” At the time when this photograph was taken, Petry was just the girlfriend of Mendonsa. Petry had stated that she didn't know that one day she would be the future wife of Mendonsa.

On the day that the war was declared over, Mendonsa and Petry were out on a date to Radio City Music Hall. However, they did not get a chance to see the ending of the movie. In an article Mendonsa states, “There was pounding on the doors from outside of the street. They put the lights on and stopped the show and said, ‘The war is over.’ ” As soon as the news was announced, Mendonsa and Petry ran right into Childs Bar where the bartender was lining up glasses and continued to pour liquor into them. In the article, it states Mendonsa’s next movement after he had left the bar he,

“Ran from Rita- the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen- grabbed the first nurse he saw, spun her around, dipped her and kissed her. Rita was just steps behind them, and in the photo, she’s beaming.”

The kiss never seemed to bother Petry, but however, it did stir up an uneasy feeling in Greta Zimmer, the woman that Mendonsa had shared a kiss with. I am confident that when I say this, which most woman would agree with her understanding, I am sure the reason why she felt so uneasy about the kiss is just the pure fact that it was from a man she did not even know. Zimmer had stated, “[she] wasn't kissing him. He was kissing me” as told to the New York Post. Not only is the story about the kiss wrong but also Zimmer’s occupation. Many believed that because she was dressed in all white that she was a nurse, however, she was just a dental assistant and after the shared kiss, she walked back to her office building and never brought up this moment to anyone. 

Neither Zimmer nor Mendonsa knew that they were just photographed by Eisenstaedt. In fact, it took years after the photograph was published in Time’s Magazine, multiple times before Mendonsa finally crossed path with the image. In the end, Mendonsa and Petry had gotten married and Zimmer had married to another man. The photograph of Mendonsa and Zimmer, however, hangs on the wall of his house. Mendosa has told the New York Post that he would never have hung the photograph if it bothered Petry. The kiss has never been an issue in either marriage and in fact that even before they finally realized the photograph, the kiss was never mentioned or even discussed. 

The photograph that was once seen as a romantic piece quickly took an unsentimental turn for me. The only romantic gesture within in this picture is Rita Petry herself. She really must have had strong feelings towards George Mendonsa that not even a kiss from another woman turned her away from him. The saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover” can relate to how people interpret photographs. Just because a photograph may depict a certain image within one’s mind does not mean it is the actual story that is being told.