Greta Zimmer Friedman, nurse in iconic Times Square sailor-kiss photo, dead at 92

An autographed copy of the now-iconic photo in
which Greta Zimmer Friedman’s smooch was immortalized.

Greta Zimmer Friedman, who was kissed by a sailor in Times Square in one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century, died on Thursday in Virginia, her son, Joshua Friedman, told the Daily News. She was 92.

Friedman had been ill for some time, but recently contracted pneumonia. Her role in history was quite accidental: On the morning of Aug. 14, 1945, 21-year-old Greta Zimmer reported to work as a dental assistant on Lexington Ave. All morning, she heard rumors that the Japanese had surrendered, ending World War II, shortly after the United States had dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the afternoon, Friedman wandered west to investigate.

As she entered Times Square, Friedman found herself grabbed and kissed by George Mendonsa, a sailor on leave who was overjoyed by the war's end. Unbeknownst to either, noted Life magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt captured the moment, and published it a few weeks later. Both Friedman and Mendonsa would go decades without knowing about the image, "V-J Day in Times Square."

Before and after the photograph, Zimmer Friedman lived a full and interesting life. Born in Austria in 1924, she traveled to America in 1938 with two younger sisters, fleeing Hitler and the Nazis. Her parents intended to follow, but never made it. Details of their deaths remain unclear to the family — and on the day that young Greta was photographed being kissed by Mendonsa, she did not know if her parents were still alive.

As a young woman, Zimmer became involved in the New York theater community and studied costuming at the New School's Dramatic Workshop, where she met and befriended actors such as Harry Belafonte and Rod Steiger. Lucille Kallen, a writer who worked on Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows," and on whom Rose Marie's character on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was partly based, became a lifelong friend.

In 1956, she married a doctor, Mischa (Mitty) Friedman, and moved to Maryland, where she raised a son, Joshua Friedman, now of Glen Allen, Va., and a daughter, Mara Friedman, of Studio City, Calif.

Friedman first saw Eisenstaedt's photograph in a book in the 1960s. She contacted Life, but the magazine was not interested in determining the subject. In 1980, Life put out an issue asking for the sailor and nurse to come forward, and was flooded with dozens of claims, and declined to name one as definitive.

Friedman (c.), surrounded by family. (COURTESY JOSHUA FRIEDMAN)

In the 2012 book, “The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II” the author, Lawrence Verria, was able to prove that Friedman and Mendonsa were indeed the couple. Among other evidence, tattoo on the sailor's right arm matched one on Mendonsa's, and Friedman's height, hairstyle and uniform matched other photographs of her taken at the time.

Also that year, controversy erupted when a London-based blogger who uses the pseudonym Leopard wrote a provocative post on Crates and Ribbons titled "The Kissing Sailor, or 'The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture,'" arguing the kiss represented nothing short of a sexual assault.

The blogger noted comments from Greta Friedman's 2005 Veterans History Project interview. "It wasn't my choice to be kissed," Friedman said. "The guy just came over and grabbed!"

Mendonsa, 89, was the sailor photographed smooching Friedman in the photo. (HARTFORD COURANT/MCT VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Joshua Friedman told TheNews that his mother was sympathetic to that view, but held no ill will against Mendonsa. In fact, the two became friendly, even exchanging Christmas cards, after meeting in the 1980s.

"My mom always had an appreciation for a feminist viewpoint, and understood the premise that you don't have a right to be intimate with a stranger on the street," Josh Friedman said. "(But) she didn't assign any bad motives to George in that circumstance, that situation, that time."

Mischa Friedman died in 1998. Greta Zimmer Friedman is survived by her two children; grandchildren Caroline Friedman of Glen Allen, Va., and Michael Friedman of San Francisco, Calif., plus numerous nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews.

Mendonsa, 93, is a retired fisherman living in Rhode Island.