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Interview with Greta Zimmer Friedman [8/23/2005]

Patricia Redmond:

This is the Veterans History Project in partnership with the Library of Congress. Today is August the 23rd, 2005, and this is the beginning of an interview with Greta Z. Friedman, F-r-i-e-d-m-a-n, at her home at [address redacted]. Mrs. Friedman was born on [birth date redacted] and is 81 years old. I am Patricia T. Redmond, a member of the Frederick Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, representing Maryland State DAR. Mrs. Friedman is a civilian, but she has a very special story to tell about an event. This event occurred on V-J Day on August the 14th, 1945 in Times Square. I think most people have seen the picture of the sailor kissing what was identified as the nurse, The Kissing Sailor. But the names of these individuals was not revealed by the LIFE Magazine photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt, when it appeared in LIFE Magazine, and everyone has questioned who these two people were. I think we can tell you today who the lady was. Mrs. Friedman, can you tell us your story?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Well, I was working in a dental office on Lexington Avenue for two brothers, JD and JL Burke, and all morning long people would come in and say there seems to be rumors that the war is ending. And since I wasn't very far from Times Square, I could just walk over there and see for myself. And so after my bosses came back at 1:00 from their lunch hour, excuse me, I went straight to Times Square where I saw on the lighted billboard that goes around the building, V-J Day, V-J Day, and that really -- that really confirmed what the people have said in the office. And so suddenly I was grabbed by a sailor, and it wasn't that much of a kiss, it was more of a jubilant act that he didn't have to go back, I found out later, he was so happy that he did not have to go back to the Pacific where they already had been through the war. And the reason he grabbed someone dressed like a nurse was that he just felt very grateful to nurses who took care of the wounded. And so I had to go back to the office, and I told my bosses what I had seen. And they said, Cancel all the appointments, we're closing the office. So they left, and I canceled all the appointments and went home.

Patricia Redmond:

How old were you at this time?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

I was 21, just 21.

Patricia Redmond:

And who was this sailor who kissed you?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

I did not have a clue because I -- he didn't give his name or anything, and I didn't see the picture. I didn't see the picture until the 1960s when I looked at a book called The Eye of Eisenstaedt. And I immediately wrote to LIFE, and they said we will send -- something to the effect that they'll send me a picture, but the person has been identified. And so I didn't believe that because I know it happened to me, and it's exactly my figure and what I wore and my hairdo especially, and I sent them some photographs. So time went by, and in 1980 they contacted me, LIFE Magazine contacted me, and I brought the picture to Mr. Eisenstaedt, and he signed it and apologized.

Patricia Redmond:

Now, Mr. Eisenstaedt had called the picture simply "V-J Day," and he just hadn't identified you. You didn't even know that your picture was taken at the time, did you?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

No. I had no -- I did not observe anybody taking pictures. I was anxious to get back to work. So I didn't.

Patricia Redmond:

So what happened in 1980?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

In 1980 they called George and me because I had not met George until --

Patricia Redmond:

Now, this is George --

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

George Mendonsa.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay, George Mendonsa. That's M-e-n-d-o-n-s-a?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Yes.

Patricia Redmond:

And he lives in?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

He lived in Rhode Island. I've got his address somewhere.

Patricia Redmond:

That's all right. He lived in Rhode Island, and he was actually a sailor whereas you were not a nurse?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

I was a dental assistant.

Patricia Redmond:

But you did have a white uniform on.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Well, yes, because we dressed the same way, and in some ways we did what nurses do. In other words, help the patient, make them more comfortable, and often they would do extractions, so it was surgery, and so...

Patricia Redmond:

But you were not in the military, you were a civilian?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

I was not. I was a civilian, and that was my job. And we dressed like nurses, white stockings, white shoes, white dress, and a cap which we took off, we took the cap off during lunch hour when we went out for lunch.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. Let's get back to the kissing sailor. When he grabbed you and gave you a kiss, what did you feel like?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

I felt he was very strong, he was just holding me tight, and I'm not sure I -- about the kiss because, you know, it was just somebody really celebrating. But it wasn't a romantic event. It was just an event of thank God the war is over kind of thing because it was right in front of the sign.

Patricia Redmond:

Did he say anything to you when he kissed you?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

No, no. It was just an act of silence.

Patricia Redmond:

He just grabbed you, gave you a kiss, and then was gone?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Oh, yeah, we both -- we both left, went on our own way. And I found out later that he and his fiancee I think at the time, they probably were engaged already, they had come from Radio City Music Hall. They also heard that the war was over. So they just left the show. They never even saw the whole show and went to Times Square because if you needed to know the latest news, there it was.

Patricia Redmond:

In Times Square.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Yeah.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. I know there have been a lot of people who have laid claim to this. I know there are at least three women and 20 men who have said they were the couple that kissed, they were the kissing sailor and the nurse at Times Square on V-J Day. Do you have any comment about this?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

They definitely were not, and I'm going to show you in LIFE Magazine how we looked at the time. So take me a moment to find it.

Patricia Redmond:

What is this issue of LIFE? This is October 1980. Okay. And this was when you originally found the picture and the first time --

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

No. I found the picture --

Patricia Redmond:

Oh, no, you had seen it in 1960, that's right.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

In the book.

Patricia Redmond:

In his book.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Eisenstaedt's photography book.

Patricia Redmond:

But it's been published in many, many different forms.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Oh, yes.

Patricia Redmond:

There it is. "Who's the Kissing Sailor?"

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Right.

Patricia Redmond:

All right. This has been a mystery for many years, hasn't it?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Well, not to us. Let me see.

Patricia Redmond:

For those of you who don't know, LIFE Magazine was one of the most well-known magazines like Newsweek and so forth. Okay.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Okay. Do you see this? Look at the hairdo.

Patricia Redmond:

We have pictures of ladies here on page 72, and it says "Fair maids from afar claim they were kissed." And we also have the picture of the kissing sailor and the nurse, we'll call her a nurse because that's what everybody has been calling you for many years, and we're looking at --

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

You see how my hair is braided on top. You can tell that it's swept up with a comb. In the back, her hair is long, her hair is much longer.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. We have Edith Shain and we have Barbara Sokol, S-o-k-o-l, and all three of these ladies are claiming to be the one that was kissed. Do you think that George Mendonsa went around kissing all the ladies?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

No, but other sailors did. They -- they were happy they didn't have to go back to war. They had had enough. So, you know, they were not the only sailor that kissed women.

Patricia Redmond:

So that's the thing. There were many. Maybe these ladies, maybe these ladies were all kissed by different sailors.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Sure.

Patricia Redmond:

And you were perhaps kissed or you were kissed by George Mendonsa, and Alfred Eisenstaedt took your picture.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Right.

Patricia Redmond:

And so everybody has a valid claim because they were on Times -- in Times Square on V-J Day.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Right.

Patricia Redmond:

And were kissed.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Right.

Patricia Redmond:

But your picture was taken.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Uh-huh.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. We have more pictures here. These are the pictures of the kissing sailors, and there are quite a few kissing sailors, at least they think they are. Let's see. There's Bill Swicegood and Bud Harding and Jack Russell. And where is Mr. Mendonsa, is he in here too?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Yes, I think that's George.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. George Mendonsa, yes. And Wallace Fowler. Well, maybe all of these sailors were there and were kissing pretty ladies.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Oh, sure. Different times all throughout the day and the evening people were there and it was like New Year's Eve, only better.

Patricia Redmond:

Only better, yes. What -- what did you do -- what did you do for the rest of the day? You were off, your office was closed, you were celebrating?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Yeah, I went home.

Patricia Redmond:

And you didn't think anything about the kiss until years later?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Until I saw the picture, yeah. Then I said, Hey, wait a minute, that's me.

Patricia Redmond:

And then you recalled the incident.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Oh, yeah. I mean, it's something you don't forget, especially if you see it photographically.

Patricia Redmond:

And how did you find out that it was George Mendonsa who kissed you?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Well, we met in Times Square in 1980.

Patricia Redmond:

But who invited you to Times Square then?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

LIFE Magazine.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. And?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

And we sort of -- I didn't want to reenact the kiss. First of all, my -- well, no, my husband did not come with me, but his wife was there.

Patricia Redmond:

Mr. Mendonsa's wife?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Yes.

Patricia Redmond:

Well, she was there the first time.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Well, I didn't know. Well, it wasn't -- it wasn't my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and kissed or grabbed.

Patricia Redmond:

This was back in 1945.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Yes.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. So now we're in 1980, and we do a reenactment of the kiss.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Yes. I told him I didn't want to redo that pose.

Patricia Redmond:

Well, we have -- we have the picture here.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

It's sort of a --

Patricia Redmond:

And it's kind of the pose, and it says -- and the sign, this is Times Square.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Right.

Patricia Redmond:

It says, what does it say on the sign?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

It says, "It had to be you."

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. So that makes it pretty official, doesn't it?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

I would guess.

Patricia Redmond:

And this photo, this one that we're looking at that was taken in 1980, who was the photographer?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. So Alfred Eisenstaedt has said that you two were indeed the kissing couple.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

I don't know if he really had such a great view of our faces, but I think he was attracted more by the pose, and it was a black-and-white shot, and as a photographer he just knew that he had a good picture. It was an opportunity, and that's the job of a good photographer is to recognize an opportunity.

Patricia Redmond:

And as it said in this article that told about you and Mr. Mendonsa, "It was an enduring symbol of the joy and relief felt by a nation at the end of the war."

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Right. Everyone was very happy and relieved, and people on the street were friendly and smiled at each other. It was a day that everyone celebrated because everyone had somebody in the war, and they were coming home. And women were happy though, their boy friends and husbands came home, and so were the parents. So it was a wonderful gift finally to end this war. It was a long war, and it cost a lot.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay, Mrs. Friedman, I'm sure that everybody's going to be curious about you and your life. Could you just tell us a little bit about -- about where you were born and grew up and how you became a dental assistant?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

I was born in Austria, came here at the age of 15, and I went actually to what is now called The Fashion Institute. It was called the Central Needle Trades School. And right after graduation I met a young girl, my age, who was a dental assistant. I thought, hey, maybe that might be interesting. So I got a little bit sidetracked for a few years, and I was doing dental assisting. And during the summers I would work in summer theatre because I then took courses at Fashion Institute, FIT, in New York. And then I altogether quit dental assisting and went into, after having experience in summer theatre, I worked for the toy industry designing dolls clothes for a number of years. And then again worked in summer theatre, and I met my husband there, and that's how come I left New York.

Patricia Redmond:

Now, when was this?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

1956. And I was in Frederick and I thought, well, I might as well catch up on my education. I started with college, and my children were born, so I took it very slowly. I did a lot of auditing. And finally when my kids were ready for college I thought, well, I better get serious, and I went full time and finished in '81, the same year that both my kids graduated from college.

Patricia Redmond:

And you have two children?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Yeah.

Patricia Redmond:

And they are a boy and a girl?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Yes.

Patricia Redmond:

And you graduated in 1981 with them?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Right. But all three different colleges.

Patricia Redmond:

Oh, that's exciting. I bet they're proud of their mother.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

I hope so but, you know, it takes a while.

Patricia Redmond:

And so what -- what did you get your degree in?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

I'm an art -- I was an art major.

Patricia Redmond:

And have you used this degree?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Oh, yeah, through artwork all the time.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. But you're not working now?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

I'm working on my own work, my own artwork.

Patricia Redmond:

What kind of artwork is this?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Right now I'm working in watercolor. Actually, I forgot to mention, for the last ten or eleven years I worked as a book restorer at Hood College restoring and rebinding books.

Patricia Redmond:

Okay. Just tell me, how does it feel to be so famous? Are you --

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Oh, it's kind of fun because it was very accidental. It's a fame for just being there, being dressed right and, you know, some people get famous because -- Actually the fame belongs to the photographer because he provided an art. I can't call it a skill. He was an artist. So I think he deserves the credit. I just happened to be there and so was George.

Patricia Redmond:

And you and George are in touch still?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Once in a while. Well, we send each other Christmas cards. And he has a very lovely wife, and I've talked to her. But we're not friends who see each other, but through this happening, you know, we have something in common. And probably at Christmas we'll get in touch by sending cards again.

Patricia Redmond:

Well, I'm going to interview George Mendonsa.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Yes.

Patricia Redmond:

Next week.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Yes.

Patricia Redmond:

And hear his side of the story.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Good.

Patricia Redmond:

So do you have any words for him?

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Yeah. Well, I think he was the one who made me famous but, I mean, because he took the action. I was just a bystander. So I think he deserves a lot of credit. Actually, by the photographer creating something that was very symbolic of the end of a bad period.

Patricia Redmond:

I thank you very much.

Greta Zimmer Friedman:

Thank you.

Patricia Redmond:

It's a wonderful story, and thank you for sharing it with us. [Interview concluded]

 
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