You must remember this
A kiss is still a kiss,
A sigh is just a sigh;
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.
-Louis Armstrong’s “As Time Goes By”
What is it about a kiss that makes it magical? In the case of one sailor and a nurse, it is the essence of romance itself: two strangers literally passing on the street, caught up in the celebration of V-J Day, which marked the end of World War II, briefly embraced and kissed. Who knows how many people were kissing all over America at that moment, in sort of a midnight on New Year’s Eve kind of rapture.
I have always been enamored with the nurse in the photograph. Though her face is not visible, we see her shapely legs, one bent in the crush of the kiss, her left arm slightly bent as she is no doubt surprised but not shaken or upset. The sailor’s hair is dark under his white cap; he cuts a dashing figure that could obviously sweep a girl off her feet. We can’t see his face either, but it is obvious that both must have been glowing when they saw each other, inspiring the man to take a chance, and for the woman to acquiesce so willingly.
The sailor didn’t just kiss the nurse either: he took her in his arms, leaned her back, and smooched her like it was the first and last kiss they would ever share, and sadly, it was. This encounter would be long forgotten now, but it was captured for eternity by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine. In literally a shot heard – and seen – around the world, the nurse and sailor became a symbol not just of the end of war but of the greatness that was the New York City of that time.
In Times Square in New York City, hundreds of people gathered on August 14, 2010, to mark the 65th anniversary of that iconic kiss. People old and young made a glorious effort to mimic the pair (represented in a statue that stands in the square), but alas, no matter how hard they tried, the clear winners are still the sailor and the nurse in the original photograph.
The nurse, Edith Shain, passed away in June at 91 years of age. She came forward to identify herself as the girl in the photo years ago; the sailor’s identity remains a mystery. Perhaps, somewhere in New York he sits in an apartment, watching TV and remembering the girl who got away. Maybe he puts on his old white Navy hat, a tear shimmering in the corner of his eye, wishing he had asked her for her phone number. If he has passed on, I’ll bet the sailor was waiting for Edith, and they recreated their kiss to the thundering applause of all those heavenly beings gathered in the central square on the other side.
For now, we remember a kiss that wasn’t just a kiss: it was a rapturous symbol of an America we used to know and love. In Times Square yesterday that kiss was honored and, in some way or other, that fleeting moment captured on film caught the effervescence of that celebration of the end of war sixty-five years ago, and now it seems to be an era and an innocence that, while not forgotten, will be nevermore.