Alive & kissing? Debate over iconic ‘Life’ magazine photo lives on

  • Carl Muscarello stands with the iconic “Life” magazine photo that he says shows him as a young sailor on V-J Day in 1945 during a visit to the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton in 2017. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

  • The true identity of the man kissing a nurse on V-J Day in Times Square remains a mystery. Courtesy

Monitor columnist
Published: 2/18/2019 6:45:14 PM

I asked Carl Muscarello if he’d heard the news about George Mendonsa.

And before I could tell him that the man who for decades had competed with him for space in one of the most famous photos ever had died Sunday, Muscarello jumped through the phone with the energy and quickness of a kid, not someone who was 93.

“You mean the fraud?” Muscarello said Monday from his retirement home in Plantation, Fla. “At least I think he’s a fraud. Actually, I know he’s a fraud.”

Once told his rival had died, Muscarello said, “I am sorry to hear that. We spoke on the phone a couple of times.”

You’ve seen the photo. The one snapped in Times Square on Aug. 14, 1945, known as V-J Day, or Victory in Japan Day, marking the end of World War II. The one showing a sailor kissing a nurse, the two engaged in a classic tango dip, his right hand clutching her hip just above her waist, dark and light uniforms blending as one.

Life magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt took the picture but neglected to get the names. For decades, Mendonsa said he was the sailor in the photo. For years, Muscarello insisted he was, and he brought that bold claim with him to the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton in the fall of 2017.

He told his story to the veterans, and he told me in the lobby that this other sailor, this Mendonsa fellow, was lying and profiting from his lie, through endorsements and book sales.

“He challenged me to a talk,” Muscarello told me. “He wanted to bet me that he was the sailor, and I told him, ‘Keep your money and donate it to charity.’ ”

Muscarello says he’s given out 26,000 copies of the photo. They have copies of his signature, and he’ll personalize any and all copies if you attend one of his free-of-charge appearances, at schools, lodges, nursing homes and retirement homes.

With respect to the iconic photo, two things are certain, at least according to documented history in news accounts and obituaries.

One, we’ll never truly know who the sailor was, no matter what Muscarello says, what Mendonsa said, or what men named Glenn McDuffie, Donald Bonsack, John Edmonson, Wallace Fowler, Walker Irving or others have insisted.

And two, we’ll never truly know who the nurse was, although that list of candidates has popularly been narrowed down to Greta Zimmer Friedman and Edith Shain.

Shain, who died in 2010 at the age of 91, identified Muscarello as the man who arbitrarily kissed her, so it stands to reason that Muscarello says she was the woman in the photo.

“The nurse identified me,” Muscarello says. “I said I am the sailor, and Edith said I am the sailor, and my mother said I am the sailor, and you don’t argue with my mother.”

To bolster his argument, Muscarello’s wife, Shelly, faxed me a Union Leader column from 2006, written by Janice Walsh. Walsh, through her interview with Muscarello, recreated Shain’s confirmation based on a meeting the two stars had had 10 years earlier.

And in her own words, Walsh said she saw proof in the photo from a birthmark on the back of Muscarello’s right hand “still visible through his year-round Florida tan.” She also cited his “gentleman’s genuine, honest character” as further proof.

Sounds great, but neither photographer Eisenstaedt nor Life ever officially named either figure. The mystery has even become a bizarre, comical chapter in history, with different combinations appearing in different tributes.

Mendonsa and Greta Friedman rode on a float 10 years ago during a Fourth of July parade in Mendonsa’s home state of Rhode Island.

An Associated Press story on Monday said, “The ecstatic sailor shown kissing a woman in Times Square celebrating the end of World War II has died. George Mendonsa was 95.”

Another news story said “a World War II veteran whose claim of being a sailor kissing a nurse in an iconic image was verified using facial recognition technology died early Sunday.”

Really? Try telling that to Muscarello, who has been interviewed by the Today Show and Good Morning America and, along with Shain, appeared in Times Square in 2005, when a sculpture of the kiss was unveiled to mark the 60th anniversary of the Japanese surrender.

To this day, Muscarello tells anyone who will listen that he was the sailor in the photo. He said Monday that he’d miss an appearance Tuesday at a Catholic high school because of a bad back, and in fact told me he was talking from his bed because of the pain.

But he makes most of his commitments and will go to his grave maintaining he was in Eisenstaedt’s photo. Just like he claimed lots of people got it wrong on the day Mendonsa went to his grave.

“He told me he was the sailor and I respect him as a World War II veteran,” Muscarello said. “I wished him well and said good luck to you.”


Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.



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