Arts

Word on the Street

Does ‘The Kissing Sailor’ solve a photo mystery?

Lawrence Verria

On Aug. 14, 1945, the day Japan’s surrender to the United States was announced, Times Square in New York City was overrun with crowds celebrating the end of the war. Overcome with emotion, a sailor spontaneously embraced and kissed a woman in a white uniform. Unbeknownst to the couple, Life magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt captured the moment.

For decades, the identity of the couple in one of the 20th century’s most memorable pictures remained a mystery. Surprisingly, neither the sailor nor the woman in white saw it until 1980. In the meantime, legions of sailors and nurses stepped forward to say they were in the picture. In “The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo That Ended World War II” (Naval Institute), Rhode Island history teacher Lawrence Verria and retired Navy captain George Galdorisi make a compelling case for the identity of the couple.

On the day World War II ended, so their story goes, George Mendonsa, a Navy sailor from Newport, R.I., and his girlfriend (whom he later married) were making their way through the crowds in Times Square when he was seized by a desire to kiss a woman dressed in white. Her uniform evoked in him an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the nurses who had ministered to his wounded buddies during the war. He did not know that the woman he embraced, Greta Zimmer, was not a nurse, but a dental assistant.

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When Life magazine in 1980 asked the kissing sailor to identify himself, a number of men, including Mendonsa, claimed to be the one. The previous year a woman named Edith Shain had come forward to say that she was the woman in white. Eisenstaedt verified her claim, but the “Kissing Sailor” disputes it. The co-authors consulted with forensic anthropologists and experts in facial recognition and examined hairlines, knuckles, noses, and a tattoo. They conclude that Zimmer and Mendonsa (pictured) were the kissers. According to “Kissing Sailor,” the couple has been reunited from time to time over the years (as in the 2009 photo above), but they have never re-enacted their famous kiss.

Debut wins Orange Prize

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Cambridge resident Madeline Miller has won the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction for her debut novel, “The Song of Achilles” (Ecco), a retelling of Homer’s “Iliad.”

In announcing the prize, Joanna Trollope, chairwoman of the judges, said, “This is a more than worthy winner — original, passionate, inventive and uplifting. Homer would be proud of her.” Selecting a winner this year was particularly difficult because the six books on the shortlist were so strong, she said. They included “State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett, “Foreign Bodies” by Cynthia Ozick, and “The Forgotten Waltz” by Anne Enright.

The Orange Prize is awarded to the best novel of the year written in English by a woman. Miller, who has taught Latin, the classics, and Shakespeare at the high school level, spent 10 years on her novel.

Coming out

“Heading Out to Wonderful”by Robert Goolrick (Algonquin)

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“Skeleton Box” by Bryan Gruley (Touchstone)

“The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep” by Dr. Harvey Karp (Morrow)

Pick of the week

Claire Benedict of Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vt., recommends “Seating Arrangements” by Maggie Shipstead (Knopf): “This is the kind of character-driven, thoroughly enjoyable read I love. It easily compares to the family drama in J. Courtney Sullivan’s ‘Maine’ and the humor in Richard Russo’s ‘That Old Cape Magic.’ Just add lots of gin and tonics, men in pants with whales on them, and characters with names like Biddy, Fee, and Oatsie, and you’ve got this irresistible novel.”

Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner@yahoo.com. Follow her on Twitter @JanLGardner.