Sunday is VJ Day, the 60th anniversary of the U.S. victory over Japan that ended World War II. And while it’s nearly impossible to think of that day without also thinking of the famous Life Magazine photo of that celebratory kiss in New York’s Time Square, it is possible — for just a few people — to know exactly, and personally, what that kiss meant.
The backstory has been well-chronicled: giddy Times Square was everywhere-in-America that day and Life Magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstadt clicked his shutter to record a perfect image — a sailor sweeping a nurse into his arms so pristinely as to suggest not sex, but relief and happiness beyond words, and surrender even among strangers to the sweetness and power of human kinship.
“It’s our favorite picture,” says Life Deputy Managing Editor Robert Sullivan, “It’s our most popular picture, because it’s a happy picture”.
But “Eisie” wasn’t taking notes that day, and, over the decades there’ve been scores who’ve claimed to be the nurse and the sailor.
Among the old sailors, ex-New York Cop Carl Muscarello, who insists, “I am 100 percent sure. There is no doubt in my mind.”
Then there’s Rhode Island fisherman George Mendonsa, who claims, “The minute I looked at it I said, ‘Damn, that is me.’”
Of the nurses who came forward before he died, Eisie himself chose Edith Shain of California as the most likely candidate.
Shain is sure of it. “Oh yes,’ she explains, “because I can tell by my shoes and my stockings, and hair. So I knew it was me.”
And Edith, 10 years ago, chose Carl as her mystery smoocher. Though now she’s not so sure and, when asked, replies laughingly, “That’s a good question.”
The thing is, it doesn’t really matter who was kissing whom that day — only that they did it, and that someone got the picture at that precise moment in history.
Ray Giarrusso was in the Army Medical Corps and, in the flush of victory, he too kissed a pretty girl — only he married Edna Ford of Bristol, England.
And 60 years later, they’re still married, their love taking root in the same relief and seize-the-day hope that produced “The Kiss.”
“That guy would have kissed anything,” says Ray Giarrusso, “It was just a jubilant... you know, an end to a monstrous thing.”
Edna Riarusso, remembering the war, agrees. “I’d wake up and I’d say, ‘Well, thank God I’m alive another day,'” she says.
In their 80s now, Ray and Edna have never lost sight of the days when their love was forged amid the victory and cheering doughboys.
It was a time when victory over a fanatical enemy could be unequivocal, and when there was no question of the meaning of words like “hero,” “evil,” “patriotism,” “triumph” and “sacrifice ” — when a kiss in Life Magazine or between Ray and Edna Riarusso, was still a kiss.