LC Van Savage
Guess who I got to meet? Well, not officially, but I have gotten to meet her by mail. Her name is Edith Shain and in case you don’t know who she is, I’ll tell you her story.
Edith was a pretty young nurse working at Doctor’s Hospital in New York City in 1945 where she used to get to work from her home by riding the subway for the cost of one nickel. An ambitious young woman, she was also taking courses at New York University, and planned, when she graduated, to join up, to help fight in that terrible ongoing war, World War II. It was important to her that she contribute, save lives, help end the tyranny. She really wanted to go.
But suddenly, it was September 2, l945, V-J Day. (Victory over Japan.) World War II was finally over! Celebrations were beginning everywhere, but most especially in Times Square, New York City, the Mecca of all celebrations. And it was there where everyone was going.
She knew she would now never be able to join in the war effort. Elated that the long and terrible hostilities had finally ended, Edith felt disappointment too. She’d so wanted to go. Well, no matter. Now it was time to celebrate.
So in her white nurse’s uniform, with white stockings and white shoes, she and some friends boarded the subway and headed up to Times Square. When they got there, they began to walk around, shouting with the thousands of celebrants, laughing, excited. And then suddenly, before she knew it was happening, a tall handsome sailor grabbed her hard around the waist with his right arm, bent her backward, supported her up her back with his left and delivered to her the longest, hardest kiss she’d ever had. Soldiers, sailors, an old woman and everyone there watched and laughed as they ran and walked along the traffic-free streets.
Unbeknownst to both Edith and the kissing sailor, a world- famous photographer was snapping pictures of New York City celebrating the war’s end, and, he was snapping a picture of their kiss. His name was Alfred Eisenstaedt and the photograph he took of the sailor kissing Nurse Edith Shain was on that week’s Life Magazine cover and has from that moment on symbolized the joy and delirious happiness at the ending of World War II. It immediately became and has remained one of the most famous photographs in history.
But Edith just walked away from that sailor that hot, noisy day, and never even looked back at him. And then a soldier grabbed her and did the same thing, so apparently, she thought, when a war is over, men are allowed to grab women and kiss them. And who knows? Maybe on that remarkable day, some women grabbed men and kissed them too, although back in l945 that was frowned upon. But it had been a really ghastly war, a terrible time with too many losses, so perhaps the rules could be loosened, at least this once. At least on V-J Day.
Edith Shain never told anyone she was that nurse on the cover of Life Magazine, bending back to that sailor’s kiss. She was "kinda embarrassed," she says now, and she’s smiled over the years as people tried to find out who she was. But in l980, now living in California, some of her friends who did know she was "that nurse" urged her to get in touch with the folks at Life and tell them. Eventually, and reluctantly, she agreed. Edith Shain would now finally meet the man who’d made her (secretly) famous.
"I went to pick Eisie (Eisenstaedt) up at the Beverly Regent Hotel and when I got out of my car he saw my legs and knew I was that nurse. I knew I was that nurse too! I drove Eisie to my home and he took pictures of me for three solid days!"
Many men over the years have laid claim to being Edith’s kissing sailor, but no one’s been able to prove it thus far, although one guy did have a tattoo on his hand that was the same, so maybe it was he. And many other women have insisted that they were that nurse, but they were not. Edith knows.
It was through a mutual friend I got to meet Edith. I’ve been able to write to this funny, smart and feisty woman and we’ve become pals. I told her (as I’m sure hundreds have) that as a very young girl I clearly remember sitting in my parents’ living room on the sofa and staring at that astonishing photo on the front of Life magazine when the war had ended.
I remember wondering if it hurt that nurse’s back to be bent backwards that way. I wondered if she knew her slip was showing. Horrors! That was very not done in l945!
She’s well nigh her eighties now, but I think I’ll get to meet Edith Shain one day soon. I love to meet people from my past who’ve become famous, even if I only met them while sitting on a big sofa staring at their photograph on the cover of a big magazine at the very end of a big war.