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An Unwanted Legacy

Wikimedia Commons / ©alfred eisenstaedt

An Unwanted Legacy

What will your legacy be?

Years from now, when you've died, will the world remember you for your many accomplishments? Your charitable works? Your rapport with children or your singing voice or your devastating good looks? Or will the world remember something you'd rather it forgot?

Greta Friedman died last week at 92. You may not know her name … and you probably wouldn't recognize her face … but you almost certainly know what she looks like when she's been bent over backward and kissed by a stranger. 

Friedman was one of the subjects of the iconic photograph by Albert Eisenstaedt that captured a moment of exuberant celebration on V-J Day, Aug. 14, 1945, which marked the effective end of World War II. Against a background of Times Square, a sailor clutches a nurse tightly, bending her over and planting a kiss firmly on her lips. It's a photo that has come to represent the elation and relief that came with the end of a devastating war. It's seen as celebratory, charming, and above all, deeply romantic. A military man, overcome with emotion at the end of the war, expresses his joy in the best way he knows how – he shares a kiss with his sweetheart. Or does he?

The truth of the photo is this: Friedman and the sailor weren't in a relationship. She didn't even know him. George Mendonsa, in fact, was on a date with another woman – his future wife, Rita – when he grabbed Friedman and kissed her.

More truth: Friedman wasn't a nurse; she was a dental assistant. But it somehow seems more romantic to imagine she was a nurse – after all, were there even any dental assistants serving overseas in the war?

The truth gets a little unsettling when we hear Friedman's account of the moment: She told CBS News in 2012, "I did not see him approaching, and before I know it I was in this tight grip." In an interview that same year with the Veterans History Project, she said, "I felt that he was very strong. He was just holding me tight." She told the Library of Congress in 2005, "That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me." For his part, Mendonsa told CBS News that not only was he excited about the war's end; he'd also "had a few drinks." So "I grabbed her, and I kissed her."

It's a description that sounds a little closer to assault than romance, though Friedman herself didn't use that word. What she said was, in a continuation of her Veterans History Project interview, "I’m not sure about the kiss. It was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event."

When questioned about the kiss, Friedman downplayed it, made it clear that it wasn't what it seems in the famous photo. And downplaying is what we do with experiences that we don't much want to remember, let alone celebrate.

Friedman didn't deny her involvement in the picture – indeed, she came forward as its subject when she first discovered its existence decades after it was taken. She was one of the several women who claimed to be the woman of the photo, but recent scientific analysis confirmed that it was Friedman – and that Mendonsa, one of 11 men who claimed to be the sailor, was the real thing.

But though she acknowledged being part of the famous image, Friedman didn't invite fame. And she almost certainly didn't expect to be eulogized in leading publications from The New York Times to CNN.com to Rolling Stone when she endured that kiss, or when she claimed it decades later. She didn't ask for the kiss to be her legacy.

But what was Friedman's real legacy, the one that her loved ones will remember? We wanted to know more, so we sought out information about the rest of Friedman's life – before and after the 10 seconds for which she's remembered.

Born Margarete Zimmer June 5, 1924, in Wiener Neustadt, Austria, she was raised in a Jewish family and came to be known by her nickname, Greta. By the time she was a teen, Austria was not a good place for a Jewish person to be, but she and her sisters were lucky enough to escape the Nazi regime. She and one sister found their way to New York City, while another went to Palestine. Their parents were supposed to follow Greta to New York, but they never arrived, having been captured and sent to concentration camps where they died.

As World War II came to its end, Greta was 21, working as an assistant in a dentist's office. When she took her lunch break on V-J Day, she wanted to get news about the end of the war. In those pre-internet days, a surefire way for a New Yorker to stay up to date was to step into Times Square and watch the electronic news ticker on The New York Times Tower. She did that, and her fateful 10 seconds ensued.

Greta would later study at the Fashion Institute of Technology, then begin designing toys and doll clothes. In 1956, she married Dr. Mischa Friedman, with whom she had two children, Joshua and Mara. The family settled in Frederick, Maryland, where she later attended Hood College, graduating in 1981. With an artistic eye, she painted and took photographs; she also worked for Hood College as a book restorer and binder.

Preceded in death by her husband, she is survived by her children, one sister, and two grandchildren.

We can't always control our personal legacy – no matter what we do with our lives, the public will remember what it wants to remember. Sometimes that’s our best side, and sometimes it's a moment we neither planned nor wanted. But we can follow Friedman's lead by living lives we can be proud to share with the people we love, regardless of how the public sees us.