Photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, who snapped the famous kiss for Life magazine, was too overwhelmed by the crowd celebrating V-J Day to identify the couple, and there is still uncertainty about the sailor.
But Shain revealed her identity in 1980—to the surprise of her three sons, who never knew that their now 89-year-old mother was the woman so widely associated with romantic spontaneity. The former elementary school teacher, who moved to California after graduating from NYU, has been contacted through the years by a couple dozen men, all claiming to be her mystery sailor.
EDITH SHAIN (RIGHT), NOW 89, WILL NEVER FORGET THE DAY WORLD WAR II ENDED — OR THE SURPRISE KISS FROM AN UNKNOWN SAILOR IMMORTALIZED ON A LIFE MAGAZINE COVER (LEFT).
What was Times Square like that day?
It was mad, just crazy. Everybody was hugging and jumping for joy and screaming and laughing because it was a marvelous thing—that the end of the war had come. The sailors were out kissing everybody because they were so happy to be home and they wouldn't have to go back. So [the kiss] didn't seem strange because of the circumstances.
How did you react when you first saw the Life magazine cover?
I was embarrassed. I didn't tell anybody about it because even though everybody was hugging and kissing, I didn't want people to know that a stranger had kissed me. I didn't contact the magazine until 1980 because at that time I felt I was old enough that I wouldn't be embarrassed by it. When I wrote to them, they were very excited and very pleased because Eisenstaedt had been wondering who I was.
What's it like being part of such an historic image?
It feels miraculous because people react to it and it makes them remember. Many people have that photograph and they don't know what it represents, aside from being a romantic picture. It was the beginning of a new life. It was the end of fighting and wondering if your loved one would come home.
If you had it all to do over again, would you change anything?
Well, I guess I'd take a look at the guy [laughs]. I never looked at him—you know you close your eyes when you get kissed, at least I did—and then I turned around and walked away. And I guess he went on to kiss more girls.
Photo © Terry Pierson/The Press-Enterprise; PHOTO © ALFRED EISENSTAEDT/TIME & LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAG