When Sailors Kiss: Picturing Homosexuality in Post‐World War II America

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Publication Date



Art and Art History



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The Journal of American Culture


Alfred Eisenstaedt's V‐J Day photograph of a nurse and sailor kissing in New York's Times Square became an overnight sensation when it appeared on the cover of Life magazine in August 1945 (Figure 1). According to first‐hand accounts of the celebration, Eisenstaedt's photograph captured the day. As one woman recalled, “every female was grabbed and kissed by men in uniform,” while a man who has claimed to be the sailor in Eisenstaedt's photograph thought he “must have kissed a thousand women that day” (“Who is the Kissing Sailor?” 72, 68). In the moments leading up to his famous snapshot, Eisenstaedt remembered there was a sailor “running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight. Whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin, old, did not make any difference … . Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse” (Eisenstaedt 74). Life photographers in a number of other locations, including Hawaii, Kansas City, Washington, DC, and Miami, captured dozens of similar scenes of returning troops, suggesting that the kiss formed a sort of national currency for victory that day. Looking back on an era which would soon become known for its high marriage rates, a baby boom, and a dramatic growth in home ownership, it is also possible to see this kiss as a catalyst for a whole sequence of events which had been delayed in America for decades by economic depression and war. The photograph's iconic status therefore not only has to do with what it depicts, but with the postwar American Dream which follows the kiss.


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