The iconic 25 feet tall statue on the Bayfront in Sarasota is in trouble. The Arts Commission wants to banish it from the waterfront and locate it far away from the bay and downtown. Some people view it as condoning sexual assault. Others think it is without artistic merit.
The general public likes it and wants it to stay. Veterans groups like the statue.
The sculpture depicts the famous kiss on Times Square in New York. The kiss took place when Japan surrendered. World War II ended and people spontaneoulsy went to public places to celebrate.
The photo is a happy defining moment for America’s Greatest Generation celebrating the end of the long and bloody war. My father was home on leave having fought all through North Africa and Italy. He had orders report for the invasion of Japan. He and most other veterans who were headed towards Japan were very happy when World War II ended.
There were two photos of the kiss. One was taken by professional photographer Alfred Eisenstaed. His wartime photos covered everything from the rise of Hitler to the fall of Japan. He died on Aug. 23, 1995. Navy photographer Lt. Victor Jorgensen took the other photo and titled his photograph "Kissing the War Goodbye."
There have been several men and women who claimed to be the people in the photo. The consensus seems to be that it was Sailor George Mendonsa, home on leave from action in the South Pacific, and Dental Assistant Greta Zimmer.
"Mendonsa was on leave and had been on a date with another woman when he heard the war was over. His date, Rita Petrie, is seen in the background of the photo. She said she didn’t mind that he kissed another woman amid the celebration. In fact, she became his wife of seven decades."
“Either I was dopey or something, but it didn’t bother me!” she told CBS, adding that he would sometimes repeat the performance. “It’ll come up that he’s ‘The Kissing Sailor’. So the kissing sailor has to think he has to kiss everybody. So he does!”
"Mendonsa served on the destroyer The Sullivans" named for five brothers who were killed in WWII. "He was home on his last day of leave and was slated to return to active duty. He had seen the terrors of the war, and what was on his mind that triumphant day was the memory of the nurses, “the Angels in White” who had cared unselfishly for the wounded and dying soldiers, sailors and Marines he served with."
"When he saw that same white uniform, he reacted spontaneously, briefly left his girlfriend (whom he later married), rushed to Zimmer and hugged and kissed her."
In an interview archived with the Veterans History Project, Greta Zimmer remembered: “Suddenly, I was grabbed by a sailor. It wasn’t that much of a kiss. It was more of a jubilant act that he didn’t have to go back."
“I found out later he was so happy that he didn’t have to go back to the Pacific where they had already been through the war. The reason he grabbed somebody dressed like a nurse is that he felt so very grateful to the nurses who took care of the wounded.”
After the kiss in Times Square, the pair did not meet again until both of their identities were proven. They reunited in Times Square in 1980 to recreate the famous moment, sans the kiss, and again in 2012.
Greta Zimmer was a refugee from Austria who immigrated when she was 15. Her parents were killed in the holocaust.
The statue is reputed to be the most photographed site in the City of Sarasota. The statue was donated by naval veteran Jack Curran. He gave one half of a million dollars for the production of the statue.
John Seward Johnson II was the artist. He is the grandson of Johnson & Johnson co-founder Robert Johnson. He is known for his cast bronze sculptures of people doing everyday things as well as larger-than-life works. He said of his creations, “People often revisit their favorites. They become like friends.” He died in Key West at age 89 on March 10, 2020.
The sculpture is entitled Unconditional Surrender for the terms of the surrender. The double entendre is the surrender of the young woman to the sailor.
The name "Unconditional Surrender" may have doomed the statue since it is now viewed by some as a sexual assault. The original name "Kissing the War Goodbye" is more acceptable.
According to the New York Post, “In recent years, bloggers and other critics have tried to use the VJ Day kiss as an example of sexual assalt."
It is now controversial with some groups viewing it as sexual assault. Others view it without artistic merit.
Mendonsa, a fisherman like his father, died just two days short of his 96th birthday on Feb. 17, 2019. His wife, Rita Petry who is smiling in the background of the Eisenstaedt photo, died in 2019. They were happily married for 70 years.
Gretta married Mischa Friedman and had two children. She went on to become a designer and artist. She died Sept. 8, 2016, age 92, and is buried in Arlington Cemetery.
Jack Curran died on Dec. 22, 2015. He was 94. According to an article in the Herald-Tribune, his longtime friend James Harden said Curran was one of the most congenial people he ever met. “His wife [Margaret] just loved it. So that’s why he bought it.”
The Public Art Committee of Sarasota opposes the sculpture. They do not see as a piece of art. The chairwoman of the Public Art Committee said in 2009: “It doesn’t even qualify as kitsch ... It is like a giant cartoon image drafted by a computer emulating a famous photograph. It’s not the creation of an artist. It’s an artist copying a famous image.”
Their protestations notwithstanding, art or not, kitsch or not, the statue has been heartily embraced by veterans groups and a majority of Sarasotans who are concerned not at all about its artistic merits but take pleasure in the very sight of it.
Photographs and stories about Sarasota’s larger-than-life statue have been seen throughout the world.
And, recently, into controversy as the #MeToo movement took hold. In February 2019, vandals painted #MeToo in red on the nurse’s leg.