Wartime Kiss: The Woman on the Bus


V-J Day in Times Square by Alfred Eisenstaedt, first published in Life magazine in 1945.

by Alexander Nemerov

How do we remember the Second World War years now? My book Wartime Kiss: Visions of the Moment in the 1940s takes a dim view of approved icons — the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square on V-J Day — and looks instead to forgotten moments and episodes from the era’s photography and films, moments that suspend time rather than freeze it.

When Charles Boyer kisses Olivia de Havilland in the now little-known 1941 film Hold Back the Dawn, I feel I am in the presence of this suspended time. The kiss is a set-piece of slow duration. Yes, it is a con — Boyer plays a Romanian gigolo seducing a good-hearted American schoolteacher so that he can marry her and cross the American border as a U.S. citizen. And yes, the kiss is a political allegory. In this movie made and released in the months prior to Pearl Harbor, with war raging in Europe, the movie poses the question: should the simple American become involved with a nefarious European? But above all the kiss is a masterpiece of time, of 1941 held in the murmur of the actors’ words and the fall of soft gray light. To watch that scene now is to feel some of that world then still out there, murky, subdued, and soft, clear in the way a dream is clear, coming out of nowhere.

Below is an excerpt from my book where I imagine the response of a viewer in 1941 to this kiss. The viewer, a young woman, is thinking of the kiss as she rides on a bus back from the movie theater in those weeks just prior to December 7, 1941. Of course it is all made up, but would that I could make other things up that hold lost time.


I see a young woman on a bus, a copy of True Story magazine on her lap. She wiles the time, not noticing the blur of trees and department-store facades, the fences and pavements and red-brick corner bars and restaurants going by, but thinking her thoughts of the movie she has seen, Hold Back the Dawn, the kiss in it, a kiss that no doubt aspired to become part of her consciousness—for she is the target audience, twisting her curls and minding her business. The kiss just then takes the form not of some romantic dream but rather of the advertisements in True Story that she’d been looking at and that now randomly like guardian angels start to float around her head, the ones for Admiracion shampoo and Noxzema skin cream, Avaderma soap and Nujol (“Effective . . . Gentle . . . Regular as Clockwork”)—these potions, lotions, and laxatives of love, haloed in their glass bottles, the liquors of melodrama whose smoothness is the same as the syrup she has seen on the screen.

Maybe, too, contemplating that kiss, allowing it to prosper and diffuse in these bottled creams and emollients, she will recall the feel of the theater as it still imprints her body, the worn plush of the seat, the sensation of the usherette’s flashlight beam dancing down the aisle, the hard white plaster of the cup-lighted walls, the shiny tiles of the bathroom and the thickness of the wooden exit door as she held it open, maybe even the sedentary mass of the whole building, bricks, gravel, and glass, the projectionist astride it in his fireproof booth. At the theater these sensations took the shape of the candy she put in her mouth—that one-cent lozenge was the concentrated pill of the place from the marquee down to the elbow-joints of its plumbing—but now on the bus her experience has become the floating glass of her hygienic angels, the candied tonic of her guardian gods. Amid the exhalations of stale odors, the coughs of her fellow citizens, the dream of that kiss is sweet to suck on. There is nothing of consequence except that she has had these inconsequential thoughts.

And what of world events in this contemplation? In the tripled hum of bus, magazine, and movie, the threat of war is present, too. It does not take the form of a direct statement, or even an idle thought, though likely she has looked at the day’s headlines. Instead it takes the shape of her body, of her being alive at that moment when we see her. This embodiment of the world does not happen when she moves through her conscious life, charting the day’s activities, but rather in these moments of reverie, such as this one inspired by the kiss, when time pauses. Then political speeches on the radio, the rippled tides of Pacific islands, the fat Grumman Wildcats poised on the oil stains of their palm-tree airfields, not to mention the white-haired statesmen in Washington, D.C., with their pocket-watches and filigreed canes, welcoming diplomats in oak-paneled rooms hung with paintings of puffy-clouded skies above teams of oxen—then all of these visions gather as the wool of her coat, the shine of her black buttons, the pores of her skin, and the strands of her hair. Then too, by a contagion of reverie, the threat of war gathers in the kindred suspensions of time she barely notices as the bus travels: the smudgy gleam of the silver handrails, the neon beer sign inverted in a puddle with a swath of night sky, an aureole of drowned cigarette butts for stars. None of these visions is an allegory, a statement of any kind, but a hush in which the world just then appears, suspended, without comment, condensed to a reflection. Thus might the kiss of Boyer and de Havilland be a medium holding that time even now.