An iconic photograph that made Trieste born photographer Ugo Borsatti famous around the world – the American soldier kissing a Triestine girl before leaving Trieste – has an intricate story, and a happy ending. The son of the goodbying couple, Christopher Swaim, tells us what happened after the serendipitous kiss at the Trieste’s train station.
The young girl kissing an American soldier at Trieste station is probably one of Ugo Borsatti’s best known shots and one that made history. The year was 1954 and the city was still under Allied occupation nine years after the end of World War II in what was known as the Free Territory of Trieste.
Tell us about yourself. Where are you from?
The question that invariably perplexes me the most is, “Where are you from?” For many, that simple inquiry carries distinct connotations depending on their own backgrounds and experiences. Well, I was born in the heart of the Bronx, in New York City. At face value, that might not seem particularly remarkable – just another American from the Big Apple, right? But the details make the narrative much more intriguing.
You see, my father hails from a tiny desert town called Liberty, nestled in the arid Arizona landscape. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1953 and stationed in the Free Territory of Trieste, Italy, as part of the post-World War II “occupation forces.” After completing his service in Trieste, he, like many others, was sent back to the United States. But not before an emotional farewell at the train station in Trieste in October 1954.
Picture the bustling platform, the orderly military procedures, and the tearful goodbyes of young lovers, clinging to the hope of a reunion. Among them was my mother, Graziella, who had met my father while her family earned their living by doing laundry for the young soldiers. When my father’s friends lifted her onto the platform so they could embrace, it was a moment that Ugo Borsatti, the 27-year-old photographer, captured on film. But what if he had glanced away for a moment or fumbled with his camera? What if he’d missed that shot?
Pictures were taken that day, a series of snapshots known only to our family, ultimately culminating in what we now call “THE picture.” My mother had to travel to Livorno for their wedding. They were married on November 28, 1954, by a U.S. Army Chaplain. The paperwork was a convoluted process, and her father accompanied her, a man I never had the chance to meet.
It took over six months to complete all the necessary paperwork to bring my mother to the U.S., and during that wait, my father found an apartment and a job in New York City. That bustling, welcoming city would become the backdrop for my mother’s arrival in May 1955 as she sailed past the Statue of Liberty. Her boat journey had stops along the way, including Barcelona, where the Triestin dialect strangely resembled the Spanish spoken there.
I was born in June 1956. My father re-enlisted in the U.S. Army when I was about two years old. Work was scarce in New York City, and my parents faced their fair share of hardships. My mother worked as a seamstress and later in a canning factory, while my father labored as a welder, striving to enhance his skills. He even took flying lessons through the G.I. Bill, a government program aimed at helping returning soldiers acquire education and job skills, though he never finished his flight training.
Against my mother’s wishes, my father chose to rejoin the military, attending radio communications school at Fort Gordon, Georgia. My mother and I relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where her sister, Sara, lived. Sara, too, had married a U.S. Army soldier stationed in Trieste, moving to the U.S. before the official troop departure.
It was around this time, in the late 1950s, that my mother and I made the first of many relocations – this time to Kaiserslautern, Germany, after my father received his orders. I would move seven times before I turned 18. Upon graduating from high school on the island of Guam, I made a fateful decision to join the U.S. Army, opting for a program that allowed me to choose my vocation and duty station. And where did I choose? Vicenza, Italy.
Did you realize your parents were famous in Trieste?
The second most challenging question, you ask. It’s a notion I’ve yet to fully wrap my head around, for their “fame” exists only in a very specific corner of the world. I’ve shared this story and showcased the pictures countless times, but sometimes, I sense that others find it too unbelievable. How can this elderly American man possibly be the offspring of the radiant young couple in those pictures? It’s a legitimate question.
From my early years, my mother mentioned that she and my father had graced the cover of an Italian magazine. She even had a copy of the magazine, though it held little appeal for me, or my two younger sisters for that matter. It wasn’t until 1994, when my cousin Paolo took it upon himself to introduce himself to Mr. Borsatti, informing him that the young couple from THE picture would soon be visiting Trieste. Astonishingly, Mr. Borsatti would meet them for the first time since the photograph was taken, 40 years earlier.
Their reunion became a local sensation, making headlines in regional magazines and even extending beyond the boundaries of Friuli Giulia. It reached such heights that an American tabloid newspaper, the National Enquirer, dedicated an entire page to the story. This marked the moment when their “fame” truly skyrocketed, thanks to my cousin who remains largely unsung. They even appeared on RAI Uno for a Valentine’s Day special a year or two later. They were flown from California to Rome, appearing on television for a mere 15 or 20 minutes. Several short documentaries were also made, and I have the CDs to prove it. In Trieste, a small film company has been diligently working on a documentary about Mr. Borsatti for several years, and I can provide you with their contact information.
How do you know Ugo Borsatti?
My wife and I first met Mr. Borsatti during one of our visits to Trieste, possibly in the late 1990s. Our initial encounter was profoundly emotional, and in each subsequent trip to Trieste, we’ve made it a point to visit him. Our connection has deepened into a cherished friendship. During my most recent visit to Trieste in August 2023, I went to see Mr. Borsatti in the assisted living facility where he resided. He had just recovered from a two-month battle with COVID, but his spirit remained strong and his mind sharp. The reunion was a true pleasure, as it always is.
We were also in Trieste in October 2022 when the city celebrated Mr. Borsatti’s illustrious career and his remarkable photographs. I was in attendance and had the honor of being introduced to the audience. It was a complete surprise to Mr. Borsatti, and naturally, we both shed tears of joy.
Ugo’s photograph captures life at the crossroads, and it became famous all over Italy. How did it make you feel seeing your parents in the picture?
This is a complex question, as I don’t necessarily feel something extraordinary when I gaze at that photograph. It’s not to say that the image lacks meaning for me – far from it.
For me, the real satisfaction comes from sharing the story behind the picture with others. I’ve become quite adept at it, deliberately withholding the identity of the people in the photograph until the end. I enjoy watching the expressions on people’s faces as I reveal that these are my parents. It’s always fascinating to observe the initial disbelief and the subsequent inquiry, “Really? Those are your parents?” Each time I recount the story, my own emotions intensify.
Perhaps it’s the passage of time or the wisdom that comes with age, but sharing this tale has grown more poignant with each retelling.