MIDTOWN — Throughout photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt's prolific career, all that separated him from some of the most historic villains and heroes of the 20th century was his lens.
The German-born shutterbug captured on film the first time Adolph Hitler met Benito Mussolini. He snapped the definitive image on V-J Day of a overjoyed sailor planting a kiss on a nurse during a Times Square celebration of World War II's end. He also took portraits of heads of state like Winston Churchill and Richard Nixon and celebrities like Sophia Loren.
He shared most of those shots with the public through his many dispatches for Life magazine. But he also gave away prints of these memorable moments as thank-yous to friends, families and the subjects of his photography.
"He was very generous," the photographer's friend and former lawyer John Catterson told DNAinfo New York. "I think most people, when their picture was taken, asked for a copy of the picture. So he was happy to provide it."
His generosity is now at the heart of a legal fight between Time Warner — the owner of Life magazine — and the family of Eisenstaedt's longtime companion, Lucille Kaye, over who owns a trove of signed prints of his early photography.
The dispute began in April 2013 when Kaye's family planned to auction off some of the work through Sotheby's.
Time Warner interceded, claiming that under contracts it signed with Eisenstaedt before his death, it has rights to all the photographs and negatives he took between Jan. 1, 1929 and July 26, 1994. The media titan said that under the terms of the agreement, that includes the disputed photographs.
But Catterson, who represents Kaye's family, said Eisenstaedt had given the photos — which include the Hitler-Mussolini meet-up — to her.
"The actual photographs we're talking about were photographs in Miss Kaye's apartment at the time she died in 2012," Catterson said.
"They had been gifted to her well before Eisie died," he added, referring to the photographer by his nickname.
Eisenstaedt, who immigrated to the United States during Nazi Germany, died in 1995 at age 96. While he had a home in Jackson Heights, Queens, he spent most of the last three decades of his life living in Kaye's Midtown apartment.
Kaye's sister, Kathy, had been married to Eisenstaedt from 1949 until her death in 1972. After Kathy died, Kaye and Eisenstaedt grew inseparable, and Kaye took care of him as he aged, according to an April 9 legal filing by Catterson in Manhattan Surrogate's Court.
Lulu, as Eisenstaedt called her, would cook him dinner each night and walk him to and from work.
Shortly after his wife Kathy died, Eisenstaedt also gave Kaye numerous photographs. Catterson said he saw some of them displayed on the walls of her apartment, and she kept others in a black briefcase in a closet.
Catterson said Eisenstaedt had shown similar generosity throughout his career, citing in his filing a photograph of a young ballerina he gave Chelsea Clinton after snapping shots of her and her parents on Martha's Vineyard in the early 1990s.
Sophia Loren, a frequent subject of Eisenstaedt's photography, also received prints — in large part because of her appreciation of his work.
"He took her picture quite often and had correspondences saying how much she enjoyed his pictures," Catterson said.
In 2012, Kaye died at 92 without any children. She left her possessions, including the photographs worth an estimated $50,000, to her nieces and nephews in South Africa, and made Catterson the executor of her estate.
In April 2013, Kaye's family decided to auction some of the photos through Sotheby's. They later decided to pull the items from sale, but not before Sotheby's included them in a catalog.
Time Warner spotted the listing and contacted Sotheby's, claiming ownership.
Subsequently, Sotheby's refused to return the photos to Kaye's family until they resolved the dispute with Time Warner.
Catterson filed the April 9 petition in Manhattan Surrogate's Court to have a judge determine ownership and to order the return of the photographs to Kaye's family.
The lawyer said under its agreements with Eisenstaedt, Time Warner does own the copyright to his works and pays his estate 50 percent of all revenue from the licensing of his works.
However, Catterson said that Kaye's family owns the disputed prints because Eisenstaedt gave them to her before he signed any contracts with Time Warner.
He also notes that under one of the contracts, Time had a right to all the photographs in rooms located at the Time & Life building and in Eisenstaedt's Jackson Heights apartment. Catterson said in the filing these photos were kept at Kaye's apartment and there is no evidence they were in Time & Life or Eisenstaedt's apartment.
He added that Time Warner has no proof of ownership since it has not kept an inventory of Eisenstaedt's photography and cannot "articulate which, if any, of the photographs are part of the collection assigned to Time in the agreements."
Time Warner did not respond to requests for comment.