Ernest Hemingway and Agnes von Kurowsky — A Love Story of World War I
“ When the casualties had first come in during those late summer campaigns in the foothills of the Dolomites Agnes had been appalled at the horrifying wounds…”
The story of Ernest Hemingway and Agnes von Kurowsky has become something of a romantic legend that, nevertheless, grows ever stronger with the retelling, and ever more poignant. Of course Hemingway’s novel, A Farewell to Arms (and the many film and TV versions), has a fictionalised version of their relationship at its heart.
Agnes Hannah von Kurowsky was a tall dark haired girl from Washington
D.C. She was a dutiful daughter and, for two years, stayed at home nursing her ailing widower father. When her father died in 1910 she took a job at the Washington Public Library, but soon became bored with the dull routine and applied to become a nurse at Bellevue Hospital and was accepted.
Agnes was kind, generous, bright, full of energy, and fond of people; she made an excellent nurse.
With America’s entry into World War One in 1917 she applied to join the Red Cross Nursing Service, and in late June 1918 sailed for Europe. After some additional training in France, Agnes and her companions were sent by train to Northern Italy where they were dispersed to various hospitals. Agnes was assigned to the Ospedale Croce Rossa Americana, at 10 Via Alessandro, Manzoni, Milano.
She soon settled into the beautiful old hospital (it had once been a large family home at the time of Garibaldi’s uprising), with its ivy covered stone
walls and big oak doors. It was just a short walk from La Scala. Her efficiency, knowledge, and sheer hard work soon earned her the respect of the other nurses — especially Elsie Macdonald, who became a close and firm friend — and the Italian doctors, who all wanted to marry her. Agnes loved being on night duty, there was something about the quiet, that feeling of solitude, and the pool of light around her desk in the hallway, and that overriding feeling of peace when she looked in on the young men sleeping away their fears, and their nightmares.
When the casualties first came in during those late summer campaigns in the foothills of the Dolomites, Agnes had been appalled at the horrifying wounds, but soon got used to them and knew she had to show confidence and a total disregard for the seriousness of the injuries. If she was calm so too the patients. And it wasn’t just battlefield injuries. During that hot summer of 1918, with men living in the filth of the trenches, eating bad food, and drinking bad water, disease was rife. It had been that way for Henry Villard, another American ambulance driver based at Bassano — close to the front line that stretched between Vicenza and Trento — who was brought in with a very bad case of jaundice and malaria. Agnes welcomed the young man — who, for the most part was delirious and continually retching from a dry nausea — with a kiss to the forehead, and a “Hello, Henry my dear.” She then gave him a hot bath to wash away the filth of the battlefield and the train journey, fed him a spoonful of castor oil, followed by an eggnog, and put him into a bed
of crisp clean sheets where he slept solidly for twelve hours. There was
little more — in those days before antibiotics — that even a doctor could have done for him. In later life all Henry Villard could remember of his stay in the Milan hospital was Agnes von Kurowsky, his darling “angel of Milano.”
It would be the same, only more so, for Ernest Hemingway.
The nineteen year old Ernest Hemingway had been away from Oak Park for less than a year driving a Red Cross ambulance in Italy. It was the greatest experience of his life — and one that would change his life — and the Italian soldiers adopted him as something of a mascot. Hemingway couldn’t do enough for those kind and generous men.
And although he didn’t have to Ernest also took on the job of delivering mail, wine, cigarettes and chocolate to the front line on the south-western side of the Piave River, in the Valley of the Dolomites, and in range of Austrian artillery and heavy machine gun fire. On one such occasion, after he’d cycled to the front line and began to distribute his very welcome gifts — an Austrian Minenwerfer mortar shell came in high across the Piave, falling just in front of a trench Hemingway was heading for. The mortar shell, exploding with a devastating red hot force like Hell’s furnace door opening, scattered its bone splintering deadly cargo of scrap metal and nails. The force of the explosion was like a mini-hurricane and Hemingway, along with a dozen or more Italian soldiers of the Alpine Regiment, took the full blast. The young Oak Parker went down badly injured in his legs and feet and for a while lay unconscious. When he eventually regained consciousness he gradually freed himself from beneath the dead and the dying. It was then he heard a man crying out for help, for his mother, a little way off.
Slowly and painfully Hemingway crawled toward the sound. When he eventually found the man the future novelist raised himself to his knees and with super-human strength hoisted the badly wounded Alpini across his shoulders and headed for the relative safety of the Italian trenches. Yard after agonising yard Hemingway made his way, but, within a couple of feet of the trenches, a long burst of Austrian machine-gun fire slammed into the backs of Hemingway’s legs. But the handsome young American wasn’t finished yet and somehow managed to pull the wounded Italian to safety before passing-out. The Austrian machine-gunner didn’t fire again: maybe the bravery he’d just witnessed stilled his trigger finger, or perhaps he was dead himself from the fierce Italian covering fire. Either way Hemingway and the young Italian soldier survived.
When Hemingway awoke in a Red Cross hospital in Milan he was greeted by a beautiful young American nurse called Agnes von Kurowsky. They soon fell in love and he’d tell her how, when the war was over, they’d marry and live in Spain or France and how he would become a great and famous writer.
“ Yes, Mr Kid,” Agnes would reply.
“ But I will…”
“ Yes, Mr Kid.”
And although Agnes and Ernest fell in love they never became lovers, but, at one point did talk of marriage.
And as Ernest’s wounds healed and he began to walk again, he and
Agnes explored old Milan, drank Campari outside small cafes, and sat in
the park listening to a brass band of excruciating badness. They even
went to the opera and applauded each aria as the locals did. Agnes also
noticed a growing confidence in Ernest, a confidence that often showed
itself in a self important and often cynical attitude toward others that
made him sound less caring, less generous than she knew him to be. It
was something Agnes didn’t like very much. And then Ernest said he had
been thinking about going home to Oak Park, that his father and mother
were worried about him, and Agnes said he must go, and that she too was
leaving Milan, had been transferred to Treviso where an epidemic of
dysentery had broken out amongst newly arrived American troops.
Hemingway never saw Agnes Hannah von Kurowsky again, although he did have a letter from her some years later congratulating him on his marriage to Hadley, and how proud she was to have known him.
Carlos Baker — Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (Wm. Collins, London, 1969); Bernice Kert — The Hemingway Women (W. W. Norton & Co, New York, 1983); Ernest Hemingway — Islands in the Stream (Wm. Collins, London, 1970); Mary Welsh Hemingway — How it Was (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London,1977, & Alfred A. Knopf, USA,1976); Charles Whiting — Hemingway Goes to War (Charles Sutton, UK, 1999); Hemingway’s Boat — Paul Hendrickson (The Bodley Head, London, 2012); An Historical Guide to Ernest Hemingway — Edited by Linda Wagner-Martin (Oxford University Press, Oxford & New York, 2000); Caroline Moorehead — Martha Gellhorn: A Life ( Chatto & Windus, London, 2003); A. E. Hotchner — Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir ( Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1967); Lillian Ross — Portrait of Hemingway (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1961); Jeffrey Meyers — Hemingway: A Biography (Harper/Collins, London, 1985); John Atkins — Ernest Hemingway: His Work & Personality (Spring Books, London, 1952 & 1961);…
Note: I shall always be indebted to Charles Whiting for the many conversations we had with regard Ernest Hemingway.