Hemingway in Love and War

When Ernest Hemingway was 19 years old, he signed up as a volunteer with the American Red Cross which was looking for ambulance drivers to send to the Italian front during World War I. Having just graduated from high school, it was his first time to travel abroad. He was hungry for adventure and eager to join the fighting, but a few days after being sent to the Front, Hemingway was injured when shrapnel from a bomb that exploded a few away hit him and other soldiers nearby. His right leg was hit by the flying shrapnel, and his leg and knee were hit by machine gun fire.  After being badly injured, Hemingway somehow managed to help a fellow wounded soldier before retreating for cover in the nearest trench.

With looks like that, even I'd fall in love with him!  (Photo from wikipedia.)
With looks like that, even I’d fall in love with him! (Photo from wikipedia.)

After spending some weeks in field hospitals, Hemingway was sent to the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan, where he was was operated on and convalesced for almost a year.  Despite Red Cross reports that Hemingway received more than 200 wounds, mainly on his legs, only 10 were really serious.  It was while he was recuperating at the American Red Cross Hospital that he fell in love for the first time. The object of his affection was one of the nurses at the hospital, Agnes Von Kurowsky.  Agnes Von Kurowsky was one of the American nurses sent by the Red Cross to assist wounded soldiers in Italy.  She was from Washington D.C., and at the time, 26 years old – seven years older than Ernest Hemingway.

Agnes Von Kurowsky in her Red Cross Uniform. (Photo from wikipedia).
Agnes Von Kurowsky in her Red Cross Uniform. (Photo from wikipedia).

Hemingway in Love and War, written and compiled by Henry S. Villard and James Nagel, contains the diary of Agnes Von Kurowsky during her first trip to Italy in 1918, including the time she met Hemingway at the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan.  It also includes Agnes’ letters to Ernest Hemingway while they were apart, including a rather sad “Dear John” letter she sent him in April 1919.  The book also contains several letters from Ernest Hemingway to his family; unfortunately, none of his letters to Agnes were included.

In her diary, Agnes writes about her experience of crossing the Atlantic for the first time and of meeting some interesting Belgian soldiers, whom she described as quite friendly.  Before meeting Hemingway at the American hospital, Agnes describes a couple of men in her diary who were attracted to her, including an Italian officer who was keen on establishing a serious relationship and an American doctor, only referred to as “Daddy,” who she left behind in the States. In her diary, Agnes describes her personal life, including her new friendships and romances, briefly, focusing on her experiences and struggles as a nurse.  During her first few months at the American hospital, she describes her Italian officer who, to her apprehension, was quite serious with the courtship.  The Italian officer later leaves Milan to return to his home at the bidding of his mother, and it is only then that Agnes mentions Ernest Hemingway among the patients at the hospital.  She refers to Hemingway as “Kid” in her diary and later in her letters, and it isn’t long until she writes in her diary that Hemingway claimed to be in love with her.

From August to mid October 1918, when Agnes stopped writing in her diary, she describes her relationship with Hemingway – of dining out in the city with friends and intimate little details of their everyday interaction.  Relationships between nurses and patients were not condoned in the hospital, and there were no sordid details about their intimacy in the diary, which is in fact a bit boring if one was hoping for some explicit details on their trysts.

If her diary was dry and pragmatic, Agnes’ letters to Hemingway were quite the opposite.  She had written him letters during his short trip away from the hospital and later when she was assigned to other hospitals in Florence and in other parts of Italy.  Agnes and Ernest also wrote letters to each other while they were both in the hospital in Milan, trusting one of the other nurses to carry out their secret correspondence.  It is quite tragic that none of Ernest’s letters to Agnes survived; Agnes had supposedly burned them all at the insistence of her future fiance, the man she jilted Ernest for.  As business-like and sparse as her diary entries were, Agnes’ letters were quite affectionate, playful, and sometimes passionate about her feelings for Hemingway.  She often expressed her longing for Hemingway when they were apart and more than once emphasized how much she loved him.  In the four months they were together, their relationship seemed to escalate quickly, and by December, Agnes and Hemingway seemed to be engaged and planning to get married when they both returned to the U.S. in 1919.  However, ardent as their correspondence was, her letters to Hemingway often reflected conflict and building tension in their relationship.  She repeatedly assures Hemingway in her letters that she truly loved him and was not ashamed of him though continually calling him “Kid,” or “Old Man,” or “Bambino Mio.”

Though it had seemed that Agnes and Ernest were engaged sometime during December 1918, her letters to Hemingway, when he returned to the U.S. in January 1919, first became infrequent, then later less focused on her feelings for him and more on her work and the interesting people she was with at the field hospital.  On April 1919, she sent Ernest Hemingway her “Dear John” letter, expressing how, though she was quite fond of him, it was more as a sister or a mother than as a sweetheart.  She also confessed that no matter how much she admired him, she found him to be too short tempered and sometimes sarcastic and impulsive.  However, possibly the biggest reason she decided to call off their relationship was because of their big age gap, saying that she is now and will always be too old for him and that he was only just a boy – a kid. Probably the most shocking information in her letter to Hemingway was that she was engaged to an Italian officer and would marry soon.

According to later biographies and friends’ accounts, Agnes’ “Dear John” letter deeply hurt Hemingway; so much so that he had become quite depressed months after receiving it.  He had gone back to America with the hopes of working to save money to be able to marry Agnes and was devastated when she suddenly broke off their relationship.  Many Hemingway scholars believe that Agnes’ change of heart affected Hemingway deeply, and the trauma that he suffered from it may have shaped his writing and no doubt, future relationships with other women.  Two years after Agnes’ rejection of him, Hemingway met Hadley Richardson, who would later become his first wife.  Hadley, who was 30 years old at the time, was even older than Agnes. Ernest was then 22 years old.

The last letter Agnes ever wrote to Hemingway was dated December 1922, three years after she had broken up with him. It can be inferred that Hemingway had written to her telling her about his life in Paris with his wife Hadley and about his new book of short stories to be published soon.  In her letter, Agnes seemed surprised but pleased to hear from him, and she recounted to him the major events in her career and life, including the fact that she did not marry the Italian officer after all.  She also inquired about his new book and sent her warm regards to Hadley.  There were no further correspondences between Agnes and Hemingway after that, and they never saw each other again.

Hemingway’s experiences in Italy and in the war would later figure prominently in his works of fiction, notably in A Farewell to Arms, which is believed to be inspired by his real experiences at the Red Cross Hospital in Milan. Many scholars also believe that Agnes Von Kurowsky was Hemingway’s primary inspiration for the protagonist’s love interest, the British nurse Catherine Barkley.  Anyone who has read A Farewell to Arms knows that its ending is less than happy, which may have been Hemingway’s revenge for Agnes’ treatment toward him in real life.  His A Very Short Story also depicts his failed relationship with Agnes.

One of the authors of Hemingway in Love and War Henry S. Villard had met Hemingway and Agnes when he was a patient at the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan in 1918.  Like Hemingway, Henry S. Villard also volunteered as an ambulance driver for the American Red Cross. Villard was sent to the Red Cross Hospital after becoming very ill while at the front and contracting jaundice.  At the hospital, Villard met and became friends with Hemingway, whose room was next to his.  He also described Agnes as very kind and attractive and even asked her out on a date once.

Though Agnes and Ernest never saw each other again after they parted, Villard wrote to Agnes in the 1960s hoping that she still remembered him.  Agnes replied that she still remembered Villard, and the two corresponded throughout the 60s and 70s up until Agnes’ death.  Before she died, Anges and her husband wrote to Villard asking his help to endorse Agnes’ internment at the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery in Washington D.C., where her parents and grandparents were buried.  Her initial request had been denied, so she asked Henry S. Villard, who was a former American Ambassador, to plead her case.  Villard wrote to the president of the Board of Commissioners of the United States Soldiers’ and Airmens’ Home, who later granted Agnes’ request.  After he death, as a way to show their gratitude for his assistance, Agnes’ husband gave Villard Agnes’ “lost” diary of her time in Italy.

Despite her letters that indicated that she and Ernest had a serious relationship and were even engaged, Agnes told Villard that her relationship with Hemingway was no more than a fling, and though she remembers him fondly, she also recalls that Hemingway was, at 19 years old, quite immature, sarcastic, outspoken, and impulsive.  Of her reaction to Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms and Catherine Barkley, including the implied intimacy between the two characters in the hospital at night, Agnes stated that she resented being compared to Catherine Barkley, which indirectly implied that she was the mistress of the author.  She vehemently stated that she “wasn’t that kind of girl,” and that A Farewell to Arms was nothing more than a fantasy; wishful thinking on the part of the author.

Though primarily focused on Agnes Von Kurowsky’s life and thoughts during her time at the American Red Cross Hospital in Milan and her feelings for Ernest, Hemingway in Love and War also provide some important insights into the life, ideas, and personality of Hemingway in his younger years, which were evident in his letters to his family and inferred from Agnes’ replies to his lost letters to her.  Agnes and other fellow patients at the hospital described young Ernest as always cheerful, very friendly, and loved to tell stories but most of all, loved to listen to other peoples’ stories.  Though injured, Ernest kept a very positive outlook in life and was well liked by everyone who met him.

Hemingway in Love and War is an interesting read that gives a glimpse of young Ernest Hemingway and the woman who may have changed his life forever.  It describes very exciting times for Agnes and Ernest – fighting for a cause they both believed in, making a difference in the world, and finding love in a foreign country.  Though the diary entries were short and somewhat boring, Agnes’ letters to Hemingway were interesting, and the penultimate one, the “Dear John,” letter was quite sad.  It’s interesting to read Agnes’ letters and try to guess what Hemingway had written before or after.  It’s interesting to think that, though Agnes may not have felt as strongly as Ernest about their relationship, she may have been Ernest’s great love – the woman who made one of America’s greatest writers.


When I posted this yesterday, July 21, I didn’t realize that it was Ernest Hemingway’s 117th birthday! What a cool coincidence. Happy Birthday, Papa!


Hemingway in Love and War:  The Lost Diary of Agnes Von Kurowsky (1997) – Henry S. Villard and James Nagel

Hyperion; 269 pages (paperback)

Personal rating:  3/5

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