Seventy-one years ago Ernest Hemingway suffered the shock—or rather the two shocks—of his young life. He came to World War I at 18, fresh from a few months as a cub reporter in Kansas City and only a year out of Oak Park high school. His war didn’t last long. He served as a Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy for only five weeks before he was badly wounded at Fossalta di Piave near midnight on July 8, 1918.
A great deal has been made of the effect of that wounding. Certainly the Austrian Minnenwerfer which threw the projectile across the river, to explode among the men Hemingway had just brought cigarettes and chocolate to, disabused him of any lingering belief in his own immortality. In Melville’s memorable phrase from another war, what like a bullet can undeceive. Except that Hemingway was hit by more than a bullet: at the explosion hundreds of metal fragments ripped into his legs, and he thought he was dying. He tried to breathe and could not. He tried to move and could not. He felt his soul flutter up and away from his body like a weightless handkerchief. He survived that trauma, but did not soon outlive it. Time and again, in his fiction, he revisited the moment of his wounding and its aftermath. For years, he had difficulty sleeping without a light.
When the wounded Hemingway finally reached the Red Cross hospital in Milan, Agnes von Kurowsky was already there. It was she—this tall and vivacious American nurse with the Teutonic name—who was to administer the second wound, a blow that shaped the life and career of Ernest Hemingway every bit as much as the one he suffered on the Austrian front.
Even to begin with, it was an unequal romance. Hemingway, who turned 19 on July 21, was still a youth, and a youth without much experience in courtship. Though surrounded by women at home, he did not have a serious or steady girl friend in high school. He’d been an awkward lad and was only beginning to grow out of the gangling period into the extraordinary handsomeness and charismatic vitality of his young manhood. Agnes, on the other hand, was 26, and knew something of the world. Before taking her training in nursing at Bellevue, she’d supported herself by working in a library and at other jobs. Attractive with her chestnut hair, sparkling grey eyes, and flirtatious manner, she’d had her share of beaux along the way, including a doctor in New York to whom she was officially engaged when she and Ernest met. Engaged or not, she was avid to see new places and meet new friends, and she could take care of herself.
Throughout her long life (and she outlived Hemingway by more than two decades), Agnes invariably maintained that she and Ernest had not been lovers. They saw a great deal of each other, she said, and she was very fond of him, but then again she was fond of a number of men, and matters had absolutely not proceeded beyond the petting stage. These disavowals, understandable from a married woman who was not eager to have her privacy trampled by a herd of biographers, do not entirely square with the love letters she wrote him in the fall of 1918. He saved her letters, of course, while it is one of American literature’s minor disasters that she did not save his. The pattern was to be the same with F. Scott Fitzgerald and the rich and beautiful Ginevra King, the great love of his college years.
It took their romance a month or two to percolate in the hospital in Milan. A number of the patients and doctors paid Agnes suit, but Hemingway emerged as her favorite. They held hands more or less openly and wrote daily notes to each other during the hours they were apart. She worked nights so as to see more of him and carried his picture with her. Late in August, Hemingway wrote his mother that he was “in love again” but in no danger of getting married. Then as summer turned to fall, the relationship deepened in intensity.
In piecing out the story of this affair, a chronology will be useful, along with the introduction of one other character, a 36-year-old Red Cross captain from Philadelphia’s Main Line named James Gamble. On October 15, Agnes was sent to Florence to nurse a flu victim. In late October Hemingway was dispatched to the Monte Grappa front, contracted jaundice almost immediately, and returned to Milan under the care of Jim Gamble. Sometime early in November Gamble offered Hemingway a year’s stay in Italy, all-expenses-paid, as his secretary and companion. On November 11, Armistice Day, Agnes came back to Milan. On November 20, she and another nurse were assigned to Treviso. On December 9, Hemingway visited her there. Over the Christmas holiday, he stayed with Gamble in his villa at Taormina, Sicily. He had one more meeting with Agnes before he sailed for New York from Genoa on Jan. 6, 1919. It was then understood between them that they were to be married when she came back to the United States. Soon thereafter she was transferred to Torre di Mosto, where she met and fell in love with an Italian officer named Domenico Caracciolo. On March 7 she mailed Hemingway his “Dear Ernest” letter.
While she was in Florence and Treviso, Hemingway wrote Agnes every day, and she replied nearly as often and with passion. She yearned for them to be together, she wrote from Florence, so that she could nestle in that hollow space he made for her face and then go to sleep with his arm around her. “I love you more and more and know what I’m going to bring you when I come home,” she promised. Apparently to avert suspicion—nurses were not supposed to make love to their patients—she addressed some of the letters from Florence not to the Red Cross hospital but to the Anglo-American Officers Club in Milan. She did not want others to know of their relationship. “This is our war-sacrifice, bambino mio, to keep our secrets to ourselves—but, as long as you have no secrets from me, and I have none from you (at least, I can’t think of anything you don’t know already), why, we should worry about whether the older world knows. And, I’m afraid the world doesn’t understand everything anyhow, and would make very harsh criticisms. But dopo la guerra—we should worry about criticisms, shouldn’t we?”
The issue of age, not overtly discussed, runs like an undercurrent through these letters. He is her bambino mio, her dear boy. She called him “Kid” and herself “Mrs. Kid.” She writes as to a younger person who needs flattery and approval. He mustn’t think she’s ashamed of him, she assures him. She’s proud of him, she says, when he resolves to give up hard liquor. An ironic motif concerns her fear that he might abandon her as she had abandoned her doctor fiancé. “I never imagined anyone else could be so dear and necessary to me,” she wrote. “Don’t let me gain you only to lose you. I love you, Ernie.”
During the November 11—20 period when both were in Milan, the two lovers solidified their marriage plans. Agnes maintained in retrospect that she’d consented to the engagement solely to keep Ernest away from Jim Gamble, a man she thought of as sexually interested in Hemingway’s person. Ernest would never be “anything but a bum . . .if he started traveling around with someone else paying the expenses,” she said. And in fact, they became engaged soon after Gamble proposed the year’s holiday to Hemingway. In this connection, it is interesting that Agnes evidently knew nothing of Ernest’s trip to see Gamble in Taormina during the Christmas holiday. Her December 20—21 letter from Treviso, one of the most loving she wrote, says nothing about this, instead confirming that she would not be able to be with him on Christmas day. “If this hits you about Xmas time, just make believe you’re getting a gift from me (as you will someday). And let me tell you I love you and wish we could be together for our first Christmas . . . I miss you more and more, and it makes me shiver to think of your going home without me. What if our hearts should change? . . . and we should lose this beautiful world of us.” In the context of her letters, it seems clear that Agnes did indeed want Ernest to reject Gamble’s offer and return to the United States, both to save him from his own worst instincts and to save him for herself. So he sailed on the Verdi early in January. She agreed to follow as soon as it could be arranged, but that was not soon enough for Ernest. At their last meeting in Italy, they quarreled because she refused to return immediately. That quarrel lay between them across the ocean.
Agnes signed off her first letter to Oak Park cheerfully, though hardly passionately. “Well, good night, dear Kid,” she concluded, “A rivederla, carissimo tenente, suo cattivo ragazza, Agnes.” She was his naughty girl still, but even this lighthearted promise was withdrawn after she was transferred from Treviso to be placed in charge of the small Red Cross station at Torre di Mosto. She wrote him less often then, scaling down from twice a week to once every two weeks, and sounded less and less like his future wife. Reading these letters with the advantage of hindsight, it is obvious that she was preparing him for the final rejection.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, Hemingway continued to save money toward their marriage. As he wrote his friend Bill Smith, he had only 50 more years to live, and he wanted to spend every one of them with Agnes. By the first of March he had “$172 and a fifty buck Liberty Bond in the bank.” Though he must have sensed the increasing chill in her correspondence—he was young but not stupid—he was not prepared to admit it to himself.
Feb. 3—5, 1919, Agnes von Kurowsky to Ernest Hemingway:
My future is a puzzle to me, and I’m sure I don’t know how to solve it. Whether to go home, or apply for more foreign service is the question just now. Of course, you understand this is all merely for the near future, as you will help me plan the next period, I guess. . . .
“I guess”! In any event, it looked as if she would not be returning soon. “I’m getting fonder, every day, of furrin’ parts. . . . Goodnight old dear, Your weary but cheerful Aggie.”
Feb. 15, 1919, Agnes to Ernest:
It was “hard work writing letters when you have none to answer,” she wrote, implying that the Italian mails had not been delivering his letters. She’d had guests for dinner, including the “tenente medico [who was] the funniest and brightest one yet.” Was this Domenico Caracciolo? “I have a choice of staying a year in Rome, but I’m thinking of going to the Balkans so I’m rather undecided as yet. . .work is going to be very dull at home after this life. . . . Ever Afftly— Agnes.”
March 1, 1919, Agnes to Ernest:
Now there were too many letters from him. “I got a whole bushel of letters from you today, in fact haven’t been able to read them all yet . . . I can’t begin to keep up with you, leading the busy life I do,” Agnes wrote. She was having the time of her life and never lacked for excitement. (With whom?) She had a star shell pistol and lots of cartridges to fire off on dark nights. (Alone?) She had learned to smoke and to play “a fascinating gambling game” called 7 1/2. (Who had taught her?) She certainly wasn’t the perfect being he thought her. “I’m feeling very cattiva tonight, so goodnight, Kid, and don’t do anything rash, but have a good time. Afft. Aggie.” She was no longer his “cattiva ragazza,” only feeling naughty 5,000 miles away.
Six days later, she broke off the engagement in a letter that has until now (unlike the ones quoted above) remained unavailable.
March 7, 1919, Agnes to Ernest:
Significantly, this “Dear John” letter did not begin “Dear Ernest” but instead “Ernie, dear boy.” Even before he left Italy, Agnes admitted she had been trying to convince herself that theirs was “a real love-affair.” She’d only given in (consented to the engagement) to keep him “from doing something desperate” (accepting Gamble’s invitation?). After two months apart, she was still “very fond” of him, but “more as a brother than a sweetheart.”
And not only a brother but a younger brother, for the real burden of her argument was that Ernest was simply too young for her. She had made him care for her, she knew, and regretted it “from the bottom of my heart. But I am now & always will be too old, and that’s the truth, & I can’t get away from the fact that you’re just a boy—a Kid.” (She was no longer “Mrs. Kid,” however.) She thought she would be proud of him some day, but it was “wrong to hurry a career.” It made no practical sense for an independent 26-year-old woman to marry a 19-year-old youth with no occupation or college education or apparent prospects. That was what she’d tried to tell him when they quarreled at their last meeting, but he’d acted “like a spoiled child” and so she stopped.
The last paragraph unveiled the rival hinted at in her previous letter:
Or, at least, what a man he could become. The letter was signed “Ever admiringly & fondly, Your friend—Aggie.”
Then—& believe me when I say this is sudden for me, too—I expect to be married soon. And I hope & pray that after you have thought things out, you’ll be able to forgive me & start a wonderful career, & show what a man you really are.
Literary history is full of jilted writers, suggesting that an early pang-at-the-heart may be salutary. Obviously, what matters is what one does with the hurt. Among the alternatives are sinking into the morass of sorrow, converting the pain to anger, adopting a stance of philosophical expertise, erecting barriers against future rejections, getting rid of the pain by writing about it, and above all proving the jilter wrong: won’t she be sorry, though?
Hemingway went through all these reactions. He sank into a period of leaden despair after Agnes’s letter arrived, and zombied around the house in Oak Park. Yet within days he was writing his friend Bill Home about the rejection, appealing for sympathy and at the same time assuming the mantle of the expert on affairs of the heart. The letter began poignantly:
Then Ernest switched to the voice of authority. It never would have happened, he maintained, if he’d stayed in Italy.
She doesn’t love me, Bill. She takes it all back. A “mistake.” One of those little mistakes, you know. Oh, Bill, I can’t kid about it, and I can’t be bitter because I’m just smashed by it. . . . All I wanted was Ag. And happiness and now the bottom has dropped out of the whole world. And I’m writing this with a dry mouth and a lump in the old throat, and Bill I wish you were here to talk to. The dear Kid. I hope he’s [Agnes’s Italian lover] the best man in the world. Aw, Bill, I can’t write about it because I do love her so damn much.
Looking at matters in this way reasserted Hemingway’s authority. If only he, the 19-year-old tutor, had not taught Agnes, the 26-year-old tyro, the joys of lovemaking, she would not have succumbed to another. So, perhaps he was able to relieve some of the sense of frustration and powerlessness he must have felt.
You, meaning the world in general, teach a girl—no, I won’t put it that way—that is you make love to a girl and then you go away. She needs someone to make love to her. If the right person turns up, you’re out of luck. That’s the way it goes.
Still, he longed to do something, to take some course of action that would enable him to ventilate his anger. So far as anyone has been able to ascertain, Hemingway did not rush out and contract a dose of gonorrhea from a girl who worked in a Chicago department store, though that is the course of foolish spite he described in his only fictional rendering of the jilting. He did, however, persuade himself that Agnes had cheated him out of a wonderful year in Italy. Her letter, he wrote Gamble, came as “a devil of a jolt because I’d given up everything for her, most especially Taormina.”
In June Hemingway got a chance to take a measure of psychic revenge on Agnes. Her romance with Caracciolo was over, since his family regarded her as “an American adventuress” and he was—according to Hemingway, at least—the heir to a dukedom. This may or may not have been true, for in other accounts Ernest consistently inflated the status of his rival: he promoted him to a major in the crack Arditi, for example. Anyway, as he relayed the story to a friend, Agnes was “in a hell of a way mentally” after losing Caracciolo and had written to him asking for his sympathy. But he would do nothing for her now, Hemingway proclaimed: “I loved her once and then she gypped me.” This purported letter from Agnes has not survived and may have been an invention. Hemingway may actually have got the news from Elsie MacDonald or another of their mutual friends from the Red Cross. It was Elsie to whom he wrote, on hearing that Agnes was coming back to the United States, to express his devout hope that she might trip on the gangplank and knock out her front teeth.
Satisfying as that bitter outburst may have been, it hardly succeeded in exorcising Agnes’s ghost. Nor did it do anything to refute her assertion that he was still a boy, a kid, a spoiled child, and it was this accusation that rankled the most. As best he could, Hemingway set out to demonstrate that, though young in years, he was already a man.
He could not, however, grow up overnight. It took some time. Two years after the jilting, in the summer of 1921, he married Hadley Richardson, a woman almost eight years his senior and a year older than Agnes. He actually placed Agnes’s name on a list of those to be invited to the wedding, but it is doubtful that she received an invitation. Eighteen months later, however, he had more news to tell her, and he wrote to her in November 1922. He had been traveling around Europe as a roving foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star. He was living in Paris, a city he knew she was enchanted by. He was married to Hadley. His first book— Three Stories and Ten Poems—was to be published soon. Did she begin to realize what she’d missed?
Again, this letter does not survive, but it is possible to reconstruct its contents from Agnes’s reply and even to intuit that in making this overture three and a half years after his rejection Hemingway may have been contemplating a resumption of the affair. In fact he told Lincoln Steffens at about this time that he would leave Hadley if Agnes were to come back. In this context, her long letter of Dec. 22, 1922 must have been less than he hoped for.
She was awfully pleased to hear from him after so long, Agnes wrote, especially since “there has always been a little bitterness over the way our comradeship ended.” After an account of her activities during the intervening years—she had wanted to break “somebody or something” when her Italian fiance jilted her—she reverted to Ernest and their relationship. She was delighted to hear about his book. “How proud I will be, some day in the not-very-distant future to say “Oh yes, Ernest Hemingway—Used to know him quite well during the war.”” But she went on to insist that events had proven her right in ending their “comradeship” and to reiterate the point about the differences in their ages, softening the blow this time by stressing her antiquity rather than his youth. (Apparently he did not tell her about Hadley’s age.) “May I hope for an occasional line from you?” she inquired in closing. “Friends are such great things to have,” and they’d been “good friends” once, hadn’t they? Then she signed off with “best wishes to you & Hadley . . . Your old buddy Von (oh excuse me, it’s Ag).”
There was not much to build on there. Hemingway must have felt that no matter what he did, he could not change Agnes’s mind. She had thought him immature at 19, only a boy. She still thought him too young for her at 23, though he had married and moved to Paris and launched a promising career. Six months later, he vented his frustration in “A Very Short Story.”
“A Very Short Story” is patently autobiographical. Patient and nurse fall in love, he returns to the States, she proves faithless and writes him a goodbye letter. In its earliest draft, the story remained sympathetic to the nurse as someone who succumbs to loneliness and muddy weather and the wiles of her Italian lover. But in the final draft, and it is certain that Hemingway wrote that draft after receiving Agnes’s December 1922 letter, the tone becomes heavily sardonic at her expense. It is one of Hemingway’s least effective short stories, because the dice are obviously loaded against Ag (or excuse me it’s Luz, as Hemingway altered the name for publication), and in favor of the unnamed narrator-wounded patient who is too good, too noble, too unfairly wronged to be convincing.
The most interesting thing about the story, from a psychological standpoint, is that it drastically distorts the contents of the “Ernie, dear boy” letter. What the nurse writes, in the story, is that she regarded theirs as “only a boy and girl affair” and, again, as “only a boy and girl love.” What Agnes actually insisted upon, of course, was that it was a boy and woman affair. This was an issue Hemingway chose not to confront, openly.
According to Hemingway’s aesthetic canon, you could obliterate the memory of life’s worst blows by writing about them. “You’ll lose it if you talk about it,” Jake Barnes warns in The Sun Also Rises, but some things were better lost. Some were also very hard to get down on paper. It took Hemingway four years to confront his jilting in a story, and when he did so he slurred over the principal reason for his rejection. By way of contrast, when he left Hadley in 1926, he put their breakup into a story—”A Canary for One”—within two months.
It is also important that only once did he present the jilting in fictional form. Some have thought that Agnes served as a model for Catherine in A Farewell to Arms, but the real nurse and the fictional one share almost no qualities whatever, and in any event Catherine does not jilt Frederic Henry. Here the difference between Hemingway and Fitzgerald could hardly be more pronounced. Both were badly hurt by their early rejections. But in Fitzgerald’s case, when Ginevra King turned him down it provided him with the basic donnée of much of his fiction. Again and again he explored variations on the same situation in his stories and novels: the incredibly desirable rich girl and the worshipful poor boy who loves her beyond all reason.
Hemingway found it easier to write about his physical wounding in World War I than about his emotional one, and in fact the process of writing about what happened at Fossalta may have helped cure him of his trauma. Twenty years later, he behaved with conspicuous bravery during the Spanish Civil War. Twenty-six years later, he struck General Buck Lanham as the bravest man he had ever met, as together they suffered through the hell of the Hürtgenwald.
Agnes, unlike the Austrians, administered a hurt that not even time could make a healing of. Instead he internalized the lesson she taught him—that those who love can be betrayed—and made sure that he did not put himself at risk. Thus he had many friends and in almost every case broke off with them, sometimes viciously, before they could do so with him. In the mid-1920’s he wrote and sold to The New Yorker—it was never printed—a humorous piece entitled “How I Broke with John Wilkes Booth,” and “with Gertrude Stein, My Wife, Benchley, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Donald Ogden Stewart” and “with Dos Passes, Coolidge, Lincoln, Menken (sic) and Shakespeare.” This attempt at comedy eerily predicted the future: Hemingway did break off relations with several of those listed, among them Stein, Fitzgerald, Stewart, Dos Passes, and not only his first wife but the next two as well.
Hemingway was married four times, and in each of the first three cases he was responsible for the divorce, and had a new wife waiting in the wings while the last scenes of the old marriage were being played out. He also behaved abominably to his fourth and last wife, and only the extraordinary determination of Mary Welsh Hemingway to stick it out kept that union from dissolving as well.
In looking back on that ill-starred love affair three score and 11 years ago, it now seems clear that his jilting by Agnes von Kurowsky may have been the most lasting of the many hurts that fate was to deal Ernest Hemingway. In his young manhood, it drove him toward achievement as he sought to belie her charge of immaturity. And throughout his life, he was reluctant to let anyone else get close enough to strike a blow to the heart. To ward off the danger, he severed any human ties that threatened to put him at risk. For Ernest Hemingway, even mortar shells seemed less dangerous.