A Love Story of World War One
Agnes Hannah von Kurowsky was a tall dark haired girl from Washington
D.C. She was a dutiful daughter and for two years stayed home and nursed
her ailing widower father. When he died in 1910 she took a job at the
Washington Public Library but soon became bored and applied to become a
nurse at Bellevue Hospital. She was accepted. Agnes was kind, generous
and 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 — which 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 had first come 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.
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. He had a letter from her some years later congratulating him on his marriage to Hadley, and
how proud she was to have known him.
There can be little doubt that Hemingway used Agnes, at least in part, as his model for Catherine Barkley in his novel, A Farewell to Arms.