Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Ernest Hemingway and Agnes von Kurowsky


Agnes


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, an 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.


" Ernesto? Ernesto? "

The 19 year old Ernest Hemingway could hear his name being called. It seemed very distant and his head and legs hurt dreadfully. He didn't know who was calling, it sounded like his father, but he wouldn't call him 'Ernesto', surely?

After the journey by ambulance - his own ambulance - to the military hospital in Treviso he was given morphine and anti-tetanus injections - and the last rites by a mouldy old priest - before the young and very efficient Italian army doctor carefully removed twenty eight pieces of shrapnel and two machine bullets from the young Hemingway's feet and legs. The train journey to the large hospital in Milan, where Hemingway was to have major surgery, was long and hot and the 19 year old soon fell into a deep sleep.


" Mr Hemingway?"

" Hmm?"

" Mr Hemingway, are you awake ?"

" Yes."

" Good. My name is Agnes von Kurowsky, I'm a nurse. You can call me 'Von' if you like? And this is Captain Sammarelli, he is to operate on you."

" Ernesto, you don't mind that I call you Ernesto?"

" Call me what you like, Captain. Hello, Von, you can call me Ernie."

" No, you are too young to be called Ernie. I shall call you Mr Kid."

" In that case I shall call you Mrs Kid. Okay?"

" Okay, Mr Kid."

" Okay, Ernesto?"

" Okay, Captain. Do a good job, I'm going to marry Von, and I shall need both my legs."

The young Ernest Hemingway had been delivering chocolate and mail to front line Italian troops close to the Dolomites, when, as Hemingway biographer, Carlos Baker, describes it, one of the: "...Austrian Minenwerfer crews sent another of their projectiles hurtling across the river. It was about the size of a five gallon tin... The canister was filled with steel rod fragments and miscellaneous metal junk. It was designed to explode on contact, scattering its contents at ground level. They all heard it coming - the far cough as it left the muzzle, and the strange 'chuh-chuh-chuh' sound as it arched and descended."

'Then', as Hemingway later described it, 'there was a flash, as when a blast-furnace door is swung open, and a roar that started white and went red...'

Hemingway was badly injured by the blast, and then shot by Austrian machine-gunners as he dragged a wounded Italian soldier to safety.


Agnes first came to Ernest's bed during a violent thunder storm. He'd asked her again and again, told her how much he loved her, and she knew he did, but wasn't sure why, she loved him she knew that. But did she want to make love, was it right to make love to this young boy? She asked God what he thought, and apart from several loud claps of thunder and a violent gust of wind that blew the heavy oak front door open he said nothing.

Agnes re-locked the door, checked her other patients, and with a bottle of red wine taken from the cellar she went to Ernest's room, poured them each a glass of wine, removed her clothes and, shivering, slid into his bed.

"Oh, Von, Mrs Kid, darling."

" Mr Kid, touch me, here. Slowly, gently."

Ernest and Agnes made love most nights after that first time, and for both of them it became their whole focus, and with the ease and utter joy of their physicality came the desire to be with each other all the time. 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.

And it was that night that Agnes told Ernest she was pregnant. How could he leave now, leave her alone and pregnant?

"But you must, Mr Kid, I shall be okay, you'll see, and we'll see each other again soon."
Or something like that.

And Ernest did leave, sailing to New York on the 'Giuseppe Verdi'.

When he landed, and limped down the gangplank he found himself something of a hero. He enjoyed that, enjoyed the newspaper interviews, and the photographs, and how women were attracted to him.

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 Mr Kid. There was no mention in the letter of a child. Hemingway had contacted Elsie Macdonald soon after leaving Italy, asking her to keep him informed about Agnes, but he heard nothing.

He remembered once, how he'd sat talking to a young American soldier in a bar in Paris - a few days before he sailed to New York - and discovered that the soldier had been at Treviso and saw someone who resembled Hemingway's description of Agnes fall down a flight of stairs in the hospital.

" Was she okay, soldier?"

" Sure. Got straight up as if nothing had happened."

" Good."

The young soldier then told Hemingway how he'd seen the woman who looked like Agnes kissing a young American Major. That remark earned the young soldier a smack on the jaw that sent him crashing into the next table.

Ernest Back Home in Oak Park