Ernest Hemingway was 18 years old. William Robertson described him as “…..untested in love, war or writing.” Not for long, however.


It was the spring of 1918. World War I was raging. Hemingway went to Italy to become a Red Cross ambulance driver. Within one short year, he became expert in love and war. Soon thereafter, in writing.


Hemingway was severely wounded by mortar fire. Shrapnel in his legs. After suffering the wounds, dragging himself along he assisted several Italian soldiers to safety. He received the Italian Silver Medal for Bravery.


He was sent to a hospital in Milan. His recovery took six months. During that time, Hemingway fell deeply in love with Agnes von Kurowsky. Agnes was a Red Cross nurse.


Plans were made to marry. Hemingway returned to the States. Agnes was to follow soon thereafter.


Agnes did not follow. Instead she sent Hemingway a Dear John letter.


The letter began, “I am writing this late of night after a long think by myself and I am afraid it is going to hurt you, but I’m sure it won’t harm you permanently…..”


Agnes was seven years older than Hemingway. In the letter, she referred to him as “kid, my kid.” She wrote she was fond of him “more as a mother than a sweetheart.”


Agnes broke Hemingway’s heart.


After Hemingway had left Italy and before she wrote Hemingway, Agnes fell in love with an Italian officer. The officer came from an influential and moneyed family. They never married. The Italian officer broke off the engagement. He became convinced she was marrying him for position and money.


Agnes had several such relationships after Hemingway. Strange that she felt it necessary to better herself via marriage or otherwise. She was already part of the social hierarchy. Her father had been a teacher of languages, an uncle a world famous Chicago architect, and a grandfather a general in the U.S. Army.


Agnes studied at a seminary school for ladies. She became a librarian. Her specialty cataloging. She found the position unexciting. She returned to school and became a nurse.


Agnes did not marry till 1928. She was twice married.


Hemingway and Agnes neither saw nor spoke to each other after the Dear John letter.


Hemingway went on to literary fame. Agnes a housewife who in later years returned to to work as a library cataloger.


Agnes maintained the relationship was an innocent flirtation. Hemingway viewed it as a loving affair, sex a definite part of it.


Agnes to her dying day denied sex was involved. In the Milan days, virtue was part and parcel of a woman. No sex before marriage. No living together before marriage. Agnes was preserving her public virginity by denying sexual involvement with Hemingway.


Hemingway kept his pain to himself. Except in his writings. Literary scholars believe the emotional effect of Agnes’ rejection molded his impression of women. The Agnes experience triggered his literary preoccupation with romantic loss.


Many believe Catherine Barkley in A Farewell To Arms was based on Agnes. They are also of the opinion she was the heroine in two short stories. A Very Short Story and The Snows Of Kilimanjaro.


Things get a bit murky. Agnes moved to Key West to live in 1951. She lived in Key West with her second husband till 1965. While in Key West, she worked at the Monroe County Library as a cataloger. She left in 1965 because she got sick of the conch train going by her home and announcing over the loudspeaker…..This is the house of Ernest Hemingway’s girl friend.


Agnes had always sought to keep her Hemingway relationship secret. She sought neither gain nor notoriety at any time.


Hemingway was dead. His fourth wife Mary returned to Key West to clean out a trunk of old papers stored at Sloppy Joe’s. Among the papers were Agnes’ letters to Hemingway, including the Dear John letter.


Mary met with Agnes. In fact, they met several times. Became friends. Mary returned to Agnes the letters written by Agnes to Hemingway. Most were passionate. Those letters were eventually given to Henry Villard who shared them and other documents with John Nagle, a Hemingway expert.


When Hemingway was in the hospital in Milan, a fellow patient was Henry Villard. Villard and Hemingway became best friends. A friendship that lasted their lifetimes. Villard became a prominent American diplomat.


Agnes needed a favor from Villard. This was after Hemingway’s death and while she was still living in Key West. She wrote Villard and told him that if he could arrange the favor (which had nothing to do with the Hemingway/Agnes relationship), she would surprise him at some point.


That time came upon Agnes’ death. Agnes had kept a diary of her relationship with Hemingway. She left the diary and letters previously mentioned to Villard.


The diary and letters were examined ad infinitum by literary experts. The issue became…..Did the two really have sex? Opinion falls on both sides of the issue.


Hemingway was a frequent traveler from Havana to Key West after he took up residence in Cuba. He never saw Agnes while in Key West. It is believed he never knew she resided in Key West.


Interesting. More interesting than fiction. The truth always is.


  1. Lou, this is what I really enjoy about your blogging – stuff about real people connected to Key West. Right now I am reading Running with the Bulls by Valerie Hemingway. That Irish lady secretary to Ernest in Spain and married to his son Greggory/Gloria has a great writing style. I don’t know if she has a Key West connection or not, but you might want to write about her.

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