She never liked her characterization as Catherine Barkley, Lt. Frederic Henry’s passionate lover in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. “I was not,” Agnes von Kurowsky often insisted, “that kind of girl.” But she was one to inspire dreams, and for a few short months during World War I, young Hemingway, a second lieutenant in the American Red Cross Ambulance Service, thought his had come true.
Hemingway and von Kurowsky met in a Red Cross hospital in Milan in 1918. A callow 19-year-old wounded by shrapnel and machine-gun fire after six days in a field canteen, he was ripe for adventure and romance; his American nurse, vivacious at 26, made the perfect crush. “She was tall and slender, with chestnut-colored hair, blue-gray eyes and a very cheerful disposition,” remembers Henry Villard, a retired U.S. ambassador (and the coauthor of Hemingway in Love and War), whose hospital room adjoined Hemingway’s. “Everybody fell for Agnes, but Hemingway fell hardest.”
Red Cross nurses were forbidden to date patients, but Aggie and the Kid (as she fondly called him) managed love notes, dinners and possibly more, though Hemingway scholars still debate the extent of their physical involvement. “He was talking last night of what might be if he was 26-28,” Agnes wrote in her diary. “In some ways…I wish that he was. He is adorable, & we are congenial in every way.” To his parents back in Oak Park, Ill., Hemingway wrote: “I am in love again.”
At war’s end, Hemingway went home to the States, where he hoped von Kurowsky would join and marry him. The pair exchanged love letters for several months, but in March 1919, Agnes, who was finishing up a series of Red Cross postings in Italy and had taken up with an Italian nobleman, dashed her young soldier’s hopes. “I am still very fond of you,” she wrote Hemingway, “but it is more as a mother than a sweetheart.”
Hemingway was so devastated that he took to his bed at his parents’ home for days, telling a friend, “I’m just smashed by it…I forgot all about religion and everything else because I had Ag to worship.”
The pair never saw each other again, “but they never forgot each other,” says Villard. Hemingway made his love immortal in A Farewell to Arms (exacting, perhaps, a kind of literary revenge by making Agnes’s alter ego die in childbirth). Von Kurowsky, who married twice and worked as a librarian in Florida before her death in 1984 at 92, distanced herself in later years from the passion of her youth. “It was just a flirtation,” she said.
Yet all along she must have known what she let slip away. “How proud I will be some day,” she once wrote Hemingway, “to say, ‘Oh, yes. Ernest Hemingway. Used to know him quite well during the war.’ ”