Agnes von Kurowsky

Dr. Hilary Justice (JFK Library). Updated 10/2023.

Hemingway’s first love was Red Cross nurse Agnes von Kurowsky (1892-1984), whom he met while being treated for war wounds in Milan, 1918, right around his 19th birthday. According to her diary and letters, what started as a mildly flirtatious relationship quickly became serious. 

Agnes von Kurowsky with two other nurses in an operating room, Red Cross Hospital, Milan, during World War I
Agnes von Kurowsky (back right) in the operating theatre, Red Cross Hospital, Milan, in WWI. Photo courtesy Library of Congress Red Cross Collection. Public domain.

Although she was on his nursing team, a mild flirtation wasn’t considered unprofessional; on the contrary, keeping wounded soldiers’ spirits up was part of a WWI nurse’s job, and flirting was an accepted way to do it, up to a point. She was seven years older than he, and she held her distance with her nickname for him, “Kid.” But Hemingway was in love, and he countered by calling her “Mrs. Kid.” 

She resisted taking things seriously for a while, referring to him freely in her diary, which could have been found and read. (Had there been written proof of impropriety, she risked losing her job.) But when her feelings also grew serious, she stopped writing in her diary, instead writing long letters to him in secret. From her temporary posting in Florence, she mailed her letters to Ernest care of the American officers' club rather than the hospital. 

In these letters, you can read her love and her doubts; eventually, she admits her feelings, imagines their future together, and signs herself “Mrs. Kid.”

Agnes von Kurowsky and Ernest Hemingway on the balcony of the Red Cross Hospital, Milan, during World War I.
Agnes von Kurowsky and Ernest Hemingway on the balcony, Red Cross Hospital, Milan, late summer/early fall, 1918. Ernest Hemingway Photographs Collection 02528P.

Their relationship did not last. When their wartime paths separated them (he returned stateside while she remained in Italy), her doubts intensified, and she wrote to him, ending their relationship. 

Their romance and its ending first inspired Hemingway to write “A Very Short Story” (in the first edition, the character’s name is “Ag”; he changed it to “Luz” for the second). Hemingway’s private heartbreak also very subtly informs “Big Two-Hearted River,” in which the war is never referenced but permeates everything. An early draft of that story hints at the storm scene a few years later in A Farewell to Arms, in which setting, situation, and the character Catherine Barkley all owe much to Agnes and her wartime romance with the young Ernest Hemingway.

Agnes von Kurowsky in her nursing uniform, Red Cross Hospital, Milan, during World War I
Agnes von Kurowsky at the Red Cross Hospital, Milan (Summer/Fall 1918). Photo possibly taken by Ernest Hemingway. Ernest Hemingway Photographs Collection 06897.