Finding Agnes / by Justin Merriman

Those who know me well know of my admiration for Ernest Hemingway. I've visited his homes in Key West and in Cuba. I've seen and touched the Pilar, the boat from the Old Man and the Sea. I've sat in his seat at his favorite drinking hole, La Terraza, in Cojimar, Cuba and sipped a mojito not far from where he penned the Old Man and the Sea. Being captivated by Hemingway's story I've always been drawn to the story of him and Agnes von Kurowsky, one of the great loves of his life.

Serving as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I, Hemingway, eighteen-years old at the time, was taken to a Milan hospital after an explosion badly injured his leg. In that hospital he met Agnes, a twenty-six year old American nurse, who cared for him as he recuperated. Hemingway was infatuated with her from the start, and for a time she seemed to have feelings for him as well, though she later said she merely "liked" him and that their relationship was nothing more than a "flirtation." Hemingway wanted them to get married, but Agnes - because of their difference in age rejected the idea.

In January 1919 Hemingway left the hospital but continued to write her. Agnes decided she finally had to convince him it was over, and on March 7, 1919, she wrote Hemingway a letter ending their relationship. While Hemingway never truly got over his love for Agnes, he once told a close friend in the summer of 1919, "I loved her once and then she gypped me. And I don't blame her. But I set out to cauterize out her memory and I burnt it out with a course of booze and other women and now it's gone. But not gone entirely."

Agnes became the basis for Catherine Bakley, the beautiful young American nurse who treats and falls in love with an American soldier in an Italian hospital in Hemingway's 1929 classic A Farewell to Arms. While Hemingway never again saw Agnes, he went on to marry four other women. His first wife was Hadley Richardson. They married in 1921 and had a son, John, in 1923. They were divorced in 1928. Hemingway married Pauline Pfeiffer in 1928 and had two sons with her, Patrick in 1928 and Gregory in 1931. He divorced Pauline in 1940 and married Martha Gellhorn that same year. He divorced Martha in 1945 and married his fourth and final wife, Mary Welsh, in 1946. Many believe that for Hemingway, it was his undying love for Agnes that filled his heart with hurt and despair and drove him to long his whole life for the love he once felt with her. On the morning of July 2, 1961, some three weeks short of his 62nd birthday, he died at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, the result of a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head.

Agnes was married twice. She married Howard Preston ("Pete") Garneron November 24, 1928 while stationed with the Red Cross in Haiti. After her Haitian assignment was completed she obtained a quick divorce. She married for the second time to William Stanfield in 1934. Stanfield was a hotel manager and widower with three grown children. During World War II her husband and one of her stepsons both served in the Navy. Agnes and her two stepdaughters went to New York City, where Agnes worked at the Red Cross Blood Bank on Fifth Avenue. She remained married to Stanfield until her death in 1984, aged 92. She is buried in the Soldiers Home National Cemetery in Washington D.C.

Yesterday I visited Agnes' grave and left two white roses, one for me and one for Hemingway.