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July 9: Ernest Lays Up

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On this day in 1918, near the end of World War I, an 18-year-old Ernest Hemingway began convalescing at a Milan hospital. He’d been wounded at the Italian-Austrian front the day before, and his body was peppered with mortar-shell fragments. But from funerals come flowers, as they say, and Hemingway put this time to good use. During the next six months, he charmed nurses and bribed porters into bringing him a steady stream of cognac, Cinzano vermouth, whiskey, Marsala and Chianti. As he became more ambulatory, his range expanded to Asti Spumante parties on the nurses’ floor and wild drinking bouts in the nearby Anglo-American Club. His knowledge of alcohol, in its many forms, expanded at a headlong pace, and soon the precocious teen started to feel himself a bit of an expert. He fell hard for Agnes von Kurowsky, an American nurse who tended his wounds — a textbook case of Nightingale Syndrome if there ever was one. She would later break his heart, but in doing so provided Hemingway with a rich vein of writing material. Agnes would become the prototype for femmes fatales in a number of his books and short stories, most notably A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway returned home a changed man, a man with a broader sense of the world, of war, of love, and of drinking.