Something That Is Only Slightly About Hemingway

Reading my friend Paula McLain’s stunning new novel Love and Ruin — about Hemingway’s third wife, the inimiatable and brilliant Martha Gellhorn — has caused me to remember a somewhat-Hemingway-related story I’ve been meaning to write down for a long time, but never have.

In 1995 I was working on my book The Lion’s Pride, about Theodore Roosevelt and his sons — Ted Jr., Archie, Kermit, and Quentin — during the World War I period. As part of my research I was investigating the so-called military “Preparedness” movement as it manifested at Harvard and other campuses around the country. Quentin, TR’s youngest son, had been at Harvard, participated in the movement, and left school to become an airman (eventually a very dead airman) in France.

Around this time, my then literary agent Julian Bach, on one of his usual autumn weekends away from Manhattan chasing Harvard football wherever it might lead him, came to dinner with his wife Hope at our house in Wickford, RI. This was the evening before a Harvard/Brown game in Providence.

Julian (class of ‘36) had recently been at a Harvard Homecoming where he’d encountered 94-year-old Henry Serrano Villard (Harvard ‘21), who — like Quentin — had long ago dropped out of school to go to war.

“You must speak with him,” said Julian. “He knew Quentin and knew that era at Harvard and is probably the last one alive who can tell you something useful.”

Villard lived in Los Angeles. Julian gave me the number.

This was a Friday night.

“Great,” I said. “I’ll call him on Monday.”

Julian downed the last of his martini — I’d laid in the Sapphire Bombay Gin he favored — and looked at me sternly.

“Villard is 94,” he said, with a note of exasperation in his voice. “Call him tomorrow. And do it no later than 10 AM Pacific Time.”

Indeed I did.

Henry, firing on all cylinders, delightedly spun stories of Quentin, Harvard, and war — but it quickly became apparent that his own special story of his own unique war, without Harvard or Quentin, was far more spectacular than anything I’d hoped to hear.

Henry (seated) with Jim Nagel.

Henry’s grandfather, another Henry Villard, had made millions as the principal developer of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Along the way he’d married Fanny Garrison, daughter of the noted pacifist abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. The grandfather built the famed “Villard Houses” for his family on Madison Avenue, directly behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral. This magisterial collection of apartments still stands today as an appendage to the New York Palace Hotel. (I was eventually to write extensively about this first Henry Villard in Dark Genius of Wall Street, my biography of railroad mogul Jay Gould.)

Like Quentin and so many others, young Henry was anxious to leave school and go to war once America became involved in the hostilities abroad. Hearing of this, his grandmother Fanny summoned him to the palatial residence on Madison Avenue where she reminded him that the family were all pacifists. If he took up arms “against his fellow man” he would be disinherited.

“And Eddie” — he called me Eddie, I don’t know why, few people ever have — “in my family being disinherited really meant something.”

Henry’s solution was to become a Red Cross ambulance driver, just like another young buck named Ernest Hemingway.

Long story short: Both Henry and Hem got wounded and found themselves in side-by-side beds at a Milan military hospital. It was at this time that Hemingway met his first love interest, nurse Agnes von Kurowsky, who also tended to Henry and who eventually served as the model for the nurse in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

Once they parted ways in 1918, Villard and Hemingway never saw each other again.

Many years later, after Hemingway was dead, Henry reconnected with the aging Agnes and renewed their friendship. Upon her death in 1984, Agnes’s husband Bill — grateful for help Henry had extended them during Agnes’s last years — gave Henry all of Agnes’s wartime letters, diaries, and memorabilia.

Henry took this photo of Hemingway in their Milan hospital room, 1918.

In due course, Henry published Hemingway in Love and War: The Lost Diary of Agnes von Kurowsky, which included Agnes’s diary and wartime letters in full, Hemingway’s letters to her, and Henry’s own reminiscences — all of that drawn together by insightful comments from leading Hemingway scholar James Nagel.

As a “thank you” for his help with The Lion’s Pride — which would not be published until two years after Henry’s death — I offered and he accepted my two previous books: a 1992 biography of the late 19th and early 20th century essayist and naturalist John Burroughs and The Secret Six: The True Tale of the Men Who Conspired with John Brown.

In writing the latter book, I had drawn not only on the papers of Henry’s great-grandfather William Lloyd Garrison but also, more importantly, the papers of Henry’s uncle, Oswald Garrison Villard, who wrote one of the very first major biographies of the firebrand (and decidedly non-pacifist) abolitionist Brown.

For various reasons too complicated to go into here, Oswald Villard’s secretary Katherine Mayo wound up figuring largely into the main text of The Secret Six. In a letter to me after having read both books, Henry commented on how well he remembered not only his uncle’s attentive and diligent secretary “Miss Mayo,” but also “old Mr. Burroughs, who so often visited us at our summer home at Onteora Park in the Catskills when I was a boy.” I’d previously had no idea of the latter connection.

After the war, Henry returned to Harvard. He wound up having a very long career in the State Department, eventually achieving ambassadorial rank. After his 1961 retirement, he lived for many years in Switzerland. That’s where Hemingway scholar Carlos Baker — at work on what remains the “standard” biography — found him in 1962, pumped him for information, and gave him Agnes’s address.

I wish I had more to say about Henry, and that I could work in more plugs for my books in the process. But I do at least have a coda:

In 1995, Henry’s son Dmitri Villard, a film producer, brought together Sandra Bullock (Agnes) and Chris O’Donnell (who for some reason Dmitri thought would make a good Hemingway) to create an utterly awful screen adaptation of In Love and War. Old Henry, who had always lead a charmed life, thankfully did not live to see the finished disaster of a flick. But he did live long enough to visit the set and have Sandra sit on his lap. In fact, it may well have been she who finally killed him. What a way to go.

Chris O’Donnell as Hemingway and Sandra Bullock, the woman who killed Henry Villard, as Agnes.

Writer published by Doubleday, Crown, Oxford University Press, and other major houses.