I am writing this late at night after a long think by myself and I am afraid it is going to hurt you, but I'm sure it won't harm you permanently... . t may be the most famous "Dear John" letter of the 20th century -- written to a handsome young war veteran by the pretty nurse who had tended his wounds overseas. Kept by its embittered recipient for more than half a century and long thought lost, the letter sheds new light on one of literature's legendary love affairs, and on the little-known woman from Washington who spurned a writer to greatness. Papa's nurse, it appears, was a good girl after all. The letter, dated March 7, 1919, was sent to Ernest Hemingway by Agnes Hannah von Kurowsky, the Red Cross nurse who cared for him in an Italian hospital during World War I and ended up breaking his heart. It was von Kurowsky on whom Hemingway modeled the heroine of perhaps his most famous novel, "A Farewell to Arms." Though references to his six-month wartime romance and subsequent rejection crop up frequently in the novels and stories that have made Hemingway the most influential of modern American writers, the name of the nurse he loved was virtually unknown until 1961. And though von Kurowsky died only five years ago, the true nature of their relationship has remained cloudy, possibly because her time with him was so brief and so long ago. In "Hemingway in Love and War," scheduled for publication next month by Northeastern University Press, Northeastern professor James Nagel and retired diplomat Henry Villard, who was hospitalized with Hemingway in 1918, produce intriguing new evidence of just what von Kurowsky was thinking at the time of her 1918 writings. In "A Farewell to Arms" and in letters and conversations, Hemingway throughout his life portrayed their romance as an affair of deep physical as well as emotional passion, and his nurse as an inventive (not to say acrobatic) partner capable of making highly satisfying love in a narrow hospital bed to a man with one shrapnel-damaged leg in a splint. Von Kurowsky's letter of rejection, however, together with 51 others to Hemingway and a heretofore unknown diary she kept during his hospitalization in Milan, indicate that her relationship with her 19-year-old patient (she was 26 at the time) may have owed more to Booth Tarkington than to Henry Miller. The diary, which runs from her departure for Europe in June 1918 to October of that year, paints von Kurowsky as rather giddily flirtatious on her first trip abroad but strictly within the strait-laced conventions of the time. She voices wariness of a patient getting "spoony" around her and pronounces herself "disgusted" at another patient and nurse she discovers "having a high old time ... in a chaise lounge on the balcony... . It was so common. I couldn't get over them." As for Hemingway, he was "furious" at the couple on the balcony, she writes, and though the diary charts a growing attraction toward the patient she refers to repeatedly as "the Kid" there is no evidence in her writing of anything more physical between them than kissing and hugging. Propriety, apparently, wasn't the only reason. "I know that I am still very fond of you, but it is more as a mother than as a sweetheart ... ," she wrote in breaking off their relationship. "I can't get away from the fact that you're just a boy -- a kid. I somehow feel that some day I'll have reason to be proud of you, but dear boy, I can't wait for that day and it is wrong to hurry a career." Reproving him for acting in the past "like a spoiled child" toward her, she announced plans to marry soon and urged the aspiring young writer "to forgive me and start a wonderful career and show what a man you really are." Hemingway's sister Marcelline remembers him vomiting after he read the letter. His son Jack calls the loss of von Kurowsky "the great tragedy" of his father's early life. Decades later the writer, whose two-fisted lifestyle often belied the sensitivity of his prose, was still referring to it in his writing. He apparently never showed her letter to anyone. "Oh, Bill, I can't kid about it and I can't be bitter because I'm just smashed by it ...," Hemingway wrote to friend Bill Horne at the time. "I've loved Ag. She's been my ideal ... I forgot all about religion and everything else because I had Ag to worship... ." Von Kurowsky, however, was a long way from the Catherine Barkley that Hemingway made her into in "A Farewell to Arms." The daughter of an aristocratic and recent German immigrant and a pretty American debutante, she was born Jan. 5, 1892, in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Her parents had met as teacher and pupil in a German class at the Berlitz school in Washington and married against the wishes of the bride's father, Brig. Gen. Samuel Holabird, quartermaster general of the U.S. Army. Gen. Holabird, for whom Fort Holabird, Md., is named today, had translated a treatise on the military operations of Frederick the Great and was suspicious of anything remotely German. Paul von Kurowsky, possibly with his father-in-law's help or possibly to insure it, became a civil service language instructor for the U.S. Army and within a few years had whisked his wife and two infant daughters off to a post in Alaska, and then to Vancouver. In Vancouver, however, after Agnes fell close to death from diphtheria and her older sister contracted scarlet fever and died, he requested transfer back to Washington so his grief-stricken wife could be near her father. The von Kurowskys moved to 1340 Corcoran St. NW, near Logan Circle -- the handsome brick Victorian house still stands -- and Holabird, who lived nearby at 1311 P St., provided a private French tutor for Agnes, then 13, and gave her the run of his immense library of 7,000 volumes. The circumstances of the family altered significantly, however, with the death of the general in 1907 and of Agnes's father from typhoid fever three years later. With a small trust fund left to her, Agnes's mother moved with her daughter to a modest apartment. A city directory of the time identifies it as No. 1 at 2852 Ontario Rd. NW. After graduation from Fairmont Seminary for Girls at 14th and Fairmont streets NW, Agnes took a training course at the Washington Public Library and in 1910 became a librarian in the cataloguing department, traveling by streetcar from Ontario Road to the impressive marble building on Mount Vernon Square, today nearly overwhelmed by the D.C. Convention Center. Four years of cataloguing, however, proved "too slow and uneventful," she later told Villard. After a childhood in Alaska with Russian fur sealers and Laplanders on reindeer sleds, "my taste ran to something more exciting." As war broke out in Europe she applied to the Bellevue Hospital School of Nursing in New York, and shortly after her graduation on July 17, 1917, applied for a Red Cross posting overseas. In her application, she described herself as 5-foot-8 and 133 pounds, and her general physique as "well developed, well nourished." She had curly chestnut hair, blue-gray eyes, a ready smile and what one patient later recalled as the smallest waist he had ever seen. When she sailed for Europe in June 1918, von Kurowsky left behind in New York a doctor (referred to in the diary only as "Daddy") to whom she was informally engaged, but she was clearly encouraging and enjoying male attention elsewhere. Four days into the voyage, her diary discloses, she was already absorbed by the courtship of a "very kind ... serious" Belgian and "I'm afraid I'm forgetting Daddy already." Within days of her arrival in Milan, she was being pursued by two Italian officers and having "a wonderful evening exchanging romances and experiences" with another nurse: "Brooksie is a worse heart-smasher than ever, I believe, and I am becoming degenerate in that respect. This cutting loose from home ties may not be the best thing for one in some ways." One of her most persistent suitors was Capt. Enrico Serena, a dashing Italian with an eye patch Hemingway would later use as the model for the surgeon Rinaldi in "A Farewell to Arms": "He tries to kiss my hand, and I get furious and go into my patient's room and then my patient kisses my hand. It must be the air of Italy." Little more than a month after her arrival in Italy she reflects: "I'm getting ... rather confused. Here I've been practically three years without the least bit of sentiment or romance, and very little attention, and all at once with the last few months, I have had three serious affairs... . It's too deep for me -- must be the effect of the War or Submarines." The diary makes clear, however, that the "serious" affairs involved little more than hand-holding and declarations of love. Hemingway, who had volunteered to drive Red Cross ambulances in Italy, had been in the country barely a month when he was hit by an Austrian trench mortar while distributing chocolate and cigarettes at the front. Though struck in the legs by more than 200 pieces of shrapnel, he carried a wounded Italian soldier some 150 yards to safety, receiving in the process machine gun slugs in his right knee and foot. He was the first American wounded on the Italian front (though another had been killed) and arrived at the hospital a genuine hero. There is no indication in the diary, however, that he was anything more than another patient to Agnes von Kurowsky (she refers to him as "Mr. Hemingway") until her one-eyed suitor Capt. Serena left Milan. If the language of the diary is girlish, von Kurowsky's letters to Hemingway later in the year are warmer and more effusive. They chart an increasing emotional involvement, and indicate some physical longing as well. One undated missive to "Dear Old Furnace Man" says she has "need of a bit of steaming ... This is what comes of refusing and turning you down. The Woman Pays." But though she professes her love and refers to herself periodically as "Your Missis," she also betrays a continuing concern about his youth, addressing him as "Mr. Kid," "Dear Boy" and, ironically, "Old Master," "Old Cuss" and "Maestro Antico" (Mr. Antique). As Hemingway scholar James Nagel points out in his essay concluding "Hemingway in Love and War," the overriding concerns of the diary and the letters, far surpassing her references to her romances, are her personal and professional growth and development, her discovery of her own identity and her prospects for the future. In all that, Ernest Hemingway was to play but a small, if enduring, part. Hemingway returned to the United States in January 1919, expecting Agnes to follow in a few months for the marriage they had begun to talk of in their letters. But hardly had he boarded the Giuseppe Verdi for the voyage home than the tone of her letters changes. She still professes love, but confesses that "Somehow I'm not a bit anxious to get home" and remarks blithely that another American has been "teasing me about my fondness for Italian officers." "Dear Ernie," she continues, "you are to me a wonderful boy, and when you add on a few years and some dignity and calm, you'll be very much worthwhile." While he was returning to his parents' home in Oak Park, Ill., he could write to her, she says, "c/o Trust Dept., National Savings & Trust Co., 15th St. & N.Y. Ave. Washington, D.C." Two months later came the rejection letter. There is no mention in it of the man she hoped to marry, but years later she identified him to Villard as Domenico Caracciolo, the heir to an Italian dukedom and "much more interesting to me than a 19-year-old Hemingway ... I was very fickle in those days anyhow." Caracciolo, she told inquirers years later, had her burn Hemingway's letters as a condition of betrothal. Caracciolo's mother, however, thought Agnes an adventuress and vetoed the marriage. Von Kurowsky returned to the United States, but a year later, homesick for Europe, she rejoined the Red Cross and was sent to Romania for two years and then, after a few years in New York, to Haiti. There she served as director of nurses in Haiti's Public Health Service and married an American named Howard Preston Garner. The marriage ended in divorce. In 1934, back in New York, she married a widower named William Stanfield, who managed hotels along the East Coast. In 1951, they settled in Key West, Fla., where, ironically enough, Hemingway had lived for more than a decade, written most of "A Farewell to Arms" and still owned a house. Agnes soon found work in the Key West library, but there is no indication that Hemingway ever knew she was there. By that time he was settled in his famous Finca Vigia outside Havana with his fourth wife, Mary. And though he traveled periodically to Key West, Hemingway and Agnes von Kurowsky never ran into each other. There is one letter from her after the rejection, dated Dec. 22, 1922, congratulating him on his marriage and urging him to "think of what an antique I am at the present." Her letter, obviously an answer to one from him, is grateful, long and chatty, begs to hear from him occasionally and states "How proud I will be some day in the not-very-distant future to say 'Oh yes, Ernest Hemingway. Used to know him quite well during the war.' " They never made contact again. In 1961, just months after his brother's suicide, Leicester Hemingway published "My Brother Ernest Hemingway," making public for the first time the name of the nurse Ernest had loved so long ago in Italy. The following year Henry Villard, whose hospital room had adjoined Hemingway's in Milan and who also had known Agnes, was tracked down at his home in Switzerland by Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker, and in the process of being interviewed learned her address in Key West. He wrote to her and she replied at length, describing her life since the days when she had cared for "so many nice boys in our Milan hospital." "I never saw Ernest Hemingway after he left Italy," she wrote. "When we went over to Cuba a few times from here, I was told he drank so heavily that I did not feel like looking him up." After Hemingway's death, however, Mary Hemingway went to Key West to clean out a trunk of old papers the writer had stored in Sloppy Joe's bar. Among them were his letters from Agnes. Learning Agnes herself now lived in Key West, Mary looked her up and returned them. "We saw her several times," Agnes wrote Villard later. "I am rather sorry now that I didn't see him again... ." Few of her friends, she wrote Villard, knew she had anything to do with the writer "as I've kept quiet about all our war experiences and so far nobody has recognized my picture in Les Hemingway's book. Of course, folks down here never heard my maiden name anyhow." Given Key West's tiny size, however, her seclusion couldn't last. In 1966 she and her husband moved to Gulfport, Fla., in part, Villard said by phone the other day from his summer retreat in Maine, because the "Conch Train" -- a kind of miniature trolley that hauls tourists around Key West -- "began pointing out her house as the home of 'Ernie's girl.' She hated that." When Villard finally visited her in Gulfport in 1976 and asked for her reaction to "A Farewell to Arms," she bristled: "Let's get it straight -- please. I wasn't that kind of girl." Catherine Barkley, she insisted, was "an arrant fantasy" and the affair in the hospital "totally implausible" given the almost total lack of patient privacy in Milan -- a lack Villard remembers very well. Agnes von Kurowsky Stanfield was then 84, but still was looking ahead. One day, Villard said, he received a letter from her asking his help. She and her husband had applied for burial after their death in Soldiers' Home National Cemetery where her grandfather and parents were interred. They had been refused. Could Villard, as a retired ambassador, do anything? "I didn't think I could," Villard said, "but I wrote a letter on her behalf, citing her patriotic duty overseas, and much to my surprise {the authorities in charge of the cemetery} reversed their decision. Agnes and her husband were very grateful." After her death in 1984, Villard said, he received a package from William Stanfield enclosing her letters and the diary, a frayed, cloth-bound volume labeled "Agenda 1918," whose existence had been unknown even to her husband. Though copies of some of the letters had already found their way to the John F. Kennedy Library, the rejection letter was a major surprise. "I wanted to do something with them," Villard said. "This book is the result." Villard, however, knew little of her days in Washington and didn't know the exact location of her grave. "Let me know if you find it," he said. "I should be very interested." It's not hard to locate. The lovely old cemetery, which predates its counterpart in Arlington, lies just off North Capitol Street near the intersection of Harewood Road and Rock Creek Church Road in Northwest Washington. There, among the Indian fighters and Union soldiers and veterans of all the wars since, stands a wide white monument engraved "HOLABIRD." In its shadow just west of the cemetery's main entrance, near the wrought iron fence, lies a small white marker, flush with the grass, marked simply "Agnes H. von Kurowsky Stanfield 1892-1984." There is no mention of Ernest Hemingway.