The Vault

A Get-Well Pictogram From Hemingway’s WWI Drinking Buddies

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Nineteen-year-old Ernest Hemingway served as a volunteer Red Cross ambulance driver during World War I. He was gravely wounded only a few months after his arrival in Europe; his recovery in a Milanese hospital and his relationship with his nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky, inspired his 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms.

While Hemingway recuperated under von Kurowsky’s care, three fellow ambulance drivers sent him this three-page pictogram. Archivists at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum recently deciphered the letter with the aid of many volunteer Hemingway buffs.

The letter is a cheerful narrative of the three friends’ recent hijinks. In the salutation, the writers used a foaming mug of beer to represent Hemingway’s name (he was often called “Hemingstein”); clearly, these were men who shared Hemingway’s love for inebriation. Throughout the letter, alcohol plays a prominent part in their adventures.

The second half of the first page tells the story of Theodore B. “Brummy” Brumback’s night spent drinking poisonous-sounding cocktails of Asti Spumanti, rum, cognac, marsala, and “rock syrup” (simple syrup). The night ends with “everybody” pulling Brummy’s pants off for him while he lies passed out in bed. The next morning, a tiny drawing of Brummy’s miserable face manages to convey “hangover” with remarkable accuracy.

In another series of images, at the top of the second page, Howell G. “Jenks” Jenkins treats a bad case of bedbugs by dousing his mattress with kerosene. The little pests leap off his bed and onto a nearby compatriot’s, and Jenks sleeps tucked in tight, with a huge smile on his mustachioed face.

You can read a detailed explanation of each of the “paragraphs” on the JFK Library’s blog.

Thanks to Karen Abramson of the JFK Presidential Library and Museum.

Letter to Ernest Hemingway and Agnes von Kurowsky from Theodore B. Brumback, William D. Horne, and Howell G. Jenkins, dated September 24, 1918. JFK Presidential Library and Museum, Ernest Hemingway Collection.