How We Met: Irma Kurtz and Jeffrey Bernard

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Irma Kurtz, 58, has been Cosmopolitan's agony aunt for 12 years. Born in the USA, she came to England in her twenties. After various jobs, including being Robert Carrier's PR, she took up magazine journalism. Never married, she has a son aged 21 and lives very near Jeffrey Bernard in Soho. Jeffrey Bernard, 61, son of an architect and an opera singer, was a fairground boxer, miner, gambler, actor and film editor before turning to journalism. He is best known for his 'Low Life' column in the Spectator. In 1989 he was the subject of the hit West End play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell.

JEFFREY BERNARD: God knows how we met. She reckons under a table in '64. Haven't a clue. Anyway, I'm not mad about Americans but I thought 'This one's OK.' She was bright and fanciable and we had a one-afternoon stand after three months. I mean she didn't say 'Leave my flat,' put it like that. But I wasn't passionately in love with her. I liked Irma and fancied her and that was it. The only thing is, I feel slightly betrayed, like Christ, because Irma pretends it didn't happen. I feel denied: the cock has crowed thrice. She privately admitted it last year but it's taken till '92. I don't know why.

I like the fact that she's never tried to change me - the one thing my four wives had a go at. Five drinks and they'd be saying, 'You make me SICK]' Irma's too sensible for that. She's a shoulder-shrugger and a virtuous woman.

I remember making her cry once, on a journalists' free trip to Barbados. The PR company asked me to choose who went, so I deliberately picked people I knew wouldn't get on. Ann Leslie (OK but a terrible snob), Sally Vincent (years ago I'd fallen in and out of love with her), Richard West, Laurie Taylor (good bloke but fancies himself with the ladies), Irma, and Suzanne Lowry. One night over dinner I told Irma she was a silly fucking cow and she got up and walked out, but inside 10 minutes she was back. That was it. Friends again. Nobody else noticed because they were drunk. I'm good at that: making women cry.

I see much more of Irma now than 10 years ago, easily about once a week. With this broken hip and being in a wheelchair, she does my shopping and buys me Mozart CDs and lends me videos like Annie Hall and we talk shop: what arseholes journalists are, and publishers, and literary agents. I don't get Cosmo but I used to read her column and I remember thinking if anyone needed advice it's her. She likes men more than she makes out and pretends it's all the past but it isn't. I mean, if Gary Cooper landed on her doorstep tomorrow. . . . I don't advise her, though. I wouldn't even advise my daughter and she can be

an absolute mess. I hardly listen. What the hell can you do? Absolutely nothing? And as for advising the girls who write in to Cosmo - they're so stupid it's like trying to give advice to an elephant.

Can women paint? Write music? They can't. I argue with Irma about that. I say: 'Look around you out the window, and tell me a single thing a woman's built, designed or invented.' They're fucking mad, women, and they're mad because they've got wombs and what a fuss they make out of that. Of course, I know it's a generalisation but I really do think they are stupid. Irma's different, the exception. Not that I'd like to cross swords with Iris Murdoch.

I think about death all the time. I'm obsessed with it, waiting for it to happen. I suppose I'll get cancer of the stomach; I'm frightened of dying and the pain, not death itself. I've got nothing to leave Irma, nothing she'd want, except maybe a saucepan. She's my Yiddisher momma, a great comfort to me. A sort of pillow. Rest. It's about the longest friendship I've ever had and I've never pushed her to the limit like some people. I love her dearly. It really is as simple as that.

IRMA KURTZ: We met under a table at a dinner party. We were both in our thirties and I remember looking at him and thinking, 'So London has them too.' I'd lived in Greenwich Village and the Left Bank in Paris before getting a bedsit in Marble Arch, and everyone I knew or had seen (like Dylan Thomas and Hemingway) were hard drinkers. Jeff was part of that lifestyle. He was someone I understood. He generated dangerous excitement; being near him meant getting to meet exciting people, like Francis Bacon. He was also beautiful, and that's no exaggeration. He had the most winning, charming smile I've ever seen, even in the movies. Electrifying bright-blue eyes, but no, he wasn't exactly my type. I've never had that terrible female weakness of falling in love with alcoholics, and he was definitely the spry young alcoholic.

Some time after we'd met, he turned on me outside the Colony Club because he had a giant contempt against Americans, thinking they couldn't possibly understand anything about anything. I was crying in the street thinking, 'You shit'. But I've learnt with Jeff you take the rough - that's the complete alcoholic package, the forgetfulness and temper, the niggling meanness and the inability to make a great lover - with his amazing generosity and fun. You can't change him. He's a bottle baby. That's where all his girlfriends went wrong.

Not that he hasn't occasionally made me so angry I haven't thought, 'Screw you]' Like when we were in Barbados and I said something he found beneath contempt and he screamed at me and said, 'You've been writing an agony column too long,' and I got so angry, so explosive, I shoved away from the table and walked out. Like it really silenced the group. I looked up at the sky and I realised you can only expect Jeff to be Jeff and went back in and gave him a kiss, and he was so grateful I wasn't still angry. His gratitude was touching. But I admit it's not what you'd always call easy. I once heard him attack someone, scream really awful painful things and thought I'd give him a rest. But next week I was hunting him out. The thing about Jeff is he tells the most brilliant stories. He's the most incredible friend I've ever had. No matter how he lets you down, how many times he stands you up because he's fallen asleep on the other side of town, he's repaid it a thousand times, dinners at the most expensive restaurants, you name it.

As for his lovers, I wanted to give them advice but I didn't. One girl told me they were talking marriage and I wanted to shake her and say: 'Don't do it.' If they'd asked, OK. But I wouldn't take some bright-eyed little optimist and explain. Not my job.

I wasn't exactly surprised by his suicide bids. He's extremely shy, hence the drink. He's afraid of being bored and boring, afraid of other people, and there's underlying sadness too; drink gives him courage. The thing is, like most parts of Jeff's life the suicides have become anecdotes and we talk about things at that level and not about the deep emotional crises. That's why he likes women, they treat him gently. And Jeff's got plenty of sensitive tissue.

Recently our relationship's grown. Maybe because he's more dependent on the true friends and time is sorting them out. And when you deal with people in bohemia you're dealing with massive egos. To be a friend of someone who's ill you've got to give, and I don't think the Soho egos are up to it. They aren't able to visit him in his eyrie. They get phobias about the lift: maybe they're thinking it'll happen to them. If I was in a wheelchair I'm not even sure he'd visit me. Call it pub sensibility; it makes them shake.

These aren't people who've been treated with great kindness or who can easily show it. I'm told he asked two people in the pub what was up and they said they'd made a book on how long he'd live and he was furious. Went white and insanely angry. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about.

He was recently rushed into hospital and I really thought 'This is it'. He looked terrible. I got through to the nurse in his ward and she said, 'Oh yeah'. . . he had his hand up her skirt, was opening a bottle of vodka (they get it out when they see him coming because it'll do him more harm to stop) and he was just about to go out for a cigarette.

Jeff isn't lonely. Far from it. Sometimes bright and sparky, sometimes subdued, but very, very frail. He's busy more than most, writing book reviews and articles; he's an amazingly sought-after journalist. When I visit I like making him laugh. He loves quickfire Jewish-American humour.

He talks about death, after a fashion. He's very, very ill and a diabetic and lives in special flats with ambulance alarm bells and wardens on stand-by. We've been saying so long Jeff is on his last days, it's like Death can't be bothered. I'm trying to make him do a will so everything goes to his daughter. But with luck the brain and heart are strong.-

(Photograph omitted)