Obituary: Agnes Bernelle

ANYONE WHO ever met the actress and singer Agnes Bernelle could not fail to be impressed by her courage, energy and dedication, qualities which she showed all her life; it was these qualities which enabled her to make the transition from a comfortable and highly cultured upbringing in Berlin to a new life in Ireland, where she created a special place for herself in artistic Dublin.

She was born in Berlin in 1923, the child of Rudolph Bernauer, a Jewish Hungarian, and his second, Protestant wife. Bernauer had moved to Berlin where he became a successful writer of satirical songs; in partnership with Carl Meinhard he ran a string of theatres with great success until the mid-1920s.

The theatre was in Agnes's blood from the start and was the life she wanted for herself. According to her own account in The Fun Palace (1996), an autobiography covering her early years, she saw clearly at the age of 13 what life was going to be like for those of Jewish origin and she persuaded her father to leave Berlin. He was able to obtain Hungarian papers and moved with Agnes to London in 1936, her mother later making a dramatic escape from Berlin after the SS had put pressure on her to work for them.

Agnes spent three years at school in north London. Once war came she found a niche with the Freier Deutscher Kulturbund (Free German League of Culture), a refugee organisation where her senior colleagues included the artist John Heartfield, and began to find her feet in cabaret, using the stage name of Agnes Bernelle. She met a young RAF pilot, Desmond Leslie, whom she was to marry on the first day of peace in Europe, and in 1943 she began to work for the Allied Radio Atlantik, broadcasting to Germany as "Vicky".

After the war Agnes and Desmond spent a decade in London. Agnes balanced motherhood and her life in the theatre, gradually becoming better known as a singer; she was one of the early performers at Peter Cook's night- club The Establishment, and in 1963 she presented her first solo show, Savagery and Delight, based on songs by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, at the Duchess Theatre. It was Bernard Levin's adverse review of this which provoked Desmond Leslie into punching him on TW3 (That Was The Week That Was).

In 1963, at the time she was expecting her third child, she and Desmond went to live at Glaslough, the great Leslie mansion in Co Monaghan shared by three siblings, with long visits from their father, Sir Shane Leslie, the writer who had earlier scandalised his family by converting to Catholicism.

It was a difficult time for Agnes Bernelle: the break-up of her marriage must have brought many dark moments, but with her characteristic generosity and her ability, and aided perhaps by her being an outsider, she worked hard helping local women produce and sell their knitware. At the same time she clung to her own career. After moving to Dublin and meeting the architectural historian Maurice Craig she was able to use her personality and experience to help and encourage others as director, performer or confidante. Agnes and Maurice made a happy home together in the Sandymount area of Dublin. She threw herself into many causes close to her heart, some, such as women in media, with wider concerns than theatre.

She continued to sing in cabaret until very recently, on occasion as far away as California; a selection of her songs is available in the album Father's Lying Dead on the Ironing Board, recorded in 1984. Four years ago she was told she had six months to live, but she refused to pay any attention to this. However, by the time she played her last role, a dying woman in a film called Still Life, which was shown for the first time earlier this month, she knew she was indeed dying; characteristically she did not tell her fellow actors.

In a remarkable turn of fate Agnes Bernelle had a delayed bequest from her father. Long before the Second World War Rudolph Bernauer gave Carl Meinhard for his birthday a copy of Heinrich Heine's The Rabbi of Bacharach, with etchings by Max Liebermann. For some reason Meinhard, forgetting that the gift had come from Bernauer, gave it back as a birthday present. Bernauer re- presented it to him, with the addition of a jewel on the binding, and so it went back and forward, gradually becoming more encrusted, on the understanding that the survivor would inherit it.

The book disappeared during the war, but many years later a friend spotted it on exhibition in the Central Synagogue in New York. In 1996 the Synagogue authorities agreed to its return. Agnes Bernelle told the full story in the Jewish Quarterly. Sadly it seems that she never completed a planned sequel to The Fun Palace, so that article may be her last appearance in print.

Agnes Bernauer (Agnes Bernelle), actress and singer: born Berlin 7 March 1923; married 1945 Desmond Leslie (two sons, one daughter); died Dublin 15 February 1999.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?