Obituary: Agnes Bernelle
Wednesday 17 March 1999
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.
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