Jeffrey Bernard says farewell
Every week until his death he treated readers of The Spectator to stories of his `low life'. The day before he died he received Elisabeth Anderson and other colleagues at his bedside. They shared some good tales
Friday 12 September 1997
We made our way to his flat on the 14th floor of a grimy tower block on Berwick Street on Wednesday afternoon, and walked into Jeff's bedroom clutching five enormous sunflowers. "I'll have to cut off my ear," was Jeff's reaction. He was slumped in his bed, his frail head poking out from under his duvet. By his side on the bed was a cardboard box lid containing a large cup of strong brown tea, and a packet of Senior Service nestling among the cigarette stubs.
`Frank [The Spectator's editor] came to see me last week. He's mad. Some very strange friends."
Jeff asked his home help, Vera, to help him sit up. He began to talk more animatedly, perhaps because four women were now gathered round him: three Spectator ladies and Vera, who although retired seemed to spend as much time looking after him as she always had done. One of us perched on the bed; Vera took the wheelchair. We fed him titbits of
Spectator gossip, and he launched into a tale about the mother of one of our regular contributors.
"His mother Lady - and a well known one-legged racehorse trainer were having tea in a London hotel. After tea, the trainer said, `Let's get down to business'; he then unscrewed his wooden leg and hopped across the room - must have been bloody strong, I couldn't have done it - and leapt on her. She didn't put up much of a fight."
There was a pause while his eyelids drooped and he seemed to drift off. The morphia was having its effect. Now that he was home from hospital there were no "caring" nurses to dictate the dosage or forbid his smoking. There was a stirring under the duvet and a gnarled hand reached out for a cigarette. Then he was off again.
"I went to drink at the Pickwick after the play I was in ended, to wind down. I hate that term wind down, whatever it means, I always think it's wind up. Marlene Dietrich was there and she came up to me and said, `My name is Marlene Dietrich,' and she shook my hand, as if I didn't know who she was. Of course I knew who she bloody was. I'd seen her when I first went on stage - she was right in front. She said, `The play was wonderful darling [Jeff put on a heavy accent], and you were wonderful, darling.' I sat there for three hours being flattered by Marlene Dietrich. I couldn't sleep that night. I kept thinking, Marlene Dietrich thinks I'm wonderful. How pathetic."
Listening to these tales, we were immersed again in his peculiar "Low life" world. I were almost as if he were dictating his latest column. Indeed, for the past few years, since sitting at a typewriter had become too strenuous, he had regularly dictated his copy to Jessica Nettleton, another Spectator lady of whom he had become very fond and hardly ever snarled at. "Jeff," we pleaded, "all you need do is turn on a tape recorder, and we would have your next column right here."
"I've resigned - didn't you know? - but Frank wants me to write a farewell piece."
"But Jeff, you can't resign," we all chorused. "We need you."
He opened his sleepy blue eyes. "You know what a sucker I am for flattery."
"Why don't you go back on dialysis?"
"I can't. I'd look such a bloody fool if I changed my mind now."
He glanced at Vera.
"I know what a pain I am. It's cold." Cue for a hot cup of tea. That and another cigarette seemed to revive him again.
"I never got the credit," he grumbled. "When I had my leg cut off, I wrote my column four days later - only four days after, and nobody gave me any credit! The editor [the previous one] even put, `Jeffrey Bernard has had his leg off'. I thought that bloody insensitive."
If you were editor, we asked him, what would you do?
"I'd sack half the writers for a start," muttered Jeff.
"Well the first person I'd get rid of would be myself - and Taki, probably, and Paul Johnson, and that awful Mary woman at the back - can't stand her column ..."
A fifth woman appeared at the door - his niece Kate - and it seemed a signal for us to leave. The fan club had outgrown his small bedroom, and Jeff was tiring.
Still, the attentions of the fan club had seemed to cheer him up, and we went away with the faint hope that in all his contrary way he might surprise us all and go on defying death for ever. Jeff had a few more visitors that day but by the evening he was drifting in and out of consciousness; he died the following night
This article is reprinted from the current edition of `The Spectator'.
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