Life

Wartime secret agent, cabaret legend, crochet artiste extraordinaire, and Ireland’s oldest punk...

Agnes Elizabeth Bernauer was born 7 March 1923, the child of Rudolph Bernauer, a Jewish Hungarian, and his second, Protestant wife. 

She and her father fled from Berlin in 1936 to the United Kingdom, her mother later making a dramatic escape from Berlin after the SS had put pressure on her to work for them.

There, Agnes spent 3 years at school, once the 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.
In 1938 Bernelle was the OSS wartime 'Black Propaganda' radio announcer codenamed 'Vicki' famous for demoralizing a German U-Boat Captain into surrendering with one of her targeted broadcasts.

Romantically, she was pursued by men as diverse as King Farouk and Claus Von Bulow. A whirlwind romance with spitfire pilot Desmond Leslie led to a security ‘flap’ when he penetrated the OSS secret operational HQ. Desmond had tailed Agi, convinced he was being two-timed. Desmond swept aside family objections to marrying a Hungarian by pointing out the Leslie descent from Attila the Hun. Film footage of their wedding on the first day of peace (VJ Day) shows Churchill and the King waving from Buckingham Palace whilst church bells toll and delirious Londoners dance in the streets.

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- clubThe Establishment, and in 1963 presented her first one-woman show there, in which she sang songs by Brecht and other writers of the 1920's.

In 1963, at the time she was expecting her third child, she and Desmond moved to Glaslough, where she ran Ireland’s first discotheque in the Hunting Lodge, as well as a cottage industry of her ‘couture’ crochet designs. Her home, Castle Leslie was shared by three siblings, with long visits from their father.

After the break-up of her marriage in 1969 she moved to Dublin, where she would record her first album 'Bernelle on Brecht and...' which was released in 1977.

In 1978, she appeared Off Broadway in New York City in the American premiere of Brecht's 'Downfall of the Egotist Johann Fatzer', in which she sang original ballads sung composed by Tony Award-winning composer/arranger, Bruce Coughlin.

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. She threw herself into many causes close to her heart, some, such as women in media, with wider concerns than theatre.

1985 she released her second album 'Father's Lying Dead on the Ironing Board' which was voted the strangest LP of the year by the New Musical Express. This was followed in 1990 by her last release, 'Mother,The Wardrobe is full of Infantrymen'. The Fun Palace, her autobiography, was published in 1995.

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 in March 1999, she knew she was indeed dying; characteristically she did not tell her fellow actors.

She died 15 February 1999. The funeral was a great Rock’n Roll event with performances by Gavin Friday, Mary Coughlan and others; the church choir sang ‘Mac the Knife’.

In the London Independent obituary, David Alexander says of her: "anyone who ever met her 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."

Agnes Bernelle with Desmond Leslie

Agnes with Desmond Leslie

Furious over an article Bernard Levin had written about his then wife, the actress Agnes Bernelle, Desmond Leslie punches theatre critic Levin in front of eleven million viewers during an edition the satirical TV show' That Was The Week That Was' in 1962.

Agnes and crocheting. The facts. Somewhere on the internet it says Agnes was a 'crochet artist extrodinaire' and this site has been part of proliferating this mis-information.

Agnes was in fact keen on knit wear, more than crocheting, and set up a company called Castle Shane knit wear which specialised in giant crochet capes and skirts. She had many local women involved in doing the knitting and, it seems, sold in a shop named 'Ambush', on Grafton Street in Dublin, that she was briefly involved with. One of the young lady’s that modelled for her catalogue was a young Mary Robinson - who became President of Ireland.