Monday 21 August 2017

Renaissance woman

Maggie Armstrong celebrates the life of musician, actress, black propagandist, peace activist and burlesque performer Agnes Bernelle

Desmond Leslie and Agnes marry at St James's Church in London, in August 1945.
Desmond Leslie and Agnes marry at St James's Church in London, in August 1945.

Maggie Armstrong

Agnes Bernelle's death on February 15 1999 brought an unlikely crowd into the church in Sandymount. The aides-de-camp of the Taoiseach and the President, Ruari Quinn TD and Senator David Norris were among an assortment of musicians, theatre folk, actors, socialites, academics and writers.

Mary Coughlan sang 'Non, Je ne Regrette Rien' and Gavin Friday sang the blood-curdling ballad 'Mac the Knife'. Even the local supermarket workers came in their uniforms to say goodbye to the beautiful, captivating 75-year-old lady from Berlin, who dressed in black with flickering diamantes and a feather boa.

She had come a long way to Dublin, where she was best known as a singer. She brought cabaret to the capital in its pure, Brechtian form, of telling stories with black humour, stripped emotion and political urgency. She recorded with artists as well-known as Tom Waits and Elvis Costello. Marianne Faithfull was her close friend, and Marc Almond, Gavin Friday and Guggi were her protegees.

She was also an actress, social activist and creative director of the Project Arts Centre. CoisCeim dance theatre opens 'Agnes' at the Project, a performance inspired by her songs in two weeks.

'Bernelle' was her stage name, echoing the roots of cabaret in 19th century Montmartre. She was born Agnes Bernauer in Berlin on March 7 1923 and brought up in a privileged theatrical milieu. Her father was Rudolf Bernauer, a Jewish Hungarian impresario and satirical songwriter. Bernelle wrote "he brought me up to be a gentleman", making her a "born feminist". Her first film role was as a boy, aged seven, and as a child she composed verse and helped her father program the 'talkies' in his theatres.

Remembering his friend 'Aggie', the lighting designer John Comiskey says: "When you lose everything you gain a clearer view of what is really important".

Growing up in Weimar Germany, Bernelle was driven to her Jewish Montessori school in a limousine. By age 13 her family were made stateless by the Nazis and had to flee. Many of her relatives and friends were sent to the death camps, but Agnes and her parents made it to London. They settled into the German refugee cabaret scene, joining the war effort through song and, in Agnes's case, subterfuge when she became an American intelligence agent.

Bernelle was aware of her terrific beauty. She was talent-spotted reciting Rudyard Kipling's 'If' for the Citizen's Advice Bureau, which she claimed was down to her "sensational mauve lips and fingernails". Big lips came in handy again as a secret broadcaster of black propaganda, working for the OSS, the forerunners of the CIA, on the Enigma project – a hoax radio station.

Under the pseudonym Vicky, 20-year-old Bernelle sent coded messages to the Allied troops and passed on misinformation to confuse and lower the morale of German forces. Her broadcasts began with the sugary announcement, "This is Vicky with three kisses for you", followed by three kisses, and caused havoc.

After this exhilarating stint she looked for work with the BBC, who informed her that her voice was "entirely unsuited to broadcasting".

She was an underground performer for much of her life. As a theatre actress she could claim to be the first nude Salome on the West End stage, but as a film actress she played only bit parts.

The songs of her youth returned to her and she came to describe herself as a "keeper of the flame" of Weimar figures Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.

Marriage got in the way of two offers from Hollywood, though she looked on the bright side. "Knowing the kind of person I am I feel that I might have easily fallen by the wayside", she wrote in her 1996 memoir, 'The Fun Palace'.

She met Desmond Leslie at the buffet counter of a society party in Mayfair when he was a spitfire pilot in the RAF.

After a tumultuous engagement they married on the first day of peace, August 18 1945, her wearing an antique brocade dress they pulled out of a trunk in Castle Leslie, his family mansion in Co Monaghan. She later described their wedding as a "mistake", both the choice of date and the marriage itself.

Her husband somewhat sabotaged her big musical breakthrough in 1963 when her one-woman show, 'Savagery and Delight', opened in the West End.

Leslie, a writer and sometime sound engineer, was on sound but had forgotten the speakers, so her voice was inaudible. The critics panned it, among them BBC's Bernard Levin in the 'Evening Standard'. Leslie took the opportunity to walk onto his Saturday night programme, 'That Was the Week That Was' and punch him in the jaw.

The couple had an embattled open relationship for 24 years, Leslie moving to Ireland with their two boys Sean and Marc in 1963. When Agnes followed by boat in early 1964 with newborn Antonia, she found her husband's mistress sleeping in her bed.

But in that run-down, rarefied atmosphere, shared with three of Leslie's siblings and their eccentric father, Sir Shane Leslie, Agnes took up new ventures.

She started a disco in the Hunting Lodge and ran jam-making and crochet knitwear enterprises with local women. One of the fashion models in their 'Shane Castle' crochet brochure was law student and future president Mary Bourke [Robinson], who became her friend.

In 1969 the marriage broke up and Agnes moved to Dublin. She met her second partner, architectural historian Dr Maurice Craig, whom she lived with in her decadent, picture-filled house on the seafront in Sandymount. In flamboyant style she called him "my young boy".

She found a new heyday in Dublin, recording three albums, performing underground and in the first theatre festivals, and travelling to New York to perform off Broadway. She was active in the National Women's Council, helping to form the Women in Media and Entertainment group, which is still going. She was involved with the Irish Refugee Council and became a peace campaigner. One account has her staging a one-woman protest outside the headquarters of Sinn Fein during the Troubles.

Bernelle was an ageless mentor to many important musicians. Gavin Friday met her while playing in the obscene punk act the Virgin Prunes, when she accompanied 14-year-old Antonia to a gig.

He tells 'Weekend' magazine: "My first vision of Agnes was from the stage, all dressed in black with a long cigarette holder in an audience of punks. She invited myself and Guggi for tea in her house. At that tea party she gave me a cassette of Brecht's 'Threepenny Opera' and said, 'this is real punk'. She opened that door for me to the music of Weimar Germany."

Friday performed with her many times, at rave venues, at CabarAIDs gigs with 'Diceman' Tom McGinty, along with U2, The Radiators (who she would record with) and the Hothouse Flowers at his Blue Jaysus nightclub. He took her on tour with him in the UK in 1990.

"She would drive you mad," he laughs, remembering the frail lady announcing to him, "I cannot possibly walk onto that stage", and, "What on Earth is this, Gavin?" when she found a drumkit in her way. He remembers her as "the real deal" in the authenticity of her music and stagecraft, a "bombshell", a "learned, articulate woman", and a mother worrying for her children.

"She was truly ever young," says John Comiskey, who travelled to Berlin with her to make a documentary about her life called 'I Was a Little Girl'. He remembers her climbing over barbed wire and crossing railroad tracks to get to her father's abandoned old theatres. He recalls his favourite picture of her, waterskiing on the Grand Canal, pulled by a horse in 1977.

Performer Camille O'Sullivan has stuck with Bernelle's traditions. They met while shooting the 1996 film 'November Afternoon', which Agnes had checked out of hospital to act in. They also played together in the unruly Dublin Arts Club.

O'Sullivan says that when she met her, she knew her architect career was over.

"As a woman she was so inspiring," she says. "She gave great guidance – she told me I didn't need to be trained. When she stood on stage, she didn't have to do much, she brought you to her."

She emphasises, however, that Bernelle's cabaret was far from the kitsch and commercial kind. "It isn't about your sexuality. This was very tough storytelling, very vulnerable."

In Bernelle's last film 'Still Life' (1999) she plays a dying woman. It was made months before her own death from cancer. Her memoir ended with her move to Dublin – she never got to write the second part. We have her songs, which are comical, distressing and sorrowful at the same time. CoisCeim dance picks up where she left off.

'Agnes', choreographed by David Bolger, opens Saturday, March 15 at the Project Arts Centre; projectartscentre.ie

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