Agnes Bernelle

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A popular German actress and singer who appeared in radio, theatre, film, television and cabaret.
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b. Agnes Bernauer, 1923, Berlin, Germany, d. 16 February 1999, Eire. Bernelle’s Hungarian-born father, Rudolph Bernauer, was a theatre owner who also wrote lyrics, and Marlene Dietrich was a family friend. She made her film debut at the age of seven, playing a boy. Her father was Jewish and in 1936, with the rise of the Nazis, the family moved to London to escape persecution. Bernelle’s father wrote and directed some films while in London. She worked with the Free German League of Culture and also took part in propaganda broadcasts to Germany, as ‘Vicky the Sailor’s Sweetheart’. In 1945 she married Desmond Leslie, an Irish fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force who was a cousin of Winston Churchill. In the post-war years and on through the 50s the Leslies moved in a social circle that included Claus von Bulow and Farouk, the former king of Egypt, and ranged through London and the Riviera. She was in a BBC radio series, which starred and was directed by Orson Welles. Bernelle made British theatrical history when in 1956 she became the first nude to officially move. (The Lord Chancellor’s office stipulated that nudity was permissible only if unclothed ladies remained demurely stationary.)

In 1963, Bernelle took a one-woman show into Peter Cook’s Establishment Club, later performing the show in the West End. In this show she sang songs by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, this material remaining a staple of her repertoire throughout her subsequent career and which she would also record on Bernelle And Brecht And …, an extremely rare LP. Also in 1963, she and her husband moved to Eire. Following her 1969 divorce and subsequent remarriage, Bernelle worked mainly in Dublin where she became a popular performer in radio, theatre, film, television and cabaret. A television documentary, I Was That Little Girl, traced her return to Berlin where she researched her roots and performed her cabaret act. Elvis Costello produced her mid-80s album Father’s Lying Dead On The Ironing Board. The follow-up Mother, The Wardrobe Is Full Of Infantrymen featured lyrics by Tom Waits and poets Adrian Mitchell, Roger McGough and Christopher Logue. Bernelle published her memoirs in 1996. Her final screen performance was as a bedridden woman in the 1998 short Still Life.