Bernelle, Agnes (1923–99), singer and actress, was born Agnes Elizabeth Bernauer on 7 March 1923 in Berlin, Germany, daughter of Rudolph Bernauer (1880–1953), a Jewish-Hungarian actor, playwright, librettist, and theatrical director and impresario, and his second wife, Emmy (née Erb) (b. 1887), a German protestant, who was employed by Bernauer from c.1907 as governess to his children, and married him some years after the death of his first wife. Born in Budapest, by the 1910s Rudolph Bernauer was one of Berlin's most prominent stage personalities, owning four theatres, writing popular operettas, and directing works by such avant-garde playwrights as Wedekind and Strindberg. Receiving her early education in Berlin, Agnes had a comfortable and cultured upbringing, steeped in the city's artistic and intellectual life (Albert Einstein was a neighbour, and Marlene Dietrich's daughter a childhood playmate), and from an early age aspired to a career in the performance arts. She and her father both converted to Roman catholicism (mid 1930s). Amid the increasingly repressive atmosphere of Nazi Germany, her father emigrated in 1935 to London, where he wrote screenplays and directed low-budget films. Following him there the next year, Agnes completed her education in a north London boarding school (1936–9). They were joined in 1939 by Agnes's mother, who, pressurised to undertake espionage work for the SS, fled Germany dramatically on the eve of the war. Many relatives who remained were to die in concentration camps.
Upon leaving school, Agnes worked sporadically as a shorthand typist and fledgling actress (adopting the stage name 'Bernelle') in London theatres and with touring repertory companies. Joining the Free German League of Culture, an anti-fascist refugee group formed by established artists, she performed in their satirical revues. Recruited for black propaganda work by the American Office of Strategic Services, from early 1943 to war's end she was a singer, disc jockey and announcer on Radio Atlantik, a German-language, British-based short-wave station masquerading as an underground station transmitting from within Germany. As the seductive, sultry-voiced 'Vicky', she broadcast disinformation designed to sow confusion and reduce morale among German troops and civilians. Coded messages to the resistance were implanted in her scripts, often disguised in record labels and catalogue numbers. She purportedly demoralised a U-boat commander who had been without shore leave for two years into surrendering his vessel by playing a congratulatory musical request on the birth of his son. On another occasion, she caused chaos in the German postal service by announcing a spurious government directive requiring all citizens to post urine samples to the health ministry.
Agnes married (18 August 1945) Desmond Leslie (1921–2001), an invalided RAF Spitfire pilot, youngest child of Shane Leslie (qv), 3rd baronet, an Irish peer. A dashing couple, with Agnes's dark hair and eyes and smouldering beauty, and Leslie said to be 'as handsome as Byron', they had two sons (Sean (b. 1949) and Mark (b. 1952)) and one daughter (Antonia (b. 1963)). Leslie pursued a colourful career as author, film writer and producer, music composer, UFO investigator, spiritualist, and serial philanderer. Throughout the 1950s, Agnes acted regularly in West End theatre, and in radio, television and film. Her most celebrated performance was in the title role in a 1956 production of 'Salomé' by Oscar Wilde (qv), in which, while performing the 'dance of the seven veils', she became the first non-stationary nude on the British stage, in contravention of the lord chamberlain's censorship regime. Her radio work included appearances in two internationally syndicated series produced by Towers of London, opposite Orson Welles in The adventures of Harry Lime (1951–2 season), a prequel to the famous Carol Reed film The third man, and opposite Marius Goring in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1952–3 season). She performed pantomime at the London Palladium, and in Dublin's Gaiety theatre (winter 1957–8).
In 1962 Bernelle debuted a one-woman-show of her own devising, 'Savagery and delight', at the Establishment, Peter Cook's celebrated nightclub, a landmark venue for 1960s British satirical comedy. Over the ensuing year, she performed the show – modelled on Weimar-era Berlin cabaret, and consisting largely of the Bertolt Brecht–Kurt Weill songbook – in London and provincial playhouses, and at the 1962 Dublin theatre festival (where it was voted best foreign show). Expanding her material beyond the Brecht–Weill repertoire, Bernelle collaborated with German émigré composer Michael Dress (1935–75) on setting her own English translations of the poems and songs of Joachim Ringelnatz (1883–1934) and other leading Weimar-era cabarettists. In April 1963 Leslie famously punched theatre critic Bernard Levin on air during BBC television's That was the week that was for having savaged the show's West End premiere.
Suspending her performance career, Bernelle followed Leslie in January 1964 to his family's ancestral home, Castle Leslie, in Glaslough, Co. Monaghan, where Leslie hatched a series of schemes of varying practicality in efforts to make the property financially viable. Bernelle assisted in operating a nightclub-discotheque, Annabel's on the Bog, in the estate's hunting lodge, and managed a cottage knitwear industry employing local women. Though she had long tolerated Leslie's many infidelities, and indulged in a few of her own, Bernelle's discovery that Leslie was supporting a steady mistress and their two daughters in a Dublin townhouse severely strained the marriage, which finally broke down in 1969, when Bernelle returned to Castle Leslie from a holiday with her children to find that Leslie in their absence had changed the door locks, obtained a Mexican divorce, and married the other woman. Upon moving to Dublin, Bernelle briefly managed a clothing boutique and resumed her performing career. She would likely have returned to London, but for her meeting in 1970 the recently widowed Maurice Craig (qv), eminent architectural historian and writer; they were unmarried partners for the rest of her life. According to Bernelle's son Mark Leslie, the grave, cerebral, wryly observant Craig was the emotional counterweight to 'the exciting drama of Aggie's life' (Ir. Times, 20 February 1999). Under the provisions of a legal settlement (1971), Leslie purchased a house for Bernelle at 97 Strand Road, Sandymount, Dublin.
Successfully reprising her 'Savagery and delight' cabaret show in the 1969 Dublin theatre festival, over ensuing years Bernelle continued to develop the show with material that was 'satirical, absurd, socially aware' (Ir. Times, 4 May 1993), performing it at intervals in Dublin venues, and touring it internationally, including such prestigious events as the Edinburgh Festival and the Berlin 750th (1987). From the late 1970s, she also performed 'Conversations about an absent lover', a one-woman play by Peter Hack about Goethe's mistress. Her acting roles on the Dublin stage included Gertrude in 'Hamlet', Mrs Bennet in 'Pride and prejudice', the title role in Brecht's 'The mother', and parts in plays by Joe Orton and Tom Murphy. She had a close relationship from its inception with the Project Arts Centre, of which she was a long-serving board member and sometime artistic director; her acting credits at the venue included Jenny in 'The ha'penny place', an adaptation by Jim Sheridan to a contemporary Dublin setting of John Gay's 'Beggar's opera', directed by Peter Sheridan (1979), and Winnie in 'Happy days' by Samuel Beckett (qv) (1992). Unusually for a woman at the time, she directed eleven plays at the Project, including a version of Franz Wedekind's 'Lulu' plays, the ancient Greek comedy 'Lysistrata' by Aristophanes, and the musical 'Archie and Mehitabel'. Appearing off-Broadway in the American premiere of 'Downfall of the egotist Johann Fatzer' (1978), an adaptation of an unfinished play by Brecht, Bernelle performed songs composed for the production and woven into Brecht's script.
Bernelle's first record album, Bernelle on Brecht and … (1977), included such Brecht–Weill classics as 'Mack the Knife' and 'Pirate Jenny'; backing musicians included jazz musicians Louis Stewart (1944–2016) (guitar) and Peter O'Brien (qv) (piano). Most of the tracks on her second album, Father's lying dead on the ironing board (1985), voted strangest LP of the year by the NME, were new arrangements of her mordantly absurdist Ringelnatz adaptations. Both albums were produced by Philip Chevron (qv), an ardent admirer of her work from an early age and one of her most enduring collaborators, serving as musical director and backing guitarist on some of her shows. Bernelle recorded the Chevron composition 'Kitty Ricketts' (1979) as a single with Chevron's band, the Radiators, and in the same year was backed by the Radiators in her solo show 'Black champagne' at London's Ambassador Theatre. Another collaborator was Gavin Friday (who, like Chevron, credited her with introducing him to the music of Brecht and Weill), for whom she opened at London shows in 1990. Other Irish artists acknowledging her defining influence were Jack L and Camille O'Sullivan. Bernelle's last album, Mother, the wardrobe is full of infantrymen (1990), encompassed a century of music, from an 1889 Wedekind composition, a 1900 song by Bernelle's father, and a 1947 number written for her by Desmond Leslie, to pieces by such contemporary artists as Tom Waits and Marc Almond.
From an appearance in the movie Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), Bernelle compiled some thirty screen credits, her feature films including The quare fellow (1962), The great train robbery (1979), and Hear my song (1991). Television appearances included episodes of The adventures of Robin Hood (1955) and The Irish RM (1985); the television film The country girls (1984); and the mini-series Caught in a free state (1984) and Bluebell (1987), about the dancer Margaret Kelly (qv). An autobiography, The fun palace (1996), covered the years up to Bernelle's settling in Dublin in 1969; an intended sequel was never completed. She was featured in the RTÉ television documentary I was the little girl!: the Berlin of Agnes Bernelle (1998).
Long regarding her cabaret shows as secondary to her acting, Bernelle eventually acknowledged the greater success and acclaim she attained as a singer. Through a career marked by recurring rediscoveries by new generations of performers and audiences, her 'slightly out-of-the-way songs' (Ir. Times, 27 May 1998) provided a consistent alternative to mainstream commercialism, kitsch and cultural complacency. Warm-hearted and expansive, she was renowned for the moral and practical support she generously extended to others in theatre and the arts. Inspired by her own life experience, she strongly supported the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the cause of refugees seeking asylum. Her performance as a dying woman in Still life (1999), her last movie role, filmed after her own diagnosis with terminal lung cancer, won a jury citation at the Palm Springs short film festival. Bernelle died 15 February 1999 in Our Lady's Hospice, Harold's Cross, Dublin. At the funeral mass in St Mary's Star of the Sea, Sandymount, the coffin was draped with her favourite black feather boa.