A one woman show

AGNES BERNELLE has quite a story to tell

AGNES BERNELLE has quite a story to tell. It ranges from Berlin between the wars, to London during the Blitz and on to life in the somewhat rackety grandeur of Castle Leslie in County Monaghan via the worlds of theatre and cinema. Along the way it takes in people of every sort, including Farouk, the ex king of Egypt, whom the author met during his exile in Italy and who proposed marriage to her. Far from being the gluttonous debauchee of popular legend, she writes, he was a gentle, family loving ex monarch who ate little and drank no alcohol and whose enormous bulk was due to a glandular defect. And as to being a tyrant, he was trying to democratise his country even as he was being deposed. Ms Bernelle, it must be said, takes a kindly view of the world.

She was born in Berlin in the 1920s, the daughter of a successful Hungarian theatre impresario and writer of musicals, and his German wife. Life was comfortable, with a large apartment in the city, a holiday villa in Istria, then part of Italy, and various schools for young ladies. Berlin was a cosmopolitan centre of the arts, and the young Agnes, talented and beautiful, seemed set to take a distinguished place in it.

But it all came tumbling down with the rise of the Nazis. Her father found doors being closed to him and work drying up, and eventually, to avoid even worse, was forced to leave for London with only his gold watch in his pocket. His family followed shortly afterwards and settled down into an emigre life, the father supporting them by writing and directing small budget films. His daughter, learned English quickly, and by the time the war began was starting a career as an actress and appearing, in satirical revues mounted by an anti Nazi refugee group. It was then that she also started working for a radio station run by the OSS, the American predecessor of the CIA, which broadcast a mixture of popular songs and disinformation to the German forces.

At this time, too, she met Desmond Leslie, a young BAF pilot whom she was to marry. There could hardly have been a more startling contrast between her central European theatrical background and his Anglo Irish one. Indeed, all they can have had in common was a rich vein of eccentricity. Castle Leslie, she writes, seemed to her like stepping back into an 18th century novel in which the tenants still called for their Christmas presents, while old Wiggins, the Protestant gatekeeper, recited a lengthy poem, each verse of which finished with "he died for the Queen on Christmas Day", and a Catholic herdsman replied with "the sea oh the sea, thanks heavens it lies between England and me".

Children followed their marriage quickly, and life seems to have been a constant struggle to make ends meet. Agnes was trying to make her way as an actress in London, while her husband involved himself in endless schemes, usually of the harebrained variety. Somehow, success seems to have always been tantalisingly just out of reach. When Agnes is invited to Hollywood she can't go because of a baby, or when she is in a play that transfers to the West End it is re cast and someone else gets her role. Desmond writes a novel but Kate O'Brien, who is to review it takes umbrage when she is asked to pay for her review copy. He sets out to produce a bestseller about flying saucers but, though he is brought out to America to lecture, there doesn't seem to be much money and they are plagued by crackpots.

But Agnes Bernelle finally did get the recognition she deserved at the Dublin Theatre Festival of 1963, when she performed her one woman show, introducing a new generation to the wonderful, mordant songs of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. This and later shows using material by other German cabaret writers, including her own father, are surely her finest theatrical achievement.

The book is populated by a rich cast of walk on character, many of them famous or infamous. We meet, for instance, Marlene Dietrich, an unknown young actress and mother in 1930s Berlin, the socialite Claus von Bulow, subsequently tried and acquitted for the murder of his wife, and the eccentric, kilted figure of her father in law Sir Shane Leslie, disinherited in favour of his eldest son.

Agnes Bernelle writes affectionately, too, of her children, her parents and her philandering husband, who never made any secret of his many liaisons and even brought his girlfriends home from time to time. What comes across from it all is the warmth and generosity of her personality and a wonderful capacity for survival. No matter what happens, one feels, she will always pick herself up, dust herself off and start all over again.

She ends by telling the story of a book which her father and his business partner used to exchange on birthdays. Each of them had a precious or semi precious stone embedded in the cover. Amazingly, it survived the war and made its way to a synagogue in New York, where it will be presented to Agnes Bernelle this year. It will be a fitting tribute to this colourful, indefatigable woman whose life has encompassed so much. Long may she flourish.

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