Agnes Bernelle

Agnes Bernelle (Agnes Elizabeth Bernauer, 7 March 1923 – 15 February 1999) was a Berlin-born actress and singer. Her father was Rudolf Bernauer, an Austrian librettist and theatrical entrepreneur. Agnes and her family fled Germany in 1936 and moved to England.

During World War 2, Agnes was the OSS wartime ‘Black Propaganda’ radio announcer codenamed “Vicki”, put to work to demoralise German troops. She caused havoc by getting urine samples sent to the German Ministry of Health, and also got a submarine commander to surrender, by informing him his wife had given birth to twins.

Agnes combined motherhood (she married British pilot, film maker, writer, and musician Desmond Leslie) and her work in theatre. She performed at Peter Cook’s nightclub The Establishment, where in 1963 she presented her first one-woman show, singing songs by Brecht and other 20’s writers.

In 1969 she moved to Dublin, where she recorded her first album ‘Bernelle on Brecht and…’ (1977), produced by Phil Chevron (The Radiators and The Pogues) who wrote her first single “Kitty Ricketts”. She appeared in over 20 films and also made stage and television appearances.

Through her daughter Antonia, Agnes was introduced to the Virgin Prunes and befriended the band. She introduced Gavin Friday to the music of Kurt Weill, which became a life long fascination:

“Her daughter Antonia came to see us playing an afternoon gig in McGonagles. I saw this woman in the audience with this wonderful feather boa, and after that, she almost adopted me. She opened the door to people like Brecht and Kurt Weill for me; she really opened my mind to all of that.”

In 1985 Agnes released the album “Father’s Lying Dead on the Ironing Board”, followed by “Mother, The Wardrobe is full of Infantrymen” (1988).

Over the years, she worked with many artists, including Elvis Costello, Tom Waits (“Father’s Lying Dead” was an influence on Tom during his Rain Dogs period) who suggested she record “Broken Bicycles”), The Radiators and Marc Almond with whom she recorded the song “Kept Boy”, on the album “The Stars We Are” (1989).

In ’87, Agnes performed at Gavin Friday’s “Blue Jaysus Club” where he says she “brought with her such an air of magic”, while on his 1990 tour she opened for Gavin at two London shows at the Electric Cinema and joined him on stage to perform the duet “The Ballad of Immoral Earnings”.

With her second hustband, historian and author Maurice Craig, Agnes Bernelle lived in Sandymount, County Dublin and spent the later years of her life writing her autobiography, The Fun Palace, which was published in 1995.

She died on February 15, 1999. Gavin Friday, Mary Coughlan and other artists performed at her funeral; with her favourite boa draped over her coffin, the church choir sang ‘Mac the Knife’.

In this 2008 video shot by her grandson, Gavin Friday, Guggi, Marc Almond, John Comiskey, Alan Amsby and Camille O’Sullivan talk about Agnes:

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