Bernard Levin looked up at the tall, bespectacled Irishman in shock. The presenter of ‘That Was The Week That Was’ had not expected to be disrupted live on television. Indeed he had only just taken his seat when the man arose from the BBC studio audience and approached.
‘One minute Mr. Levin’, said the man politely. ‘Before you begin … it won’t take a minute. Would you stand up?’
Mr. Levin stood uncertainly but, being a diminutive man, it made little difference to his height.
‘Mr. Levin, your review of ‘Savagery and Delight’ was not a review; it was a vicious attack’.
‘Yes, it may well have been’, replied the somewhat baffled BBC man. ‘Would you mind going back?’
‘There’s just one tiny thing to be done,’ continued the Irishman, pulling back his right fist and throwing it into the presenter’s face.
Lenny Henry rightly described the punch, which took place in front of 11 million television viewers, as ‘one of the iconic moments’ in TV history. With the aid of YouTube, the extraordinary chin-strike is set for immortality.
The man who punched Bernard Levin was Desmond Leslie, scion of one the most eccentric families to have sprung from Irish soil. A brilliant Spitfire pilot during the Second World War, Leslie made his mark as a scriptwriter, music composer and, perhaps most famously, as a passionate advocate for the existence of flying saucers and alien life.
His first wife was the acclaimed singer and stage actress Agnes Bernelle. It was Bernard Levin’s ferocious Daily Mail review of his wife’s musical abilities that caused the infamous punch to fly back in 1963.
Leslie’s fascinating life story has just been published in Robert O’Byrne’s immensely readable ‘Desmond Leslie (1921-2001) – The Biography of an Irish Gentleman’.
It is impossible to tell his story without a look at his ancestry. The Leslie family have always been extraordinary. Twenty two generations before Desmond there was Bartolf de Leshlin, a Hungarian knight employed as a bodyguard to Saint Margaret, Queen of Scotland, in the 11th century. As she was fleeing across a river from assassins, he threw one end of his belt at the Queen, ordered her to “Grip Fast the Buckle” and heaved her to safety. Bartolf went on to sire the House of Leslie and “Grip Fast” remains the family motto to the present day.
In 1633, Charles I dispatched Bartolf’s descendent John Leslie to serve as Bishop of Raphoe in the newly conquered county of Donegal. “The Fighting Bishop” became a household name throughout Ireland when he led an army in battle against Cromwell’s troops. He established the family at Glaslough, Co. Monaghan, where the family have lived ever since, their ancestral home being the celebrated private hotel / wedding venue, Castle Leslie.
Leslie’s grandfather, Sir John Leslie, known as “Papa Jack”, was a prominent figure in the Courts of Queen Victoria and Edward VII. Sir John’s wife, Lady Leonie, was an American of Iroquois Indian descent. As well as being Winston Churchill’s aunt, Leonie was widely rumoured to be the lover of Queen Victoria’s favourite son, the Duke of Connaught. The Duke, who was later Leslie’s godfather, frequently stayed with friends in nearby Castleblayney.
Leslie’s father, christened ‘John’, was due to inherit a 50,000 acre estate, which included Lough Derg, Co. Donegal, and the famous pilgrimage centre on Station Island. However, he was disinherited when, to the astonishment of his resolutely imperial friends and relations, he converted to Catholicism, changed his name to ‘Shane Leslie’ and stood for the Irish Nationalists in the General Election of 1910.
In 1912, Shane married Marjorie Ide of Vermont. Her story was no less intriguing. Her childhood was spent on the Pacific island of Samoa where her father was Chief Justice. Robert Louis Stevenson, author of ‘Kidnapped’, sometimes read her bedtime stories, and her best friend was Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter. Marjorie’s sister Ann married Bourke Cockran, the Irish-American politician who taught Winston Churchill his oratory.
Desmond was the youngest of Shane and Marjorie’s three children. His older sister Anita Leslie became a famous biographer. His older brother Sir Jack Leslie is the present head of the family and, ensconced at Castle Leslie, made international headlines when he inadvertently alerted the press that his ancestral home was the “secret” venue at which Paul McCartney and Heather Mills were to be married. Jack, who spent five years in a German prisoner-of-war camp in the war, is also arguably the oldest house music fan in the world, being a frequent visitor to the dance clubs of Ibiza. He calls it the “boom boom music”.
Desmond Leslie was born in London in June 1921 but spent all of his childhood summers at Castle Leslie, exploring the boundless rooms of the mansion and playing by the rushy lake. It was a time of ‘pure magic’, symbolized by ‘the smell of porridge and the sound of jackdaws in the chimneys’. Tellingly, he also began to take a liking to practical jokes, for example, rigging a motor horn to go off when the visiting French ambassador opened the door of his bedroom.
Although the children were close, their parents were distant. Leslie later recalled how his father was ‘rather puzzled at having children and never quite sure what to do about us.’ On one occasion, Shane met four-year-old blonde-haired Desmond on the stairs and said, ‘Hello, who are you?’ Desmond and his siblings were ‘conveniently deposited’ in a variety of schools which, as Anita put it, ‘in my parents view …. performed the same function as kennels did for dogs’.
Shane was determined his children would grow up Catholic. Young Desmond was dispatched to Ampleforth, the Benedictine public school in Yorkshire. It was here that he first became interested in mysticism and, to his mother’s alarm, music and the stage.
As a teenager, Leslie channeled his energy into producing plays, converting a footman’s room at Castle Leslie into a theatre and installing a colour projector that threw light patterns on the wall, as well as a Panatrope, the world’s first electric record player. His passion for musical experiments began in earnest when he secretly rearranged some of the pipes in the school organ ahead of a Sunday service; the results were ‘most interesting’.
By the time he left Ampleforth aged 18, he stood at 6’4” and was, as his second wife Helen later put it, as handsome as Byron. That summer he was staying at Castle Leslie with his grandmother when Chamberlain’s voice came over the wireless, informing them that the war with Germany had broken out. ‘Don’t worry’, said his grandmother. ‘We shall win. We always do’.
While Jack joined the Irish Guards and was captured by the Germans, and Anita joined the ambulance corps, Desmond went to Trinity College Dublin to read philosophy. He lived it up for a year but when examinations beckoned, he skedaddled to Belfast and joined the Royal Air Force.
He quickly impressed his fellow recruits in London by performing popular tunes on a Wurlitzer organ before being shipped to Florida to learn how to fly. He was mesmerized by America, not least the women he met amid the blue pools and exclusive sands of Palm Beach.
He returned to England and began flying Spitfires. A brilliant pilot, he was also a troublesome one. He was frequently hauled before his superiors for sky-writing inappropriate words with his vapour trails and deliberately clipping a pub’s hanging sign with his Spitfire wings.
In late 1943, Leslie was diagnosed with a weak heart and invalided out of the RAF. He took a desk job with the Office of War Information and wrote his first novel ‘Careless Lives’, which became a bestseller.
On one occasion, he dined with his cousin Winston Churchill, recalling the Prime Minister’s tears of despair as they were updated on the devastating loss of life suffered by British crews that night in a large-scale offensive against Germany.
Leslie’s first wife was the stage actress Agnes Bernelle, known as Agi. Her father was a Hungarian Jewish who fled to London to avoid execution by the Nazi’s. During the war, the sultry-voiced Agi was recruited to present radio broadcasts which were aired from London into Germany in a bid to woo German citizens to the Allied cause.
The couple met in London while Leslie was on leave. Within months they were sneaking out to the garden at Castle Leslie, utterly naked, ‘like two fairy children, our bodies white in the moonlight, holding hands and dancing around the tree’.
They married just days after the end of the war in August 1945. They had two sons, Shaun and Mark, and a daughter, Antonia.
Leslie began writing film scripts, setting up a production company and co-directing his first feature, Stranger at my Door, a Dublin-based crime thriller starring Agnes Bernelle and Joseph O’Connor. The film flopped and Desmond became suddenly short of money.
He turned to journalism, writing about Ireland for society magazines like Vogue and Picture Post.
He struck gold with his book Flying Saucers Have Landed. During the 1950s, UFOs sightings were commonplace across the world. Leslie had always been fascinated by the possibility of alien visitors. He now commenced a detailed study of the history of alien sightings, delving into Sanskrit, Celtic and Ancient Greek texts. He befriended George Adamski, the Polish-born ufologist who seriously claimed he had been abducted by aliens from the planet Venus. They co-wrote the ‘Flying Saucers Have Landed’, the first book on the subject, which, though widely denounced, proved a smash hit, with global sales of over a million.
As Agi recalled Leslie now became a ‘household name with the lunatic fringe’, delivering talks on the subject across Ireland and Britain. Whether he privately believed in UFOs or not remains open to question but publicly he held his ground. He certainly believed communication with the dead was possible, frequently attending séances and, in later life, becoming a key figure in the White Eagle Lodge, a spiritual order with Native American connections. As one friend said, ‘You never knew with Desmond. He appeared to believe completely, but he also had a great sense of humour’.
Leslie was not a faithful husband. He and Agi lived in an open marriage but he was more inclined to take advantage of it than she. Desmond claimed that during his childhood he had been frightened of the opposite sex. He certainly overcame this fear and began 'to derive immense pleasure from their company'. As his daughter Antonia said, he 'didn't want to have control over himself with women'. Somehow, even after each affair ended, he remained on good terms with the women in question. In 1953, one of his mistresses gave birth to a daughter, Wendyl, just four months after Agi gave birth to his second son Mark. Somehow their marriage survived this considerable hiccup.
In the early 1960s, he took a flat at St John’s Wood, London, and became an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He spent a memorable night in prison with the actress Vanessa Redgrave and the jazz musician George Melly.
He also began to enjoy some success with music scores, composing the soundtrack to a series of twelve Shakespeare plays recorded by His Master’s Voice with actors such as John Gielgud, Vivien Leigh and Ralph Richardson. Some of his electronic pieces were also used in early episodes of the BBC’s first Doctor Who series.
Success as an avant-garde composer may have beckoned but in 1963 he returned to Ireland to take on Castle Leslie. His brother Jack, who owned the estate, had moved to Rome where he remained until the 1990s, leaving their sister Anita and her husband Bill King (who has lately turned 100 years old and lives in Oranmore, Co. Galway) to run the property. Struggling to keep the place solvent, the Kings urged Leslie to come home.
Meanwhile, Agi’s career was progressing well. In the spring of 1963, Levin wrote his poorly received review of her play, Savagery and Delight, a one-woman show staged in the West End. What Leslie failed to concede as he delivered the punch was that Agi’s opening night had been a disaster because he had forgotten to wire the speakers properly so her voice could not be heard by anyone beyond the first couple of rows.
Desmond’s spirited defense of his wife was good publicity for both of them. However, Ago reluctantly gave up the stage to follow her husband to his Irish estate. Their daughter Antonia was born that autumn.
Leslie’s temperament was not ideally suited to running an impoverished Irish estate but he was not short of ideas. He considered making it a retirement home, a luxury private health centre, a five star hotel, an embroidery and hem-stitching factory. In 1966, he opened Ireland’s first rural nightclub, Annabel’s on the Bog. It borrowed the name from Mark Birley's well known club in London. Shortly after the nightclub opened, a local man approached Desmond and said, 'Congratulations Mr. Leslie. At last you've brought sin to Monaghan'. Leslie was almost always to be found in Annabel's, 'resplendent in white dinner jacket and bow tie', perhaps playing Cole Porter's 'Night and Day' on an electric organ, with show dancers gyrating on the disco floor. The club was to be accompanied by a waterski club and a sailing club but. However, while it attracted 'considerable publicity', a combination of factors, including the hostility of the local Catholic clergy, Annabel's on the Bog did not survive a year. But the house caught the eye of Rolling Stone’s Mick Jagger who arrived up with Marianne Faithful, hoping to rent the property, only to be chased to the top of the church tower by a class of ecstatic schoolgirls on a day trip to the castle.
Inevitably, Desmond accrued massive debts. His marriage also collapsed as he took up with the woman who became his second wife, Helen Strong. They met at the Austrian ski resort of Kitzbuhl where he was staying, not with his wife but with his present girlfriend. Helen was warned to avoid him because he 'already had a 100 volt wife and an exotic mistress'. the voluptuous six foot tall blonde nonetheless 'slid into the room in a rather tight sweater'. Desmond took note, secured her address and invited her to lunch in a hotel in London. He had previously booked a room upstairs in the hotel. 'At the end of the meal', says O'Byrne, 'the two of them took advantage of its facilities'. Their courtship evolved at her Dublin townhouse in Terenure. Two daughters Sammy and Camilla were born in 1966 and 1969.
Desmond now had two women and two families in his life. One of them had to go. Agi was persuaded to take their children on holiday to Yugoslavia. When she returned, she found all the locks at Castle Leslie had been changed and they could not get in. Homeless and with nothing more than their holiday clothes, Agi took the children to stay with her sister-in-law Anita, before the residents of Glaslough and Monaghan County Council combined to secure them accommodation in the village. She later moved to Dublin where she met architectural historian Maurice Craig with whom she spent the rest of her life.
Astonishingly, Leslie managed to make peace with both Anita and his children by their marriage. He continued to run Castle Leslie throughout the troubles of the 1970s and 1980s. Such was the power of his personality that when he died in the south of France in 2001, he was surrounded by all six of his children, born of three different women. And, as O’Byrne notes, perhaps the most impressive aspect of his life was the somehow Castle Leslie was not sold and it remains in the possession of his family.
Robert O’Byrne’s ‘Desmond Leslie (1921-2001) – The Biography of an Irish Gentleman’ is published by Lilliput.