Born in London, the son of Oliver Percy Bernard and Dora Hodges (1896–1950), an opera singer, he was the brother of Oliver Bernard, a poet, and Bruce Bonus Bernard, an art critic and photographer. Though named Jerry by his parents, at an early age he adopted Jeffrey. He attended Pangbourne Naval College for two years before his parents responded to the college's protest that he was "psychologically unsuitable for public school life".
Even while at school, Bernard had begun to explore Soho and Fitzrovia with his brother Bruce. Seduced by the area's lurid glamour, he took a variety of menial jobs there but still managed to build a circle that embraced Dylan Thomas, Francis Bacon, John Minton, Nina Hamnett, Daniel Farson and the lowlife of Bohemian London. Elizabeth Smart suggested that he try journalism and he started to write about his interest in horse racing in Queen magazine.
His reputation grew and in 1973 he started writing a weekly column for the Sporting Life, being poached by The Spectator in 1975. His column was described by Jonathan Meades as a "suicide note in weekly instalments" and principally chronicled, in a faux-naif style, his daily round of intoxication and dissipation in The Coach and Horses public house and its fateful consequences. His lifestyle had an inevitable effect on his health and reliability, and the magazine often had to post the notice "Jeffrey Bernard is unwell" in place of his column. So well known was he that the catch phrase "Jeff bin in?", as used in the Private Eye strip cartoon "The Regulars", was recognised as a reference to him by readers.
A recording of him saying "I'm one of the few people who lives what's called the 'Low Life'" was sampled by British band New Order and placed at the start of the track This Time of Night on their album Low-Life. Bernard apparently threatened to sue, leading to the sample being "removed" (by reducing the volume level to almost inaudible). The sample remained, and is quite easily discerned by increasing the volume on a CD of the track.
Though married four times, he often remarked, only half in jest, that alcohol was the other woman. Over time his drinking affected his health more seriously; he was hospitalised for detoxification, he suffered from pancreatitis and then diabetes. Ultimately his right leg was amputated. He died at his home in Soho of renal failure after voluntarily refusing further treatment by dialysis. Growing weary of his illnesses and yet unable to stop himself drinking, he had discussed 'taking himself out' over a period and in his final farewell Spectator column he discussed how he had discovered how to do that by ingesting bananas, whose potassium content was toxic in his condition.His gravestone lies at the top of racehorse trainer Barry Hills gallops in Lambourn, Berkshire.
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