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Μελίνα Μερκούρη

Maria Amalia Merkouri, Greek actress, singer and politician; b. Athens 1923-18-10, d. New York City 1994-03-06. Some sources list her birth year as 1920 or 1925, I'm fairly confident that the correct one is 1923.

Melina Mercouri, as she would became known to the world, was born into an old and distinguished Athenian family. Her grandfather was mayor of Athens and her father was an MP who served as a government minister too. She grew up in a house where liberal politics at the dinner table were as commonplace as bread. While it would be many years before Mercouri herself would become active in politics, her constant exposure as a youngster would make her seem a natural when she did engage.

"I think that I was a political animal from when I was a very young girl, and I drank the political milk from my mother."

Acting was not considered a career a daughter of this liberal but prestigious household ought to follow but young Melina had her sights set on it and enrolled in art school. Although she was once told her mouth was "too big" for her to ever make it as an actress, she would not take no for an answer and combined natural talent with hard work and sheer personality to become a stage actress with the National Theatre of Greece, starting with Lavinia in Mourning Becomes Electra in 1945, one of many modern roles she would play before starting a parallel career in Paris.

Her film breakthrough came in 1955 in her first attempt with Stella, a drama written especially with her in mind. This was the first of a number of films which would be tailored to her personality and skills. Five years later Never on Sunday, directed by American Jules Dassin, a refugee from McCarthyism, earned her an Oscar nomination and the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. She would continue to work with Dassin, marrying him in 1966. At the age of 40 her star was riding high and eventually led her to Broadway for the stage performance of Illya Darling, a theatrical adaptation of Never on Sunday.

All this changed in 1967. On 1967-04-21, ten days after the premiere of Illya Darling the coup that would bring a junta into power for the next seven years in her native country took place. Outspokenly liberal, proud of being Greek and always aware of her historical democratic heritage, her life changed as the "political animal" took over. In her trademark melodramatic style, she declared war on the regime:

"I loathe playing Illya. Because it is a lie. There is no happiness in Greece today. It is a country in chains."

When I say melodramatic I mean it. You have to imagine a deep female voice spitting the words like an ancient curse. That was what made her such a fascinating figure. She was eventually replaced as Illya by Cyd Charisse and began a one-woman campaign aimed at turning world opinion against the junta, publicising its harsh rule and advocating a tourism boycott. It didn't take the army colonels in charge long to notice and by July they had stripped her of her citizenship and banned her from entering the country. Her response to the journalist who broke the news to her was also typical:

"I was born a Greek, I will die a Greek. Mr. Patakos [the prime minister] was born a fascist. He will die a fascist."

She started picketing the United Nations headquarters in New York, gaining as much publicity and fame as she had on stage, and took her cause around the world making appearances and giving concerts during which she made sure nobody forgot what she was about. The success of her solitary quest, based on nothing but her personality and strength of conviction, alarmed the Athens government to an extent that they put her on a "death list" and at least one attempt on her life was made.

In 1974 she was one of the many exiles who returned to a free country and set about reviving her domestic acting career, mostly in theatre. The same year she joined another exile, Andreas Papandreou, leader of a Sweden-based liberation movement and son of the last elected prime minister, in the formation of a socialist political party. Three years later she would run for a seat in parliament and win it representing the blue-collar outskirts of Piraeus. Such was her appeal and the impression she had made as an actress in the 1960s that this blue-blooded Athenian uptown girl was voted into office as a darling of the working class she so passionately portrayed in her early films. Given that her last few films were unambitious and outmoded, the change from the theatre scene to the political scene came none too soon for her reputation as an artist.

When Papandreou's socialist government came into power in 1981 Mercouri permanently gave up acting and was appointed Minister of Culture, a post she would hold until the fall of the government in 1989 and then again from June 1993 until her death. This tenure became the longest of any individual in the same cabinet post in the country's history as she enjoyed the confidence of Papandreou, his successor and the approval of the public. She made an unsuccessful bid to follow in her grandfather's footsteps and become mayor of Athens in 1990, failing by a narrow margin.

During her time in government she never forgot that she was an artist before a politician. In accordance with her flamboyant personality she often made up for her department's shoestring budget with personal involvement and gestures big on symbolism. She was instrumental in creating the annual Cultural Capital of Europe festival and tirelessly campaigned for the return of the Elgin Marbles from Britain with the same fervour she had shown in opposing the dictatorship and used her personal contacts in the world of European culture to further the cause. While her attitude may have been embarassing if it came from any other cabinet member, it was not only tolerated by the prime minister (she was one of the very few people who could--and did--say "no" in his face during his days of omnipotence) but also embraced by the Greek public. The most famous picture of her latter years shows her standing in front of the Parthenon holding a bouquet of flowers and waving following a speech demanding the repatriation of the marbles.

Her trademark smoking habit eventually caught up with her and, while dying of lung cancer, she paused only as long as treatment took. Her illness was kept quiet and she was at her post until shortly before her death. Ironically death caught up with her in New York, where she had first gone into exile, and not her native city. Her state funeral, conducted with prime minister's honours, was attended by masses of people from all over the country following her own wish: "I want people." Two words (in Greek) that were never actually heard but everyone could virtually hear that husky voice saying.

Mercouri was not just an actress, a singer or a politician. She was, as she never hesitated to point out, a Greek and that indeed she was with all the virtues and faults that came with it. She embodied the essence of being Greek--loud, proud, argumentative, sometimes pessimistic and petty but always treating life like a big feast. In fact she embodied it more like a fictional figure would rather than a flesh-and-blood woman. If Alexis Zorbas came to represent all that's good, bad and stereotyped about Greek men, Melina Mercouri was cast in the mold of the heroines of ancient myths. Never a motherly figure she still managed to be the one people looked up to. Trite as it may be, the title of "last Greek goddess" could not have found one more suitable to bear it. Adored and respected, sultry and vivacious, the woman who simply called herself "Melina" was a fascinating character and possibly the single most important woman in modern Greek history.




  • I Was Born Greek (autobiography)

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