Melina Mercouri 

Stella (Stella-1955), Illya (Never on Sunday-1960, Phaedra (Phaedra-1962), unconventional Melina Mercouri, our national symbol!

20 years have gone without Melina’s glow. Melina, a unique personality who made her mark on some of the most significant moments of Modern Greek History. When born on 18th October 1920, her grandfather Spyros Mercouris-Mayor of Athens for more than 30 years- said “If she were a boy, I would have made her a Prime Minister of Greece.”  What he didn’t know then was that Melina was meant for something greater than that. She was destined to be Greece itself! Two green olives in place of eyes and a pelagus in place of a mind. A broad and liberal spirit.

She was a prize-winning actress and met international success with the film of her greatest love Jules Dassin “Never on Sunday”. The role of Illya won her the Best Actress Award at the 1960s Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress which she never won because she did not care to go after the title. “Never on Sunday” was even produced for Broadway with the title Illya Darling for which she was nominated for the Tony Award for the Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (1967).

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In the meantime and while Melina was still in new York starring as Illya, the 21st April military coup was taking place in Greece. She immediately started her resistance act both in the States and Europe to raise awareness and help overthrow the Greek Military Junta. The toll for her acts was losing her Greek citizenship which was revoked by the dictatorial regime and the confiscation of her property. When informed she answered back “I was born a Greek and I will die a Greek. Mr Pattakos (the then Minister of the Interior of the junta who made these decisions against her) was born a fascist and he will die a fascist.” On 7th March 1969 (25 years and a day before her death) a bomb attack took place against her while touring Geneva. Although the bomb was 5kg and did explode, there were luckily no victims.


After the fall of Junta, Melina came back to Greece to start her political career. In the elections of 1977 she obtained the highest number of votes in the whole Greece with the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and when her party won the elections of 1981 she was appointed Minister for Culture of Greece, being the first female in that post. She honoured her post with her work. She put the fundamental stone on which many important cultural projects and institutions are based. She conceived and established the institution of the European Cultural Capital and created the “Municipal Regional Theatres and Conservatories” in order for the art of drama to reach every town in Greece. Her biggest dream however, remained the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece which were removed from Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, and are still part of the British Museum collection in London- a dream that never came to life.

Melina believed that the only way to protect our cultural heritage was by learning about it. She believed there was an urgent need to teach History of Art from primary school “First of all for educational reasons and then so that we can be competitive to other countries” as she used to say.

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The 6th of March-day of her death- has been designated by UNESCO as the International day of Culture and it is on that day that every two years since 1997 an individual or group of people are awarded the “Melina Mercouri International Prize for the Safeguarding and Management of Cultural Landscapes” as a reward to outstanding examples of action to safeguard and enhance the world’s major cultural landscapes.

Truth is Melina never died. She is still alive in every liberal Greek defending the rights and values of democracy. Just like a wise priestesses of Greek tragedy she is looking down at us from a seashore somewhere up high and keeps on thinking “Death does not scare me. Not being loved does!

[bctt tweet=”You must understand what the Parthenon Marbles mean to us. (…) They are our noblest symbol of excellence.”]

“Hartino to Fengaraki” (“Papermoon”) is one of her first songs by Manos Hadjidakis and Nikos Gatsos and was a part of the Greek production of  “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1949), in which she starred as Blanche DuBois.

To find out about Melina Mercouri visit the Melina Mercouri Foundation.

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