Melina Mercouri

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Melina Mercouri
Melina Mercouri.JPG
Mercouri in 1982
Minister for Culture
In office
13 October 1993 – 6 March 1994
Prime MinisterAndreas Papandreou
Preceded byDora Bakoyanni
Succeeded byThanos Mikroutsikos
In office
21 October 1981 – 2 July 1989
Prime MinisterAndreas Papandreou
Preceded byAndreas Andrianopoulos
Succeeded byAnna Psarouda-Benaki
Member of the Hellenic Parliament
for Piraeus B
In office
20 November 1977 – 6 March 1994
Personal details
Maria Amalia Mercouri

(1920-10-18)18 October 1920
Athens, Greece
Died6 March 1994(1994-03-06) (aged 73)
Upper East Side, New York City, U.S.
Resting placeFirst Cemetery of Athens
Political partyPASOK
  • Panos Harokopos
    (m. 1941; div. 1962)
  • (m. 1966; her death 1994)
Alma materNational Theatre of Greece Drama School
  • Actress
  • singer

Maria Amalia "Melina" Mercouri (Greek: Μαρία Αμαλία "Μελίνα" Μερκούρη, 18 October 1920[a] – 6 March 1994) was a Greek actress, singer, socialist, activist and politician. She came from a political family that was prominent over multiple generations. She received an Academy Award nomination and won a Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award for her performance in the film Never on Sunday (1960). Mercouri was also nominated for one Tony Award, three Golden Globes and two BAFTA Awards in her acting career.

As a politician, she was a member of the PASOK and the Hellenic Parliament. In October 1981, Mercouri became the first female Minister of Culture and Sports. She was the longest-lived Minister of Culture in Greece - serving during the years 1981-89 and 1993 till her death in 1994, in all PASOK governments.


The Mercouri family came from Argolida and its members had fought in the revolution of 1821. Melina's grandfather, Spyridon Mercouris, had served for many years as mayor of Athens. Her father, Stamatis Mercouris, was an officer of the cavalry and served as a member of parliament and minister (People's Party, National Radical Party), while for many years he participated in the administration of the Panathinaikos team. During the occupation, Stamatis Mercouris founded the resistance organisation called 'Radical Organisation' in January 1942. Her uncle, George S.Mercouris, held extreme right-wing political views and was a founder of the Greek National Socialist Party and a governor of the National Bank during the Occupation, which caused the anger of the Mercouri family, and they refused to attend his funeral in 1943. Her mother, Irene Lappa, was the sister of Admiral Pyrros Lappa, who served as Chief of the Naval Staff, Secretary General of the Olympic Games Committee and Chief of the Military House of King Paul.

In September 1938 Melina was accepted at the Drama School of the National Theatre with fellow students Despo Diamantidou, Aleka Paizis, Andreas Filippidis, Alexis Damianos, etc. In the winter of 1939 she married her much older husband, the wealthy landowner Panagis Harokopos. During the occupation, the young Melina, a student of the drama school of the National Theatre, became romantically involved with the businessman Phidias Yadikiaroglou, while formally she was married to Harokopos (their marital relationship had effectively ended). Cynical, opportunistic but at the same time very charming, he had the opinion, which for him was a way of life "We are young and life is short - let's live it. Let's enjoy it while there is still time!" For this particular period Melina was strongly accused of living in the comforts of a 400 sq. m. apartment at avenue Akademias 4 (much of which had been commandeered by the Germans) at a time when the Greek people were starving and of not contributing to the national resistance. Melina had spoken publicly about this period of her life, both in her autobiography "I was born a Greek" and on television as Minister of Culture. With disarming honesty she took responsibility for her non-participation in the Resistance during the Occupation. Her narrative to journalist George Doatzis is riveting: " [...]I am not proud of what I did during the Occupation. That is another conversation, which will be explained one day. I want to tell you that in the Occupation, those children who were us were tough and sensitive together. And that has become a life consciousness, for what happened and beyond. The Greece that we have known is terrible, it's occupations, it's three occupations. You could see the people in the carts, the bodies of the people and you passed by. I tell you, I was bold, I was privately bold. I was not for Greece, I did not resist and maybe that is the only regret I have in my life[...] "

For her proverbial honesty and especially for that period of her life, Vassilis Diamantopoulos was quoted "It was in her character. She was an open person, she didn't hide anything."

Interesting is also the opinion of Lycurgos Kallergis, about Melina at that time, who was a member of EAM and the Left during the Occupation . "Although I was and am a left-winger, the issue of the opulence in which she lived did not bother me. After all, Melina was hosting people, feeding people, helping friends.[...] "

The great Greek writer Alkis Zei also agrees with this view, who stated that during the period of occupation, Melina was hiding left-wingers and giving them money.

At the same time Spyros Mercouris, Melina's brother, had joined the Resistance as a member of the EPON. Many times, according to testimonies, Melina would secretly take Yadikiaroglou's money and give it to her brother for the Resistance, hiding both him and his comrades in the organization while helping her impoverished colleagues. It was known that during the occupation, despite her then husband's objections, Melina's house, on her own orders, was always open and welcoming to many people in need, providing them with food and shelter.

Despite occasional criticisms, her dislike of the Nazi occupiers is demonstrated through an incident during the occupation where SS men attempted to execute her in cold blood. One afternoon while Melina was in a bar in Omonia with her close friends Despo Diamantidou and Andreas Filippidis, and her then boyfriend Phidias (Alexis), three SS men entered with an Alsatian dog. Phidias began to tease the dog by speaking in German. When they heard that someone in the group was speaking German, they ordered them to come to the table. Everyone obeyed the order, except Melina. "You too!" they shouted at her. She stubbornly continued to ignore their order. "I will count to three and shoot," a German warned her, pulling out a revolver, which he then pointed at her. Melina remained in her position. After a moment, the man fired, shattering the glass next to her elbow. Melina angrily jumped up and began cursing at him, overlooking the fact that he might shoot her again. At the same time the bartender had called the Military Police, who rounded up the SS men. As she described in her autobiography, she turned towards Phidias and slapped him in the face in front of the bar's patrons.

Criticism of her lifestyle during the Occupation was intense and often harsh, yet a number of people with strong resistance activities during the Occupation became close friends of hers, who never accused her or were bothered by her earlier "turbulent" life. From the great writer Iakovos Kambanellis (who wrote 'Stella with the Red Gloves' especially for her), the actress Olympia Papadouka, the great Greek actor Manos Katrakis, the actor and secretary of the EAM theatre Dimitris Myrat, the writer Alkis Zei, the director Nikos Koundouros, to Manolis Glezos, were her friends for many years.

During the civil war, although Melina Mercouri lived in Kolonaki, which was controlled by the British, she visited her friends and colleagues who had been arrested for their political beliefs. Years later, Aleka Paizi gratefully recounted Melina's visit to the prison where she was being held, to support her.

In the late 1940s, Melina met Pyrros Spyromilios, with whom she was a couple for seven years. For many, he was the great love of her life before she met Dassin. Pyrros Spyromilios was a naval officer and a hero of the Albanian front. He died in March 1961 due to heart hypertrophy, which devastated Melina, even though five years had passed since their final separation.

In 1955 was the landmark year of her career and life. It was the year she starred in her first feature film, Stella. The film competed at the Cannes Film Festival and during its screening, she met and fell in love with Julius ‘’Jules’’ Dassin, with whom she stayed until the end of her life.

Performing career[edit]

Early years on stage[edit]

After her graduation, Mercouri joined the National Theatre of Greece and played the role of Electra in Eugene O'Neill's play Mourning Becomes Electra in 1945. In 1949, she had her first major success in the theatre playing Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, written by Tennessee Williams and staged by Karolos Koun's Art Theatre. Until 1950, she also worked in the same theatre in other plays by Aldous Huxley, Arthur Miller and André Roussin.

Mercouri then moved to Paris, where she appeared in boulevard plays by Jacques Deval and Marcel Achard, and met French playwrights and novelists such as Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre, Colette and Françoise Sagan. In 1953, Mercouri received the Marika Kotopouli Prize.

Mercouri returned to Greece in 1955. At the Kotopouli-Rex Theatre, Mercouri starred in Macbeth by William Shakespeare and L'Alouette by Jean Anouilh.[1]

International success[edit]

Mercouri in 1962's Phaedra

Mercouri's first film was the Greek language film Stella (1955), directed by Michael Cacoyannis, later known for Zorba the Greek (1964). The motion picture received special praise at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival, where she met expatriate American film director Jules Dassin, with whom she would share not only her career but also her life. Their first professional pairing was He Who Must Die (1957). Other films by Dassin and featuring Mercouri followed, such as The Law (1959).

Mercouri became known to international audiences when she starred in Never on Sunday (1960), of which Dassin was the director and co-star. For this film, she earned the Best Actress Award at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress and the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.[2]

After her first major international success, Mercouri starred in Phaedra (1962), for which she was nominated again for the BAFTA Award and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in Motion Picture Drama. The recognition of her acting talent did not stop though, as her role in Topkapi (1964) granted her a nomination for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. Mercouri worked with such directors as Joseph Losey, Vittorio De Sica, Ronald Neame, Carl Foreman, Norman Jewison, and starred in films like Spanish language The Uninhibited (1965) by Juan Antonio Bardem.

Mercouri continued her stage career in the Greek production of Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth (1960), under the direction of Karolos Koun. In 1967, she played the leading role in Illya Darling (from 11 April 1967 to 13 January 1968) on Broadway,[3] for which she was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. Mercouri's performance in Promise at Dawn (1970) earned her another Golden Globe Award nomination.

Mercouri concentrated on her stage career in the following years, playing in the Greek productions of The Threepenny Opera and, for a second time, Sweet Bird of Youth, in addition to the ancient Greek tragedies Medea and Oresteia. She retired from film acting after her role in her last film, A Dream of Passion (1978), directed by her husband, Jules Dassin. Mercouri's last performance on stage was in the opera Pylades at the Athens Concert Hall in 1992, portraying Clytemnestra.

Work as a singer[edit]

One of her first songs was by Manos Hadjidakis and Nikos Gatsos. It was titled "Hartino to Fengaraki" ("Papermoon")[4] and was a part of the Greek production of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1949, in which she starred as Blanche DuBois. The first official recording of this song was made by Nana Mouskouri in 1960, although the company Sirius, created by Manos Hadjidakis, issued, in 2004, a recording Mercouri made for French television during the 1960s. Her recordings of "Athenes, ma Ville", a collaboration with Vangelis,[5] and "Melinaki", were popular in France. Her recording of "Feggari mou, Agapi mou" (Phaedra) was later covered by Marinella in 1965.

Political career[edit]

Activism against the Greek junta[edit]

At the time of the coup d'état in Greece by a group of colonels of the Greek military on 21 April 1967, she was in the United States, playing in Illya Darling in Broadway. She immediately joined the struggle against the Greek military junta and started an international campaign, travelling all over the world to inform the public and contribute to the isolation and fall of the colonels. As a result, the dictatorial regime revoked her Greek citizenship and confiscated her property.[6]

When her citizenship was taken away, she said: "I was born a Greek and I will die a Greek. Those bastards were born fascists and they will die fascists".[7][8][9][10][11]

While in London she worked with Amalia Fleming and Helen Vlachos of Kathimerini against the junta of the colonels.[12]

Involvement in politics[edit]

After the fall of the Junta and during the metapolitefsi in 1974, Mercouri settled in Greece and was one of the founding members of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), a centre-left political party. She was a member of the party's Central Committee and a rapporteur for the Culture Section, while being involved in the women's movement as well.[13]

In the Greek legislative elections of 1974, she was a PASOK candidate in the Piraeus B constituency, but the 7,500 votes were not enough to secure a seat for her in the Hellenic Parliament (she needed 33 more votes), but she was successful in the elections of 1977, after conducting a grass-roots campaign.[14]

Minister for Culture: 1981–1989[edit]

Mercouri in 1985

When PASOK won the elections of 1981, Mercouri was appointed Minister for Culture of Greece, being the first woman in the post. She would serve in that position for two terms until 1989, when PASOK lost the elections and New Democracy formed a cabinet. As Minister for Culture, Mercouri took advantage of her earlier career to promote Greece to other European leaders. She strongly advocated the return to Athens of the Parthenon Marbles, that were removed from Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, and are now part of the British Museum collection in London. In 1983, she engaged in a televised debate with the then director of the British Museum, David M. Wilson, which was interpreted by many as a public relations disaster for the British Museum.[15] In anticipation of the return of the marbles, she held an international competition for the construction of the New Acropolis Museum, designated to display them and finally established in 2008.[16]

One of her greatest achievements was the establishment of the institution of the European Capital of Culture within the framework of cultural policy of the European Union, that she had conceived and proposed in 1983, with Athens inaugurating this institution being the first title-holder in 1985, while she was a devoted supporter of the Athens bid to host the Centennial Olympic Games. In 1983, during the first Greek presidency of the Council of the European Union, Mercouri invited the Ministers for Culture of the other nine member states of the European Union at Zappeion, in order to increase the people's cultural awareness, since there was not any reference to cultural questions in the Treaty of Rome, which led to the establishment of formal sessions between the Ministers of Culture of the European Union. During the second presidency of Greece in 1988, she supported the cooperation between Eastern Europe and the European Union, which was finally implemented one year later with the celebration of the Month of Culture in Eastern countries.[17]

Mercouri commissioned a study for the integration of all the archaeological sites of Athens to create a traffic-free archaeological park to promote the Greek culture. She introduced free access to museums and archaeological sites for Greek citizens, organized a series of exhibitions of Greek cultural heritage and modern Greek art worldwide, supported the restoration of buildings of special architectural interest and the completion of the Athens Concert Hall, and backed the establishment of the Museum of Byzantine culture in Thessaloniki.[18]

In June 1986, Melina Mercouri spoke at the Oxford Union, the debating society, on the matter of the Parthenon Marbles and whether they should remain in London or be returned to Greece. She argued passionately for the Marble's reunification. She said the Marbles are more to Greece than just works of art: they are an essential element of Greek heritage, which ties directly into cultural identity. She said: "You must understand what the Parthenon Marbles mean to us. They are our pride. They are our sacrifices. They are our noblest symbol of excellence. They are a tribute to the democratic philosophy. They are our aspirations and our name. They are the essence of Greekness."[19]

Minister for Culture: 1993–1994[edit]

In the legislative elections of November 1989, PASOK lost and Mercouri was elected a member of the Hellenic Parliament and remained a member of the party's Executive Bureau. In 1990, she was a candidate for Mayor of Athens but she was defeated by Antonis Tritsis.[20]

After PASOK's win in the election of 1993, she was reappointed to the Ministry for Culture.[21] Her major goals in this brief second term in office were: to create a cultural park in the Aegean Sea in order to protect and enhance the environment and civilization of the Aegean Islands, and to link culture with education at all education levels, introducing a system of post-training of teachers.


Mercouri died on 6 March 1994 at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York City, from lung cancer.[22] She was survived by her husband, Jules Dassin. She had no children. She received a state funeral with Prime Minister's honors. She was buried at the First Cemetery of Athens four days later. The Melina Mercouri Foundation was founded by her widower. After her death, UNESCO established the Melina Mercouri International Prize for the Safeguarding and Management of Cultural Landscapes (UNESCO-Greece) which rewards outstanding examples of action to safeguard and enhance the world's major cultural landscapes.[21][23]


The song "Melina" by Camilo Sesto (from the 1975 album "Amor libre") is dedicated to Melína Merkoúri.[24][25]

On 18 October 2015, Google Doodle commemorated her 95th birthday.[26]


Year Title Role Notes
1955 Stella Stella Nominated - Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award
1957 He Who Must Die Katerina
1958 The Gypsy and the Gentleman Belle
1959 The Law Donna Lucrezia
1960 Never on Sunday Ilya Won - Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award
Nominated - Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated - BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actress
1961 Long Live Henry IV... Long Live Love Marie de Médicis
The Last Judgment Foreign lady
1962 Phaedra Phaedra Nominated - BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actress
Nominated - Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama
1963 The Victors Magda
Canzoni nel mondo Himself
1964 Topkapi Elizabeth Lipp Nominated - Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
1965 The Uninhibited Jenny
1966 A Man Could Get Killed Aurora
10:30 P.M. Summer Maria
1969 Gaily, Gaily Lil
1970 Promise at Dawn Nina Kacew Nominated - Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama
1974 The Rehearsal Belle
1975 Once Is Not Enough Karla
Kipros Herself
1977 Nasty Habits Sister Gertrude
1978 A Dream of Passion Maya
1981 Gynaikes stin exoria Narrator Voice, short, (final film role)



  1. ^ New style: 31 October 1920


  1. ^ Thespis. 1964. p. 44.
  2. ^ Profile,; accessed 6 December 2014.
  3. ^ Melina Mercouri at the Internet Broadway Database
  4. ^ Nana Mouskouri (19 September 2013). Itinéraire intime (in French). Cherche Midi. p. 81. ISBN 978-2-7491-3099-6.
  5. ^ Qui est qui en France (in French). J. Lafitte. 2013. p. 1357. ISBN 978-2-85784-053-4.
  6. ^ Newsweek. Newsweek. 1967. Retrieved 17 March 2013. Greek word for honey (rneli), but there was acid in her throaty voice last week as vibrant Melina Mercouri condemned Brig. Gen. Stylianos Pattakos, strong man of the Greek revolutionary junta which had just stripped her of citizenship and property ... Those bastards were born Fascists; they will die Fascists", said the passionate performer who until the recent coup did as ...
  7. ^ Newsweek. Newsweek, Incorporated. 1967. Retrieved 17 March 2013. "I was born a Greek; I will die a Greek. Mr. Pattakos was born a Fascist; he will die a Fascist", said the passionate performer who until the recent coup did as much to spur Greek tourism as all the ancient ruins combined. ...
  8. ^ Books and Bookmen. Hansom Books. 1971. Retrieved 17 March 2013. When asked if she had any comment on this she replied: 'I was born Greek. I shall die Greek. Those bastards were born fascists and they will die fascists.
  9. ^ Labor Today. National Center for Trade Union Action and Democracy. 1965. Retrieved 17 March 2013. No wonder the talented actress Melina Mercouri, after being stripped of her Greek citizenship in absentia, said of junta member Colonel Pattakos : "I was born a Greek and I will die a Greek. Pattakos was born a Fascist and will die a Fascist.
  10. ^ Helen Vlachos (1971). Free Greek voices: a political anthology. (10 Gayfere St., SWIP 3HN), Doric Publications Ltd. ISBN 9780902999008. Retrieved 17 March 2013. He repeated it. And my answer came like water from a fountain: 'I was born a Greek, I will die a Greek; Pattakos was born Fascist, he will die Fascist . . .' "And now what will happen, Melina?" I am asked. Now there will be a trial at some ...
  11. ^ Balkania. Balkania Publishing Company. 1967. Retrieved 17 March 2013. ... Patakos was born a fascist and will die a fascist," Miss Mercouri said at a press conference she called shortly after hearing that her citizenship had been ...
  12. ^ RICHARD CLOGG (17 October 1995). "Obituary: Helen Vlachos". The Independent. Retrieved 15 March 2013.
  13. ^ Problems of Communism. Documentary Studies Section, International Information Administration. 1979. p. 2.
  14. ^ David Butler; Howard Rae Penniman; Austin Ranney (1981). Democracy at the Polls: A Comparative Study of Competitive National Elections. American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-8447-3405-7.
  15. ^ "How Mercouri tackled Britain in 1983 battle of the Marbles". The Times of London.
  16. ^ Casey, Christopher (30 October 2008). ""Grecian Grandeurs and the Rude Wasting of Old Time": Britain, the Elgin Marbles, and Post-Revolutionary Hellenism". Foundations. Volume III, Number 1. Archived from the original on 13 May 2009. Retrieved 25 June 2009.
  17. ^ Kiran Klaus Patel (7 June 2013). The Cultural Politics of Europe: European Capitals of Culture and European Union since the 1980s. Routledge. p. 183. ISBN 978-1-136-17153-6.
  18. ^ Elijah Howarth; F. R. Rowley; W. Ruskin Butterfield; Charles Madeley (1994). The Museums Journal. Museums Association. p. 13.
  19. ^ Ian Windale (9 February 1997). "The Parthenon Marbles, Melina's Speech to the Oxford Union".
  20. ^ Europe. Delegation of the Commission of the European Communities. 1991. p. 33.
  21. ^ a b Melina Mercouri profile, Hellenic Ministry of Culture website; accessed 6 December 2014.
  22. ^ Melina Mercouri, Actress and Politician, Is Dead
  23. ^ Foundation Melina Mercouri (in Greek and English)
  24. ^ "¿Quién fue 'Melina'? La extraordinaria mujer que da título a la canción de Camilo Sesto". El Confidencial (in Spanish). 10 September 2019. Retrieved 11 September 2019.
  25. ^ "¿Quién es Melina, la de la famosa canción de Camilo Sesto? Es una mujer. Y no es un tema de amor…". Retrieved 11 September 2019.
  26. ^ "Melina Mercouri's 95th Birthday". 18 October 2015.

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Andreas Andrianopoulos
Minister for Culture of Greece
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Minister for Culture of Greece
Succeeded by