Melina -- She Died Greek

March 09, 1994|By GWINN OWENS

To tens of millions of people, Melina Mercouri was the exuberant star of ''Never on Sunday,'' the 1960 film that painted such an adoring picture of Greece that it launched a tourist boom.

For a long time that was all she meant to me, and that was quite enough. The final scene of ''Never on Sunday'' was so moving to this Philhellene that for the only time I can recall, I burst into embarrassing, audible sobs in a movie theater. It had been eight years since my last visit and -- well, you have to love Greece to understand that.

A quarter-century later, my one-time film idol became, in a small way, my friend. The sad news of her death from cancer this week has renewed my tears. For Melina (no one ever called her anything else) was the ultimate Greek, probably better known throughout the world than anyone else from her country.

She was an intensely serious actress who played Shakespeare, O'Neill and Tennessee Williams. But her fearless loyalty to her homeland, her essential Greekness, made her a far more important symbol than a mere artist.

She was intelligent and was born to politics; her grandfather was mayor of Athens, her father a cabinet officer. In 1981 she was elected to Parliament, and was a natural choice to be minister of culture in Andreas Papandreou's socialist government, serving until Papandreou's fall in 1989, but returning on his resurrection last year.

In 1967, when a right-wing junta seized power in Greece, Melina was in New York, playing in ''Ilya Darling,'' a mildly successful stage musical based on ''Never on Sunday.'' She immediately condemned the coup and as a result was deprived of her Greek citizenship by Stylianos Pattakos, one of the three comic-opera colonels who had taken control of the government.

Melina was contemptuous. ''Pattakos was born a fascist and will die a fascist. I was born Greek and I will always be Greek.'' ''I Was Born Greek'' was the defiant title of her autobiography published in 1971. But she remained in exile and could not return to Greece until the junta was overthrown in 1974.

In 1985, when my wife and I planned the second of our series of annual visits to Greece, the Greek Embassy in Washington suggested I might want to interview Melina. The meeting was arranged, and I met her in her cluttered office in Athens.

In that year Athens was the first ''Cultural Capital of Europe'' under a rotating plan adopted by the European Community at Miss Mercouri's suggestion. She was clearly running in circles as she managed an explosion of cultural events, concerts, plays, dance programs, special museum exhibitions, all over Greece. I told her of my ''Never on Sunday'' tears, and her modest answer was that my story would please her husband, Jules Dassin, director and male lead in the film. She apologized graciously as phone calls kept interrupting the interview.

I returned to Baltimore three days later, and the interview appeared in The Evening Sun shortly after that. By coincidence Melina was then in Washington on official business, and she read the article first-hand. A day or so later, the Greek Embassy called me to say that the minister of culture would be the guest of the National Press Club for lunch, and that ''Miss Mercouri would like you to join her at the head table.''

Of course I was delighted, and on the appointed day I arrived in the anteroom of the press club's dining hall. Melina was surrounded by Washington reporters and cameramen. When she saw me, she broke free of the press entourage, rushed over to me, threw her arms about me, kissed me on the cheek and said, in her fetching Greek accent, ''You wonderful man.'' It was a moment for a newspaper hack to remember.

So was another occurrence on one of the several subsequent occasions when I met her at receptions at the Greek Embassy. In one such case, my friend Mike Frangos, the official photographer for the event, snapped a picture of us holding hands. It sits on a table in our living room. What a keepsake!

Tragically, Melina died with her principal goal unattained. In 1804, when Greece was nearing the end of 400 years under Ottoman rule, Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman sultan, received permission to lop off the exquisite 2,500-year-old friezes and statues from the Parthenon and take them home with him. The Greeks had no control over this act of imperial vandalism wrought on their and the Western world's most revered ancient structure. Today the Parthenon treasures are the principal attraction in the British Museum, where they bear the vandal's name, the Elgin Marbles.

''My dream is to see them come home in my lifetime,'' Melina told me during our 1984 discussion. But when she was on an official visit to London a few years ago and asked to be taken on a tour to see the Elgin Marbles, the British Museum's director replied, according to the journalist Christopher Hitchens, that ''it was not usual to allow burglars to case the joint.''

I told Melina I would help any way that I could; I have written several articles on the issue. Keeping up the campaign is the least I can do for my friend Melina, who lived and died for Greece.

Gwinn Owens is a retired editor of The Evening Sun's ''Other Voices'' page.

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