Melina Mercouri was a Greek actress of international fame and Minister of Culture from 1981 to 1989. During the course of her life, she was one of the most influential voices in the protest against the dictatorship of the colonels. She fought ardently for preserving and promoting the Greek artistic and cultural heritage. 

Melina Mercouri

Melina Mercouri was born in Athens on 18 October 1920 to a prominent political family. She was the granddaughter of Spyros Mercouris, who was mayor of Athens for more than 30 years, and the daughter of Stamatis Mercouris, a Greek army officer and politician.

In 1944 she graduated from the Drama School of the National Theatre of Greece, and one year after, she debuted playing the role of Lavinia in “Mourning Becomes Electra”, a theatrical trilogy written by Eugene O’Neill.

However, her first big success as a theatre actress was when she appeared as Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire“, staged by Karolos Koun’s Art Theatre in 1949. 

In 1955 she started her cinema career playing in the movie “Stella“, directed by Michalis Cacoyannis. This movie received special praise at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956. 

In the same city, she met the American filmmaker Jules Dassin with whom she would share her life and career. 

In 1960 she won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival with the movie “Never on Sunday“, written and directed by Jules Dassin and where she plays the role of Ilya, a self-employed, free-spirited prostitute who lives in the port of Piraeus, in Greece.

Melina Mercouri in a scene from the movie "Never on Sunday", 1960 
Melina Mercouri in a scene from the movie “Never on Sunday”, 1960 

After the putsch of the Military Giunta in 1967 she became one of the most influential voices in the protest against the dictatorship, which cost her exile and the revocation of her citizenship. 

During the seven years of dictatorship, she decided to travel to start her propaganda against tyranny. Her strenuous opposition to the regime led her to be the victim of an assassination attempt in Genoa. 

In 1974, after the regime’s fall, she returned to Greece and began her rise in politics. Before becoming Minister of Culture in 1981, she was one of the founders of the Pan Hellenic Socialist Party (PASOK), the centre-left party that won the elections in 1981. 

Melina Mercouri

According to Melina Mercouri, Greece had to thrive thanks to its cultural heritage. During her eight years in power she brought the Ministry of Culture, which was marginal at the center of public debate, promoting action and transmitting enthusiasm to the political scene. 

She contributed to the survival of many neoclassical Athenian buildings and created an archaeological park in the Greek capital. She launched, also, the campaign for the return of the Parthenon marble exhibited at the British Museum in London. 

In 1983 during a meeting with the ministers of culture of the ten EU Member States, Melina Mercouri asked: “How is it possible for a community that lacks its cultural dimension to develop?”

In 1985 she became the creator and promoter of the initiative of the “European Capital of Culture: the first was Athens.  

Melina Mercouri talking to the press ahead of the launch of the first European Capital of Culture in Athens, 1985
Melina Mercouri talking to the press ahead of the launch of the first European Capital of Culture in Athens, 1985.

This initiative aimed to enhance the different populations of the European continent in order to extend the sense of belonging to the European community by identifying an area of cultural sharing and encouraging the development of cities. 

Her involvement and influence in Europe were strengthened in 1988 during the second Greek Presidency of the Council when she launched campaigns for dialogue and cooperation with the countries of Eastern Europe.                        

She continued to act on stage in the early 1990s while remaining as a parliament member. In 1992 she played the role of Clytemnestra in the opera “Pylades” by Kouroupos and Chimonas, directed by Dionysis Fotopoulos at the Athens Concert Hall. 

She returned to the Ministry of Culture when PASOK returned to power in 1993 and devoted her last work to establishing links between culture and education at all levels.

She died in New York on 6 March 1994.

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