Aegean to Appleton: Melina, My Heart

By Savvas Sfairopoulos

Greece, my home, is the most beautiful place in the world. I am being ridiculously biased, of course. It cannot be denied, however, that the Greeks revolutionized Western civilization through a cosmopolitan educational system that is still praised for its progressiveness. Unfortunately, the modern Greek educational system is a shadow of its former self. But it was not always that way. In the post-military-junta era of the ‘80s, Greece was going through a phase of intense political instability. That was when Melina Mercouri, a famous actress and activist, assumed the position of Greece’s minister of culture. She was a strong-willed political figure who managed to transform the Greek educational system and bring Greece to the front pages of newspapers worldwide.

Melina Mercouri was born on Oct. 18, 1920, in Athens. Many of her family members were politicians, and she was the granddaughter of Athens’ mayor. She was just five years old when she tried acting for the first time. She would stand in front of a mirror, trying to perfect her ability to squeeze out a few tears so that her parents would buy her whatever she wanted. As years passed, theater became her sole passion in life. As a teenager, she performed poorly in school, but excelled in the performing arts. At the age of 17, she fell in love with and married a wealthy businessman who promised to help her pursue her acting career. For the next thirty years she participated in big productions and became a worldwide phenomenon in the 60s.

After getting divorced and moving to New York City, she got remarried to the renowned French film-director Jules Dassin. She became his muse and starred in most of his plays and films. On April 21, 1967 she and her husband were told that a military coup had taken place in Greece. That moment marked the commencement of Melina’s political career.

Soon becoming one of the prominent figures of the Greek resistance, she collaborated with numerous Greek revolutionaries and philhellenes alike She gave countless interviews, delivered myriad speeches and wrote songs opposing the leaders of the coup. For that reason, she was not allowed to return to Greece. Nevertheless, on July 26, 1974, two days after the fall of the junta, she returned to her country and celebrated democracy’s victory.

After years of political struggles, she was appointed Greece’s Minister of Culture in ‘81, the first woman to assume that role. As a minister, she implemented a strong policy of cultural exchange by organizing many important exhibitions in museums abroad and meeting with several great figures such as, but not limited to Indira Gandhi, the Pope and François Mitterand. She was a visionary and took action to ensure the progressive realization of her goals and aspirations. One of her most significant visions was the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.

Mercouri first raised this issue in Jul. 1982, at UNESCO’s World Conference on Cultural Policies and never stopped fighting for the cause until her death. She once famously 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.”

Melina Mercouri never ceased to amaze the world with her strong political presence and her artistic temperament. As Greece’s Minister of Culture, she reformed the educational system and reintroduced the study of Classics in schools as a means of preserving Ancient Greek ideals and culture. Melina died on Mar. 6, 1994, in New York, from lung cancer, aged 73. However, her powerful words resonate in the hearts of many Greeks and the results of her work are still evident to this day.