ATHENS – “I was born a Greek, I will die a Greek,” famed actress and Culture Minister Melina Mercouri said, with that sultry voice and searing eyes that could pierce a bank safe or a man’s heart, if he could speak at all – so disarming she was.
But Greeks don’t want Mercouri, who passed away in 1994 at 73 in a New York City hospital, to die at all.
So they can see her reincarnation of sorts at the Melina Mercouri Foundation, founded by her late husband, the equally famous Jules Dassin, the blackballed director who starred with her in Never on Sunday.
That’s in a less-traveled part of the Plaka, Athens’ tourist area that somehow still manages to have some charming classical buildings and residences untouched by graffiti or restaurant hawkers standing next to signs as big as they are, entreating you to come in.
After visiting the foundation, a small exhibit of photos, memorabilia and her dressing table, a shrine set up that endures, you can take a short walk to the Melina Mercouri Cafe established by the ultimate fan, Andreas Martzaklis, 61, who was a waiter in the Greek Parliament, where her starry status and position as a lawmaker didn’t keep her from talking to him, perhaps remembering the staff of the cafe in Never on Sunday where she stirred and touched everyone.
“People come here from all of Greece, and also France,” he noted, another place where she was adored as that’s where Dassin moved to revive his career and made one of the great film noir’s, Rififi, after the Red Scare put many in Hollywood out of work there.
There’s also The Melina Merkouri Cultural Centre, a municipal cultural organization in Athens named for her, in an old hat factory, with two permanent exhibitions and the Melina Hall, where other events and seminars are held.
She was the epitome of a Greek, a firebrand whose opinions could sear the enemies of her heritage, especially Lord Elgin, the Scottish diplomat who stole marbles from the Parthenon almost 200 years ago, now in the British Museum which refuses to return them.
The marbles came to bear her name but she called them The Parthenon Marbles and was one of the foremost champions of the drive to get them back, a lost cause it seems, but she wouldn’t back down from anyone, like the Colonels of the military dictatorship junta that ruled Greece from 1967-74.
She was in New York with Dassin when it happened, performing in Ilya Darling, a play directed by Dassin and based on Never On Sunday. She joined the struggle against the junta and started an international campaign against the dictators, traveling the world for the cause.
Not knowing what they were up against, the regime revoked her Greek citizenship and confiscated her property.
STILL NO COMEBACK
That led her to utter those famous words about being born and dying a Greek, and the riposte to them for which there could be no response: “Those bastards were born fascists and they will die fascists.” They did, and she’s remembered, while they, in what is really Greek poetic justice, are not.
“Greeks come here because of her,” Martzaklis said, sitting under a giant photo of her and other pictures around a cafe that is as simply elegant and charming as she was. “She fought for the Parthenon Marbles and was involved in politics and not just at the end her life.”
In 1983, at an event in London, she eviscerated then-Director of the British Museum David M. Wilson over the Parthenon Marbles, a public relations disaster for the British museum and what became a defining moment in the struggle for their return, snapping off his face: “Are there many Parthenons in the world?”
“You must understand what the Parthenon Marbles mean to us. They are our pride. They are our sacrifices. They are the supreme symbol of nobility. They are a tribute to democratic philosophy. They are our aspiration and our name. They are the essence of Greekness,” she also had said.
Martzaklis knows the feeling, even 25 years after her supposed passing. “We get many people who come here for her and many just want to look,” he sighed, even stopping smoking for a moment.
“She was the only person who could protect our rights and she had a vision and projected an image abroad. The elders come here to remember her and the young ones want to learn,” he said, and the cafe has become a stop for school visits and students too.”
At a 1994 remembrance of her, foundation President Christoforos Argyropoulos put her ongoing value to Greece in such succinct words they could have been uttered by her about causes she protected and projected: “Melina defended what she believed was worth fighting for, exhausting every subjective and objective possibility…So that we wouldn’t lose the way.” That was, he said, “the road that Melina traveled, with her tenacity that made her a symbol of struggle and optimism. Because Melina dismissed with impulse and passion everything that questioned the validity of dreams. Until there came ‘some night in March with no return.’”