MONDAYS ON MEMORY LANE: THE GREEK EARTH MOTHER – MELINA MERCOURI
For those of you too young to know who Melina Mercouri was, below is the Random House dictionary definition of ‘earth mother’ = that would befit Melina.
n. 1. the earth conceived of as the female principle of fertility and the source of all life.
2. a female spirit or deity serving as a symbol of life or fertility.
3. a sensuous, maternal woman.
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In 1960 Melina Mercouri had become an international sensation. Her Greek film classic ”Never On Sunday” was a tremendous world wide success. The lp record of the musical score by Manos Hadjidakos played constantly in our house – I was raised on it and it played in every public establishment you went, there was a craze for everything Greek. “Never On Sunday” became the single most successful foreign film at the time. Melina played ‘Ilya’ a feisty Greek streetwalker with a heart of gold. Not until 1970 was I even allowed to see the film because for those times it was considered to risqué for television and mom wouldn’t allow me to see it in the movies. I was captivated. I had never seen such an earthy woman. The confidence, the walk, the mannerisms and above all – that voice! “Never On Sunday” is based on ‘Pygmalion’ by George Bernard Shaw later to become “My Fair Lady” starring Audrey Hepburn – the streetwalker then changed to the more befitting flower girl for American tastes.
Jules Dassin, Melina’s husband in real life, directed the film as well as starred in the title role of the American tourist Homer, who is determined to transform Ilya into a refined lady of culture. Melina’s Ilya, not able to bear sadness, doesn’t believe in the classic Greek tragedies. She loves going to the theatre to see the tragedies but in retelling the stories later to her ‘clients’ and friends at the local bar, she twists them from her perspective so that they all end happily with the line, “and they all went to the seashore!”
In person Melina’s voice was smokey and gravely (mostly by nature but also partially due to her chain smoking). Her tossed blonde hair was like a mane. She moved like a sensual tribal dancer. Her laugh was absolutely unmistakable – uproarious, uncontrolled, deeply from the gut. Endless enthusiasm, filled with a passion for the arts and life. A fiercely independent Greek destined to become Greece’s member of parliament in 1977 and Greece’s first Minister of Culture in 1981!
In the fim clip as she is being carried off the man laughingly says “…and they all went to the seashore!”
On Saturday, October 21, 1972 we met. My mother Ursula worked at the time for Clifford Day Mallory of Mystic Seaport, Connecticut. The Mallory family happened to have founded Mystic, Connecticut. Mom was personal assistant to Mr. Mallory who was in the shipping brokerage business, which means, they brokered empty cargo ships to the highest oil company bidder for them to be used to transport their oil to the port of choice. Mr. Mallory had a business deal with Jules Dassin while Melina was in town for her failed musical version of “Lysistrata” . . . so all our lives converged.
This divine earth mother had come to Broadway in the Greek comedic play ‘Lysistrata’ by Aristophanes written in 411BC! It ironically deals with the story in which the women of Greece withhold sexual favors from the men until they men agree to stop going to war. A sexual political farce. Melina was born to play the part. The show previewed on October 20, 1972 – the night the above seated dressing room photo was taken. My first and ever lasting impression of her was how she pronounced my name. ‘Hrchrchanzz’. Being Greek, she could not say a soft letter “H”, but out came this throaty ‘Hrchrchanzz’. A hard “H” purred from her lips. Sitting there in her dressing room in her off white cashmere pants (she loved cashmere) and her deep purple silken blouse, blowing billows of cigarette smoke into the air.
”Lysistrata’ played 35 previews until it’s opening night we attended on November 13, 1972. The show was for 1972, too ahead of it’s time and the reviews (many based on personal vengeance) were very unfavorable based on Melina’s political views against the military coup of her country. Shockingly it closed after only 8 performances/one week. Closing night was October 18, 1972. Melina took the news philosophically. “Po po po! I can’t be sad, I was born Greek and will die Greek, this is telling me I am meant to concentrate even more to fight for my country.” She continued on in the United States to publicize her 1971 book “I Was Born Greek”. Melina was staying at the hotel Nevaro on Central Park South in the penthouse suite. While Melina’s husband Jules conducted business with mom’s boss Mr. Mallory, mom and I were sent to keep Melina company. Melina had loved the photo I had taken of her the night we met, “Po po po! It is so soft, yes?” Melina’s ‘yes’ meant ‘isn’t that so?’ The ‘softness’ comes across because she was so happy and had such belief in her new Broadway show. To please Melina and to take her mind off the show I had the photo made into a poster (black and white was all I could afford) and presented it to her in her hotel suite. “Hrchrchanzz! I think you do this to make me happy, yes?” Yes I did. Melina signed my copy of the poster which has been framed on my wall for the past 41 years.
Sometime in the 1980’s I heard from some fans of hers complimenting me on the photo. It turns out Melina had used the photo in a Greek publication of her biography – I had been published! Sadly I have never found a copy of the book or the literature. Every time I pass that vibrant proud Greek earth mother’s photo on my wall- I still feel her embrace and hear that uproarious laughter “Ah Hrchrchanzz!” She was and always will be Greece!
A brief bio:
(Greek: ΜελίναΜερκούρη), born as Maria Amalia Mercouri (18 October 1920 – 6 March 1994) was a Greek actress, singer and politician. As an actress she made her film debut in Stella (1955) and met international success with her performances in Never on Sunday, Phaedra, Topkapi and Promise at Dawn. She won the award for Best Actress at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, and she was also nominated for an Academy Award, three Golden Globe Awards, and two BAFTA Awards.
A political activist during the Greek military junta of 1967–1974, she became a member of the Hellenic Parliament in 1977 and the first female Minister for Culture of Greece in 1981. Mercouri was the person who, in 1983, conceived and proposed the programme of the European Capital of Culture, which has been established by the European Union since 1985.
She was a strong advocate for the return to Athens of the Parthenon Marbles, which were removed from the Parthenon, and are now displayed in the British Museum.