To Greeks, Melina Mercouri was simply Melina, the honeyed one, a woman who combined patriotism, party politics and a feisty feminism with a ladylike sense of privacy. Even now her age is a mystery. Some say she was born in 1925, others insist United Artists shaved five years off her birthdate - 18 October 1920. She is survived by her husband, the film-maker Jules Dassin.
Greece's best-known actress and Minister of Culture died yesterday in New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of complications brought about by treatment for lung cancer. To the end she was a heavy smoker, which contributed to that throaty, seductive Mediterranean voice that filmgoers recall with a tingle of excitement.
In Britain she will be remembered for her determined campaign, as a member of the Pasok government of the 1980s, for the return of the Elgin (Parthenon) Marbles.
Sir David Wilson, director of the British Museum until 1992, said yesterday: 'Apart from her quest for the Marbles I found her quite remarkably well informed about archaeological matters. And she was, of course, a very courageous crusader against the junta (who ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974). She was a great actress and a smashing lady. I will miss her greatly.'
Andreas Papandreou, Greece's Prime Minister, talked of 'the special relationship (with the Greek people) that will last beyond time and the tragedy of the moment'. Greek radio and television stations interrupted programmes and switched to the resistance songs she had made famous. Theatres and cinemas closed for the day.
Mercouri, who lived in Paris during the junta years and worked with Mr Papandreou to create what became Pasok, was from a wealthy political family based in Piraeus.
Yesterday friends were recalling the outspokenness that made her so popular with constituents. When, six years ago, Mr Papandreou, became involved in a very public relationship with the lady who is now his second wife, Melina announced: 'Everybody has lovers . . . Greeks have infidelity in their blood'. And when the junta revoked her citizenship, she said: 'I was born Greek, I shall die Greek.'
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