It’s been 20 years since she died, yet Melina Mercouri (October 18, 1920 – March 6, 1994), the charismatic actress, chanteuse, activist and politician, still has a strong presence in Greece.
To mark the anniversary of her death, the Benaki Museum’s Pireos Street annex is hosting a large exhibition in collaboration with the Melina Mercouri Foundation, featuring over 200 photographs, posters, costumes, personal items and memorabilia, as well as a mock-up of her dressing room on loan from the Theatrical Museum of Greece.
The exhibition is augmented by a coffee-table book published by Patakis Press for the Melina Mercouri Foundation, titled “Melina,” which contains rare archival material relating to her life as well as a wealth of anecdotal matter.
The exhibition, which runs through May 25, also included a mini film festival of Mercouri’s screen works earlier this month.
All together, the album, the exhibition and the film festival paint a portrait of this gifted and multifaceted personality, showcasing the steps of her career, her tumultuous personal life, her cosmopolitan, jet-setting side and her political activism, which was key to raising awareness abroad about the plight of Greece during the 1967-74 dictatorship.
There are so many charming stories to be told about Mercouri and the exhibition and book include material gleaned from interviews and her autobiography, giving her own insights into her life’s experiences.
For example, she had the good fortune to meet both of her female role models, Hollywood icon Greta Garbo and Dolores Ibarruri, the Spanish communist and resistance fighter known as “La Pasionaria.”
She met Garbo on the Greek island of Spetses in 1966. “She was wearing dark glasses. I found the nerve to ask her if I could see her eyes… She raised her hand to her glasses and lifted them slowly and those beautiful eyes smiled at me,” reminisced Mercouri in her autobiography, parts of which are included in the exhibition and the book.
Mercouri met La Pasionaria at the latter’s flat in Madrid in the late 1970s when she was invited by the Spanish Communist Party to an event. “She had the most beautiful hands I have ever seen – ageless hands – young hands. When I told her, she proudly said, ‘Worker’s hands.’ I don’t know if they’re worker’s hands, but they are the most expressive hands I have ever seen,” wrote Mercouri.
The exhibition also touches on her long relationship with composer Manos Hadzidakis, which began when they worked together in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra.”
One of the most charming stories related in the exhibition pertains to a trip Mercouri made to New York in 1960, where she met Tennessee Williams and tried to convince him that she had played very well in the starring roles of the Theatro Technis’s productions in Athens of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Sweet Bird of Youth” when he questioned whether she was mature enough to play such challenging female roles.
Marlon Brando, Charlie Chaplin, Salvador Dali and Bobby Kennedy are but some of the famous names that were linked to Mercouri over the course of her career and who also make an appearance at the Benaki show.
Benaki Museum, 138 Pireos & Andronikou, tel 210.345.3111, www.benaki.gr