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a monthly look at the faces that have made history

Melina Mercouri

Actress, singer, exile, politician, Greek: Melina Mercouri can't be summed up in the typical breezy celebrity bio. Though her family's roots were in politics—her grandfather was mayor of Athens, her father a minister of the interior and a World War II resistance fighter—Mercouri became an actress. She was already 40 when she played Ilya, the free-spirited prostitute cheerfully indifferent to reform, in Never on Sunday. The role made her an international star, earned her an Oscar nomination, and turned Ilya's wardrobe of breezy halter tops, cinch-waisted skirts, and colorful bangles into a fashion reference still widespread today.

But six years after making that movie, Mercouri was a political exile in Switzerland, singing (in French) to packed houses about her beloved country, then in the grip of a repressive military regime. On her return to Athens in 1974, she devoted herself to public service, becoming, in short order, a member of parliament and then minister of culture—the first woman ever in the Greek cabinet. Wielding her arsenal of sophistication and impeccable style, Mercouri set out to repatriate Greece's precious antiquities and artifacts, swaying world leaders and fashion followers alike with her multilingual, irresistible charm.

—Janet Ozzard

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