WASHINGTON — The phone is ringing, jangling, blaring. Once. Twice. Three times. It will not stop.
"No! No! No!" Melina Mercouri moans in a voice befitting Medea. "Not with that! I cannot! I am becoming crazy, crazy, crazy!"
Somewhere, an acolyte hears and responds. The phone is silenced, sacrificed on behalf of the Greek minister of culture. "I want cigarettes!" she calls. "A cigarette, so I can concentrate!" Cigarettes appear. She inhales, luxuriating, and sinks into the fluffy couch. It has always been like this, she explains, "all my life. When you are a cinema actress, they protect you more. When you are a politician, you must be available to everyone."
And for the last 11 years, Mercouri has been a politician, albeit a politician unlike anything this city is used to. The ordinary world seems just a little puny, a little anemic, when Mercouri is around, which is perhaps why she is always so popular when she visits Washington. In a city that yearns for the sweeping political gesture, the perfect act of persuasive rhetoric, a woman who invests every moment with the tumultuous passions of Greek tragedy has a way of dominating press conferences, captivating bureaucrats and stirring people like Sen. Larry Pressler into singing encomiums to her into the Congressional Record.
Purpose of Visit
At this moment in late January, she is merely overwhelming her hotel room, but the day before she engulfed the National Gallery of Art, there to tell the press about the most obvious purpose for her visit--the opening of the exhibit "The Human Figure in Early Greek Art." In purple leather skirt and jacket, black boots, massive black hat and a long swatch of fur complete with pointy nose and bushy tail, she trailed a white rose languidly along the edge of a glass case, an exaggerated caress that spoke of fingers sliding across a beloved body. The cameras flashed and flashed again as she studied with passion the model of the Acropolis and casually brought the rose to her lips, where it rested for a moment before she moved on.
This is a woman who knows how to get the most out of a prop.
The tour wound through the exhibit, led by NGA Director J. Carter Brown, a man of such highly bred East Coast refinement he seems to inhabit a universe where the air would be far too thin for Mercouri. Still, she managed to suck him into her world with kisses on both cheeks, the greeting "Darling!" and a hand that clutched his arm in appreciation through much of her speech.
"This is almost the most amusing," Brown smiled, stopping at a model of the Acropolis as it appeared in the Middle Ages. "It's like Disney World, with all that crenulation--and that funny little campanile stuck up out of the Parthenon." Mercouri and Brown stopped again before a 6th-Century BC statuette of a mourning woman.
"It's so moving," Brown said. "I love the pathos."
"Pathos," Mercouri murmured. "Pathos."
Air of Astonishment
At a black-tie dinner, Mercouri conquered the museum yet again, her gold lame dress sparkling while a band played a chain of Broadway tunes and Greek rhythms that surprised at least one staffer, unused to such jaunty fare. In fact, there was a general air of well-controlled astonishment about the place, as if a hurricane were in the process of whipping through but no one wanted to make too big a deal about it.
"If you don't find it beautiful," Mercouri said to the guests about the exhibit, "both Carter Brown and I will commit a double hara-kiri.
"We told him that many of these objects were immortal by the millimeter. He insisted, he blustered and he charmed, because"--and then she quoted from the '30s song "Love Is Just Around the Corner"--"strictly between us, he's cuter than Venus. What's more, he's got charms."
In her hotel room, she has traded leather and lame for black wool pants, heavy gold jewelry and a new coif of honey waves, talking of the exhibit, which covers the 10th to the 5th Century BC.
"You must look at it with delicatesse ," Mercouri says, "with appreciation of the unique"--she utters a throaty jumble of sounds and turns to husband Jules Dassin, her "Never on Sunday" co-star and director who acts as her informal interpreter.
"Uniqueness is good," he offers.
"Never with false veneration," she finishes.
When Mercouri speaks about the art and architecture that come under her jurisdiction, it is with the lush passion of a lover, so strong and expansive it negates any questions about its authenticity. This is, after all, the woman who titled her autobiography "I Was Born Greek," making that simple statement sound like an act of defiant principle. It is the same passion she brings to the smallest encounter, that makes strangers feel like intimates and that infuses her political speech--which tends toward a loving, all-embracing belief in the power of art and artists to save humanity.