03/21/1994 at 01:00 AM EST
I THOUGHT IT WAS DEATH I WAS AFRAID of," Melina Mercouri recently mused. "But now I know my worst fear is that I should no longer be loved." Her fear was groundless. When the news reached Athens that the beloved symbol of Greek passion had died at age 68 of lung cancer on Sunday, March 6, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, flags dropped to half-mast, theaters shut down, and radio and TV stations turned the airwaves over to Mercouri—her husky-throated cabaret songs and clips from her signature 1960 film, Never on Sunday.
The cause of her death might be considered a modern form of Greek tragedy. She often said that smoking was her "challenge against fear." Friends urged her to quit, but even after she was given a diagnosis of lung cancer five years ago, she continued to chain-smoke.
Mercouri was never exactly eager to please anybody. The daughter of a Minister of the Interior, she defied her parents at 17 by marrying a wealthy Greek merchant much older than she (they divorced in 1962) and enrolling in the National Theatre of Greece. After triumphing onstage in Athens and Paris, she became an international star as a fiercely independent Piraeus prostitute in Never on Sunday, appearing opposite her then-lover, Jules Dassin, whom she married in 1966. (He was at her side when she died.)
But Mercouri chose to devote most of her ardor to Greek politics. When she spoke out against the military dictatorship that ruled Greece from 1967 to '74, she was stripped of her citizenship. She returned to Greece from Paris in 1974 after the election of the New Democracy Party. She served as a Member of parliament from Piraeus from 1977 to '89, as Culture Minister from 1981 to '89 and helped found the Panhellenic Socialist Movement. "I thought she was the happiest she'd ever been, while in politics," said her friend of 30 years, costume designer Theoni Aldredge. "Melina was beautiful and flamboyant, and everything she did was to the utmost."