December 05, 1977 12:00 PM

Once she was the hooker with the heart of brass in Never on Sunday. Later she chose exile from her native Greece rather than cooperate with the military junta and was subsequently stripped of her citizenship. Then last month she turned up as a candidate for parliament from the seedy port city of Piraeus. “I’m the only woman candidate in your area,” she pleaded in her familiar husky growl, “and I’m counting on your support.”

Last week, in the second parliamentary election since the return of Greek democracy in 1974, Melina Mercouri, 52, finally had her wish. Reversing the outcome of three years ago, when she lost in her first try for national office by a mere 33 votes, Mercouri was elected as a standard-bearer of the left-wing Panhellenic Socialist Movement, which opposes the centrist regime of Prime Minister Constantine Caramanlis. “My supporters didn’t consider me a star,” boasted Mercouri the morning after her triumph. “They saw me as a woman who has made a long march.”

Indeed, the road to victory was a perilous one. Early in the campaign her district was hit with the worst floods in 16 years, and Mercouri was trapped in her car for four hours. Finally rescued, she was put up at a nearby home. “When I woke the next morning,” she recalls with a shudder, “I was among dead bodies brought in from the street. It was terrible.”

Even more troublesome was her health. A stubborn cold, plus a recurrence of bleeding ulcers, caused serious concern among her doctors. “I can’t wait until this is over with,” she confided wearily at one point, “but the voters have got to see you. They want you to look nice, strong, healthy. They need encouragement.”

Mercouri campaigned through a punishing series of 15-hour days, chainsmoking and refusing to quit. One of the few candidates to venture into Piraeus’ bustling open-air market, Mercouri—who came originally from a conservative, patrician family—was greeted warmly, sometimes emotionally. “You’re the mother of the world,” muttered one old woman with tears in her eyes. “Go ahead!”

Mercouri vows to make women’s rights her primary concern. “I can be the women’s voice of protest in parliament,” she declares. “They trust me, and they know that I myself suffered from being a woman in Greece.”

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