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Interview

A beautiful Lady

Eleni Melissari has lived a fairy-tale life, with highs: carefree days at Moraitis School, studies at the Sorbonne, Vogue photo shoots, friendships with the international Jet Set, a great love, a dazzling wedding, two amazing children, and lows: the loss of her husband and financial ruin. We met at her house in Spetses, where she spent idyllic summers discovering her family’s roots. Dressed simply and elegantly, Mrs Melissari greeted us, opening the door to both her home and her heart. Her family tree is quite simply, fascinating. Her greatgrandfather was Vasileios Lazarou-Orloff, who was born on Spetses and died in the Orloff Revolt of 1770.

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Her grandmother, Eleni Lazarou-Orloff, married Barbareso, who owned one of the oldest distilleries in Piraeus. Her grandfather, Evangelos Georgis from Sparti, founded Nikoletopoulos Mills, the largest flourmill in Greece, and one of the first companies to be listed on the Athens Stock Exchange. In Athens, her family resided on Vassilis Sofias Avenue, opposite the present-day Athens Concert Hall. “At the time, Michalakopoulou Street was a river bed and home to refugees. Athens was very different back then and and people’s word was their bond,” recalls Mrs Melissari. Her tenacious character emerged from a young age. The only thing she was interested in was playing with the neighbourhood children – sometimes even coming to blows. She didn’t like playing with dolls and her Swiss governesses were able to do nothing more than observe her revolutionary nature. Naturally, she spent her summers on Spetses. The renowned Sulzberger family also summered there, often entertaining the Rothchilds.“Most of the acquaintances I made were in summer, on Spetses,” she says, remembering evenings at the Blueberry and the Karnagio, where Savvopoulos and Hatzis performed. It was there that she met a young man named Nathaniel, not realising it was Nathaniel de Rothschild, descended of the Rothschild Dynasty. “One September, immediately after our summer vacation, we received a formal invitation from my friend Nathaniel, inviting us to attend a party his family was hosting in Paris,” she recounts. Her mother Irini bought her dress in Paris, taught her to curtsey – although it didn’t prove necessary – and Eleni went to the “party”, the annual ball held at the Rothschild mansion on the outskirts of Paris. She danced to live music, played by… The Beatles, alongside international stars such as Mel Ferrer and Audrey Hepburn. The next day her father picked her up at the airport. “We went straight home and he told me to open my school bag and do my homework,” says Mrs Melissari. “I wasn’t to breathe a word about where I had been and what I had seen.” That was the one condition her father Giorgos had set before giving Eleni his permission to attend the party… Her dynamic personality and thirst for life meant that she was often at odds with her parents, evidenced by an event that took place when she was studying in Paris. Her good friend Kate de Rothschild had invited her to London and suggested she audition to become a model for Lucy Clayton. Eleni was excited about the idea and decided to give it a try, without informing her parents. The one thing she hadn’t bargained for was her mother seeing her on television, as she happened to be in London at the same time! Eleni and her mother returned home together, without delay. She spent the summers that followed in the cabanas of Vouliagmeni, and on Mykonos and Spetses, meeting Sterling Morton Hamill and partnering with him in an airplane rally – which they won. Henry Clark, of Vogue Magazine, included the glowing young beauty in the photos he shot of the young ladies of Athenian society. “I was at a reception at the Goulandris’s and the Vogue magazine photographer introduced himself, telling me that he wanted to take my photograph with other young women,” says Mrs Melissari. She asked for her parents’ permission and was photographed the next day, wearing Zolota jewellery at Cape Sounion. The magazine editors were so impressed with her work that they suggested she pursue a career in modelling and offered her a new photo shoot for French Vogue. Her parents did not agree… When Eleni took a trip to northern Greece to help her brother Vangelis, who was the representative for Privé Silos at the Thessaloniki International Fair, she made the acquaintance of the man who was to change her life: Vangelis Melissaris. He happened to pass by the booth, was impressed by the product, purchased all the silos and offered to show Eleni around the city. A great love was born. The couple married in January 1973, settled in Thessaloniki and had two children, Timos and Konstantinos. Vangelis Melissaris, owner of Melissari Mills and Deras tannery, was one of the most active, successful and powerful Greek businessmen. As Vice-president of the Thessaloniki International Fair, which also owned the International Film Festival, he helped bring the glamour of Hollywood to the Festival by inviting international celebrities to the event, including Anthony Quinn and Joan Fontaine. All was well in his world and nothing foreshadowed the tragic turnaround that would soon follow. The sudden death of Vangelis Melissaris came as a great shock, changing the lives of his family forever. Although Eleni Melissari felt the loss deeply, she mustered her strength in order to protect her children and what was left of their fortune. And she was successful. Both her sons studied at Macalester College in the United States. Timos sent on to do his Masters at the London School of Economics, and Konstantinos studied at Cass Business School, City University, at the renowned Costas Grammenos Centre for Shipping, Trade and Finance. The Melissari Mills complex has been converted into the Evangelos Melissaris Cultural Foundation. Having weathered the storm, Eleni Melissari continues to live her life to the fullest. With her children and grandchild by her side, she is more proud of her family than ever. Who can blame her?

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