Memoirs by Nana Mouskouri
I have always been fascinated by Nana Mouskouri. She is the singer with the strange name and the big black glasses. I can’t name of any of her songs, but I picked up her book, called simply Memoirs, with a feeling of anticipation. Now I might finally get an answer to the question that has been puzzling me for years: why does she always wear those big black glasses?
Like that other great European female singer of the 20th century, Maria Callas, Mouskouri is Greek. I have no idea why Greece should produce such great voices. There must be something in the moussaka. This is the tale of how Nana went from poor-little-Greek girl to global success (her publisher claims that she is the world’s biggest-selling female artist).
The book starts with her first memory: German planes bombing Athens. It is April 6, 1941, and she is six-and-half years old. Her father, who works as a projectionist, is sent off to war. Soon afterwards, he returns. The Greek army has been defeated. Nana’s family has to sell its possessions to eat. When there is nothing left to flog, her father purloins some chairs from the cinema where he works. But the owner finds out, and ejects them from their small house. They rent a room. Her mother scratches a living. And her father? He takes the money his wife earns and loses it gambling. Nana and her sister Eugenia watch as German soldiers murder a Greek civilian. The message is clear: the music business is going to be tough, but war is tougher.
After the war, family life stabilises. Nana’s father gets another job as a projectionist, and his daughters start to sing. They join the Conservatory. But money is tight, and soon their mother has to explain to the headmistress that there isn’t enough to pay the fees. The head agrees to let Eugenia leave, even though she has the better voice, but says that the younger girl, Nana, can stay on a scholarship. Without singing, Nana, she thinks, would be lost. Nana starts to sings on Greek radio and in nightclubs. She performs old Greek songs and Ella Fitzgerald numbers. The Conservatory is shocked. She must choose between them and radio and nightclub work. She chooses to sing in public.
Her big break comes when she appears in front of 4,000 American sailors to celebrate independence day in 1957. Soon afterwards, she is singing in a Greek nightclub in front of Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis. Callas tells her: “It’s better to be a great popular entertainer than an unknown opera singer. The important thing is not what you do but how well you do it.”
Leaving aside the note of condescension from the divine Callas, Nana takes heart from this advice. Then she gets sacked from the nightclub.
“She’s too ugly,” says the owner.
“And those glasses. ..”
She goes on to conquer Greece with her voice, if not her looks, then moves on to Barcelona, Berlin, Paris, the world.
The Parisians – who else? – make her change her looks, persuading her to lose weight and have a new hairdo. But they can’t get those glasses off her.
In New York, Quincy Jones, the famous music producer, falls in love with her voice. She meets Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, and all the royalty of Europe. But Prince Philip misses her concert in Buckingham Palace because he is carriage-driving.
Ghosted by Lionel Duroy and translated by Jeremy Leggatt, the memoir reads at times more like a discography than an autobiography. There are few personal details. George, the Greek husband, has to go. Too jealous – he wants the family to live in Corfu and Nana to stop singing. Imagine! She can’t; without singing she would die. The children are brought up by him and a nanny called Fernande. Her mother passes away. Her father is finally proud of her. She is in touch with her sister, who gave up her place in the Conservatory all those years ago, but we don’t learn if she likes her. We do, however, find out about the specs: “Over the years, those glasses had become a mask which I felt shielded me from possible acts of cruelty. Shielded behind them, I felt in a sense untouchable, and they permitted me to sing with my eyes closed.”
Nana has been singing almost as long as I have been alive. She has also been an ambassador for Unicef (taking over from Audrey Hepburn) and, rather improbably, an MEP. She didn’t like politics. It affected her voice and stopped her singing. Now she is on her final world tour. I guess now I will never hear her sing, but at least I know why she wears those glasses.
MEMOIRS by Nana Mouskouri with Lionel Duroy, translated by Jeremy Leggatt
Weidenfeld £18.99 pp432
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019