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Obituary

"Lebanon will rise from the seeds of your dreams"

"Beirut breathes the wind coming from the sea," said Lady Cochrane in a 2018 interview. But did it ever cross Lady Cochrane's mind that another kind of "wind coming from the sea" would one day take her life and her life's work in less than a second?

Lady Cochrane at the height of her beauty, possessing an assertive personality.

At 6:07 p.m. on August 4, Lady Cochrane was watching the ominous column of smoke rising from the port at a few hundred meters away from her palace. Then, before even realizing what was happening, everything started to collapse around her; woodwork, glass and wrought iron. Miraculously, her wheelchair cushioned her from the shock and she managed to escape with a few deep wounds in her legs. In a photograph taken outside her palace a few minutes after she was rescued from the rubble, Lady Cochrane can be seen sitting in a chair, looking disheveled and incredulous, but still dignified, despite her tattered clothing and bloodied legs. "At first, she though it was a bombing or an earthquake," said her children Isabelle and Roderick, whom I met on the day she died, on August 31.

Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane had just celebrated her 98th birthday. But being 98 years old is no justification of death, especially when it's due to criminal negligence or simply a criminal act. The news of her death is rather an unbearable shock as was the destruction of her palace and with it the last remaining authentic district of Beirut, which she had fought all her life to preserve.

The day she passed away, the battered palace fell into an eerie silence. Everything and everyone, even the birds, seemed to be in somber mourning. From the darkened frames of the broken windows to the threatening-looking cracks in the walls that will need urgent repairs to avoid the building from collapsing, to the roofs that lost their tiles and needed patching up with tarps before the first rains come, it felt as if the soul of their guardian had left the palace, as if nothing linked her anymore to this place she once loved so much.

Lady Cochrane at her magnificent palace. Photo by Gregory Buchakjian

Little sister of Greater Lebanon
Heir to a family whose origins can be traced back to 13th century Constantinople, Yvonne Sursock is the granddaughter of Moussa Sursock, a genius entrepreneur who contributed to the development of Beirut in the 19th century by creating an empire and building this incredible palace. Her father, Alfred, turned the palace into a living museum and financed the construction of, among other things, the Résidence des Pins and the hippodrome in order to save the victims of the Great Famine.

Born in 1922, this little sister of Greater Lebanon remained rebellious until the day she drew her last breath, on the eve of her country's centenary, in a snub to all incompetence and corruption that Lebanon has produced in a hundred years. She never hesitated to challenge the myths: France's achievements in Lebanon? "A catastrophe, which emptied the mountains of their people, agriculture, and industry by centralizing all activity in Beirut." The phenomenal growth of Beirut in the 20th Century? "An anarchy of concrete and pollution which destroyed the beautiful urban fabric and the surrounding sea." The reconstruction of Beirut after the war? "A heresy that has destroyed historic buildings by the hundreds." The political class? "They control everything and are leading the country to ruin, there is no place for young people here. "

After losing her father at the young age of two, she was raised exclusively by women: her mother Dona Maria Theresa Serra di Cassano, of Italian nobility, her aunts Isabelle and Malvina, and the Duchess of Uzès, which certainly explains her avant-garde feminist tendencies. She owed a British governess and a school in London her Queen's English, which granted her more sophistication. This was a conventional education which destined her to follow the path of her mother. "Dona Maria will remain as well known as her, if not more, because she led a flamboyant life in official circles and was involved in charity work," said Isabelle and Roderick.

By the age of twenty, Yvonne had become a beautiful young lady of high society. With a slightly hooked nose and maddeningly gorgeous features, she was a dream heiress. Over the years, her looks and attitude were asserted, and very quickly, it appeared that the young woman would become the complete opposite of what everyone had expected of her. In a country where a woman only exists through her husband, she will eventually become a true head of household and of business.

At the age of 24, she met her future husband, Sir Desmond Cochrane, a British army officer, during a lunch banquet hosted by her cousin Linda Sursock, and they quickly married against the advice of her family that preferred unions between cousins. By the age of thirty, she had given birth to three beautiful boys, Marc, Alfred and Roderick. Isabelle, who inherited the beauty and finesse of both parents, will come much later, an unexpected surprise that will delight her father.

Speaking of their mother, Isabelle and Roderick shed light on Lady Cochrane, the mother, the wife, the hostess, and the woman.

The house, her joy and her misfortune
Wishing for her children to receive the best education possible, Lady Cochrane resorted to English and Swiss nannies, as was the tradition. The downside to this practice was a certain estrangement from the children: the eldest were sent abroad at an early age while the younger children were sometimes affected by their mother's absorption in her work. However, this did not prevent Yvonne from following their studies and their careers very closely.

The wife and hostess was used to being in charge, so her husband compensated this "academic" aspect with a lot of humor and activities with his children; they rode horses and bicycles, swam, and played ping-pong. "She was a mother hen, always worried and wanted to know where we were at all time, calling forty times a day, but she failed to understand that her children had their own lives and their own interests. She was too present. She wanted to decide for us," Isabelle complained, before explaining "what she did, she did with a big heart, she who did not know how to give affection. At the end of her life, she had changed a lot and reclaimed that affection that we had lacked." For his part, Roderick said his mother "didn't like to be contradicted, she felt intellectually superior to a lot of people and, as a result, was only comfortable around people who approved of her choices."

And choices, she had to make every day, she who carried an immense heritage on her shoulders and had to safeguard it. At the center of Lady Cochrane's life was the house, which "came first. It was her joy and her misfortune. It was her whole life, she lived there throughout the war, which enabled her to save it" said Isabelle. Something Roderick described as a "loyalty and an unfailing attachment to the country". "The house remained standing because she lived there all the time, often alone, rebuilding it with infinite patience after the terrible bombing of 1978," the same year she lost Desmond after being separated from him for some time, but continued to love. "When he died, she was devastated and stayed in bed all day," recalled Isabelle. Then recently, she started talking to herself, addressing Desmond, saying "Wait for me, please. "

What is left of Sursock Palace which devastated by the August 4 explosion. Photo by Jad Ghorayeb

It is fine, we shall rebuild
Being a child of Lady Cochrane meant having to share your mother with her passion for architecture and urban planning, two fields she had studied. But also with the cultural life in the country: Baalbeck Festival, Dar el-Fan, les Jeunesses musicales, the Sursock museum and above all, her life's achievement, the Association for Protecting Natural Sites and Old Buildings in Lebanon (APSAD).

It took Lady Cochrane twenty years to be able to take over the family business, or rather what little was left of it after decades of disastrous management, since her mother and aunt Isabelle had delegated all the family affairs to unscrupulous managers. Since then, she no longer delegated, "especially to her own children, or she made sure to oversee everything herself," said Isabelle. "She was never willing to make concessions or change her mind," added Roderick.

In private, the role of Beirut's high society hostess, never prevented Lady Cochrane from slipping into everyday clothes, which she loved to do when she was relaxing for long hours at the palace. As for the possible secret of her longevity, maybe it was that she drank a small glass of vodka after every meal. With time and age, the mother grew closer to her children. "We called each other four times a day. She was perfectly lucid," said Isabelle. "She always had nice little anecdotes to share about her old aunts. And she told us recently that she used to have a lot of admirers," Roderick laughed.

Lady Cochrane had never given up in the face of adversity. The day after the explosion, she said: "It does not matter, we shall rebuild," recalled Isabelle, who also shared with us an astonishing story: "Four days before her death, she had recovered, so she called her assistant, announcing that she was going to work on a plan to build a public garden. Lady Cochrane died of heart failure twenty-seven days after the explosion, presumably from the trauma she suffered. But much to the family's chagrin, doctors refused to list the explosion as "secondary causes."

Thus ends the last page of a Lebanon, born of foolish hope and destroyed by unscrupulous rulers. But it is up to us to transform this last page to a first chapter in a second volume, and for that, it is Lady Cochrane herself who shows us the way in a poem written in 1975: "Lebanon will rise from the seeds of your dreams, on the ground where you lay down. And the harvest will be as you willed it, O tender but stubborn children of the absolute. "


At 6:07 p.m. on August 4, Lady Cochrane was watching the ominous column of smoke rising from the port at a few hundred meters away from her palace. Then, before even realizing what was happening, everything started to collapse around her; woodwork, glass and wrought iron. Miraculously, her wheelchair cushioned her from the shock and she managed to escape with a few deep wounds in her legs. In...