Lady Cochrane obituary: Glamorous jet-setter who joined the Anglo-Irish elite
Yvonne Sursock died from injuries sustained in the Beirut port explosion last month
Lady Cochrane died from injuries sustained in the Beirut port blast on August 4th.
Born: May 18th, 1922
Died: August 31st, 2020
Lady Cochrane, as Yvonne Sursock was universally known in Lebanon, was the daughter of Alfred Bey Sursock, a Christian dignitary of the Ottoman Empire whose family amassed a fortune as grain merchants, and Maria Serra de Cassano, the daughter of a Neapolitan duke.
Yvonne Sursock grew up an only child in Sursock Palace, in the old Achrafieh quarter above Beirut port. Her father’s elder sister Isabelle, a rich and beautiful widow who had lost her own children, was a sort of surrogate mother to Alfred, Maria and Yvonne.
“My mother always said that the happiest times of her life were when she was a little girl living in the palace in Beirut with her many aunts,” said Sir Marc Cochrane, a financier and the eldest of Lady Cochrane’s four children.
Lady Cochrane studied at Les Oiseaux, a French school in southern England. The British author William Dalrymple interviewed her for his book about Christians in the Middle East and described her “old-fashioned upper-class accent, the ‘r’s slurred almost into ‘w’s”. She was fluent in Italian, French and Lebanese Arabic.
She met Desmond Cochrane, a scion of the Anglo-Irish Cochrane family who served with the British army in Cairo, when he went on holiday to Beirut at the end of the second World War, with an introduction to the Sursocks. He and Yvonne fell in love and were married by an Irish British army padre at the Catholic cathedral in Beirut in January 1946.
Cochrane’s grandfather Henry founded the Cantrell & Cochrane (C&C) company, which earned a fortune through ginger ale and mineral water. Henry Cochrane was made a baronet in 1903. Desmond, as a second son, did not expect to inherit the title and wealth. But his older brother Henry, who fought with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, was killed in a road accident on the way back from the second World War.
“It was a very happy period for them both, because they were creating something,” said Sir Marc. “They led the carefree life of the Ascendancy. She met a lot of Anglo-Irish friends, including the Guinnesses, Dunsanys and Gouldings.”
“Ireland in 1952 was a wonderful place if you had income from abroad,” said Alfred Cochrane, the couple’s second son, an architect in Ireland. “There was a haberdashery shop in Bray called Leeds where my mother bought wonderful fabrics. We spent Christmases and summers at Woodbrook. My mother thought Irene Gilbert was a great designer, and she commissioned work from a Breton sculptor called Yann Renard-Goulet. She loved the artistic life.”
As Ireland’s honorary consul in Beirut, Desmond Cochrane helped Irish businesses develop trade opportunities throughout the Middle East. The family entertained lavishly, in Beirut, at Woodbrook and in London and Paris. Glamour is a word often associated with Lady Cochrane. “My mother had the clothes. She had the jewellery. She had the house,” Alfred said. “She had everything, and she was unbelievably glamorous. Among the jet-set aristocracy in Europe, she was recognised as such.”
The writer Philippe Jullian, a friend of the Cochranes, published a book called The Snob Spotter’s Guide in 1958. “He said if you want to be a really glamorous jet-setter, you had to have breakfast with the Maharaja of Jaipur, lunch with Desmond and Lady Cochrane in Beirut, and dinner with the duchess of Alba in Seville,” Alfred Cochrane recalled. “My parents were attractive and fun and spoke languages. We gave the best parties in Beirut because my father, being Irish, knew how to give parties.”
Both Marc and Alfred describe their mother as a strict disciplinarian. “My parents went out every night,” Alfred Cochrane recalled. “She was always late because she made certain we did our maths homework first.”
Lady Cochrane found a vocation in the preservation of Lebanon’s heritage. As president of the Association for the Protection of Natural Sites and Ancient Homes in Lebanon for 42 years, she fought to save traditional Lebanese villages as well as Ottoman and French architectural treasures. She was also a co-founder of the world-famous Baalbeck festival and the Jeunesses Musicales du Liban.
Lady Cochrane “had a very strong personality”, said Sir Marc. “She didn’t tolerate fools gladly. She was not skilled in the art of diplomacy. She was uncompromising, and she found it difficult sometimes to get things done, because she angered a lot of people. That was the warrior side of her personality. Sadly for all concerned, this attitude also affected her relationship with her husband and four children.”
The Cochranes separated in the 1960s. Sir Desmond moved to Cyprus. Lady Cochrane nonetheless wore black chiffon and mourned him when he died in 1979.
Lady Cochrane refused to leave Beirut, even in the worst days of the 1975-1990 civil war. “She thought if she left she might never be able to come back,” said Alfred. “She adored Lebanon but she was heartbroken by the way the Lebanese were destroying it.”
Lady Cochrane was born just two years after the French proclaimed the État du Grand Liban in 1920, and died on the eve of the centenary of its creation, when many were predicting the death of the country. She seemed to personify the splendour of a rich and long-lost Orient. Her father had employed hungry workers during the 1915-18 famine to build the Résidence des Pins, which became the centre of French rule. Even the vehemence of her family feuds might be seen as symbolic of Lebanon.
Lady Cochrane died from injuries sustained when 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut port on August 4th. She had been one of the first to dismiss Lebanon’s political class as crooks and scoundrels. Her children contemplated writing “no politicians allowed” on her funeral announcement. When a representative of the Lebanese president showed up with a giant wreath and a posthumous National Order of the Cedar medal, he was collared by her grandson Patrick. “You killed my grandmother,” he said.
She is survived by sons Marc, Alfred and Roderick, daughter Isabelle, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.