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May Arida, aristocrat, cultural icon, philanthropist and humanitarian, was the very incarnation of Lebanon’s golden era, when the country became the cradle of civilisations, and a buzzing centre of culture, elegance, and sophistication.
Her legacy will forever be entwined with the famous Baalbek International Festival, a magical event that continues today, where East meets West, and to which she was passionately dedicated and presided over for sixty years.
May was undoubtedly Beirut’s most beautiful and photographed hostess, a famous name not just in Lebanon, but also around the world. An accomplished sportswoman and president of the Lebanese Water Skiing Federation from 1953 until 1961, she married young in 1942, to the aristocratic Ibrahim Sursock, a member of one on Lebanon’s most prominent families. The dashing newlyweds set sail for Paris, New York, and London. The world capitulated to the dazzling May. Dressed in Dior and with wit, beauty, and elegance, she became an integral part of the frenetic social scene which erupted after the close of WWII: the Beistegui, de Rothschild, de Redé Balls, and the Shah and Shabanu’s coronation to name but a few glamorous events.
By 1950, May had separated from her first husband and married Carlos Arida, an important Lebanese industrialist and aviation enthusiast. The fashionable couple travelled the world meeting friends including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Kings Hussein of Jordan and Farouk of Egypt, Jean Paul Sartre and Howard Hughes. It was Hughes who encouraged them to pursue Carlos’ dream of creating an airline. In this enterprise May’s help was crucial, and Arida’s Lebanese International Airways (LIA) was born.
It was during one of her sojourns in London visiting her cousin Zelfa, wife of Camille Chamoun, the Lebanese Ambassador and future president of Lebanon, that May observed his political aspirations, and the dream he wanted to achieve once elected as the head of the country – to organise a special event to promote culture and tourism.
This would specifically take place in the grand and historic setting of Baalbeck. The idea was still in its infancy, but Chamoun counted on May Arida’s talent and efforts to converge artistic activities.
Beginning in 1955, the festival was a triumph and the Aridas also played a pivotal role in transforming Lebanon into a travel destination, flying European Royals, artists, and distinguished society friends into the Baalbek Festival.
The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) paralysed the activities of the Festival, but May remained in constant contact with most of the artists who participated and wished to return. And thanks to her tenacity and personal friendships with these artists, the festival experienced a rebirth after the war, continuing from 1997, the marvellous legacy of dialogue between cultures, that brought to the country a constellation of international stars such as Nureyev, Fonteyn, Rostropovich, Karajanas. Her work with the festival also helped to showcase and export Lebanese talent abroad. She was president of the festival from from 1973 until 2018.
She was honoured numerous times for her contribution to arts and humanitarian activities, including the Gold Medal of Lebanese Merit in 1976, Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in 1978, Commander of National Order of Cedars in 2000, Commander of the Star of the Italian Solidarity in 2005 and Commander of the Order Isabel la Católica in 2009.
Sotheby’s are honoured to be offering some of her jewelry in our upcoming Magnificent Jewels and Noble Jewels sale on 15 November 2018.