"I never thought you could receive an honor for doing something so fun," Prosper Assouline confided in the minutes before he was knighted into the Ordre des Arts and Lettres at Sotheby's last Wednesday. But surely the honor, which recognizes those who have "significantly contributed to the enrichment of the French cultural inheritance," befits the publisher of such famed illustrated books as The Proust Questionnaire and the recent Windows of Bergdorf Goodman. If anything, the son of a Moroccan hairdresser, who runs one of the few remaining independent publishing companies with his wife, Martine, was destined to receive the prize: it was founded on May 2, 1957, exactly one day after the future publishing magnate was born. Some of the better known past recipients of this honor include Vanessa Paradis, Kylie Minogue, Bob Dylan, Yohji Yamamoto, T.S. Eliot, and - last but not least - George Clooney.
The ceremony was small and intimate, consisting mostly of Prosper's closest friends and colleagues the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, David Lauren, Linda Fargo, Eva Lorenzotti, Diandra Douglas and Marvin Traub. Prosper's longtime friend, architect Thierry Despont, presented him with the famed green and white medal. Both Thierry's tribute and Prosper's acceptance speech were en Francais; accordingly, there was a program that translated the speeches for those of us less than fluent.
Towards the end of his speech, Mr. Despont quoted Mr. Frederic Mitterand, the French Minister of Culture, who recently said, "this is a medal that you do not ask for, that you do not refuse and that you do not wear." Despont then turned to his closest friend with a play on that declaration: "You did not ask for it, you deserve it, you do not refuse it and Martine will wear it for you, for she also deserves it." With those words, Despont concluded the tribute, and affixed the medal on the left lapel of Mr. Assouline's jacket. At least for the evening, Prosper Assouline was going to wear the badge of honor after all.