Yves-André Istel, bestowed of the insignia of Commandeur of the Legion of Honor
Ladies and gentlemen,
It’s a great pleasure and privilege for me to welcome you here tonight to the French Consulate, a place that is dear to my heart, and I want to thank our excellent Consul General Bertrand Lortholary for hosting us.
We have gathered here this evening to honor our friend Yves-André Istel, one of the most respected investment bankers in New York and beyond, but also a unique bridge between the United States and France and an outstanding individual, whose commitment to the community is truly an example.
I would like to extend a warm welcome to Yves-André’s family and friends who have joined us here this evening to express their support and admiration. With a special word of appreciation to your wife Kathleen Begala, to whom I also want to pay tribute today, and to your children and grand-children.
Nearly every sphere is represented this evening, which says a lot about the diversity of Yves-André’s friendships: politics, with Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan –it’s a great honor to have you with us this evening – and the very well-known political consultant Paul Begala ; the literary world, with Robert Silvers, Editor of the New York Review of Books, Robert Caro, Robert Paxton, Jeannette Seaver and many others.
the worlds of business and law, with many of you – and here I want to greet François Sureau, who has come especially from Paris with some relatives to be here with us tonight ; and of course the art world, with Barbaralee Diamondstein-Spielvogel, Adelaïde and Christophe de Menil, our Cultural Counsellor Antonin Baudry, one of his predecessors Annie Cohen-Solal, the president of the French Institute-Alliance Française Marie-Monique Steckel –
and frankly I should mention each and everyone of you, but we would still be here tomorrow morning.
Before proceeding with the ceremony itself, let me say a few words about the distinction that I will bestow upon Yves-André Istel in a few minutes, because this is a very exceptional award.
The Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 to reward extraordinary accomplishments and outstanding services rendered to France, based on a personal decision by the President of the French Republic. It is France’s highest distinction and one of the most coveted in the world. Yves-André was named Officer in the Legion of Honor in 2001 and the President of France has decided to promote you to the rank of Commandeur, which is truly exceptional.
In the entire United States, you can probably count the number of Commanders on the fingers of one hand, and one of them is with us this evening, our dear friend Ezra Zilkha.
Dear Yves-André, you were born in Paris in 1936, and your parents, Yvonne and André Istel, emigrated to the United States when you were only four, in 1940, to escape Nazi occupation. Yet despite all the tragedy of that period, one of the darkest in my country’s history, you would remain faithful to France throughout your entire life. Both of your parents also did a lot for France.
Your father, an advisor to General de Gaulle who worked closely with Pierre Mendès-France, was himself promoted to the rank of Commander of the Legion of Honor, like you today.
It was therefore here in New York that you grew up and in the United States that you completed your brilliant studies in political science and economics, and graduated from the prestigious Princeton University.
A leading New York personality and brilliant entrepreneur, you are considered by one and all to be one of the top international experts on investment banking. You have lent your talents to the most eminent banks: Kuhn, Loeb, then one of the three leading Wall Street investment banks – at only 29 you became the youngest non-family partner in their history; Lehman Brothers, where you served as managing director; First Boston International, where you were co-chairman; and Wasserstein Perella International, where you were chairman.
All that before starting at Rothschild in 1993, where you served as vice chairman for nearly 10 years and continue to hold a key position as senior advisor.
In the words of Alain Minc, one of your closest friends – here I’m happy to acknowledge his son Thomas and Lily Hoagland – “you are an old-fashioned banker, who builds trust”.
When Saint-Gobain was looking to acquire Olivetti in the 80’s for example, both companies appointed you as their senior banker, which is extremely rare in business. This doesn’t prevent you from being a renowned expert in financial techniques: to give the audience just one example, a history book on the Eurobond market credits you with inventing the first public floating rate bond issue. And you were for many years a member of the New York Stock Exchange Advisory Committee on International Capital Markets.
In your various positions, you conducted and continue to conduct major operations in support of the activities of French corporations on American soil. In this regard, you are helping foster the French-American economic partnership, which is growing stronger every year.
You are as deeply French as you are deeply American, and as I said before that makes you a natural bridge between our two countries. For France, it would be a dream to have you as the American ambassador in Paris, and who knows?
You are a Renaissance man and are interested in all human endeavors, from business to culture, from the arts to philanthropy, from education to politics. And in all these fields, you have been a passionate promoter of all things French and of French-American cooperation and friendship. Let me give you just a few illustrations.
With Ambassador Lowenstein –who is with us this evening- and a few others, you co-founded the French-American Foundation, the principal non-governmental organization linking the United States and France. And here I am delighted to greet Allan Chapin and Charlie Kolb, chairman of the board and president of the Foundation, as well as Shannon Fairbanks, John Heimann and other members of the Foundation.
You are also Chairman of the Board of the European Institute, whose President Joëlle Attinger is with us tonight, member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Economic Club and I could go on.
On the economic front precisely, and beyond your activities as a top investment banker, you were the first vice president of the French-American Chamber of Commerce; member of the board of several major French companies like Richemont and Valeo; you have written many articles mostly about the state of the economy in leading French and American papers, and gave lectures and taught courses at New York University.
Dear Yves-André, you have always nurtured an unflagging passion for art and education. For more than 10 years, you’ve been doing an incredible job as chairman of New York University’s Center for French Civilization and Culture, and I am delighted to greet the director of the Center, Professor Tom Bishop, and the head of NYU’s Maison Française Francine Goldenhar. You also serve on the Advisory Council in the Department of French and Italian at Princeton, your alma mater.
And as a trustee of the French-American Cultural Exchange, you have actively contributed to the Cultural Services of the French Embassy’s program “French Voices”, which financially supports the translation and publication of contemporary French and Francophone works. Most recently, you also contributed significantly to the creation of the exhibition “Marcel Proust and Swann’s Way: 100th Anniversary”, a wonderful exhibition currently on view at the Morgan Library. I am very gratefully for this.
For an active man like yourself, “Inertia is the only mortal danger.” You will recognize, Cher Yves-André, the words of a beloved French poet and diplomat, Saint-John Perse, whose American journey so closely and personally reflects your own history.
You are the chairman of the Fondation Saint-John Perse in Aix-en Provence, a foundation that is particularly important to you and Kathleen and with which you are deeply involved. Your passion for poetry and literature can also be seen in your work with the Paris Review, with your wife, and I know you both particularly enjoy the company of writers.
On the charitable front, in 1985 you helped establish the American branch of Action contre la faim – Action Against Hunger, USA – and every year since, you have continued to support this organization on whose board you serve. In the same vein, with Kathleen, you are actively involved in Human Rights Watch, where Kathleen has held important positions. And it gives me great pleasure to welcome Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch.
I will not list all of your commitments to humanitarian causes, but I would simply like to pay tribute through these few examples to your generosity and big heart.
In your views, success is inseparable from serving others. Your children have followed in your footsteps in this regard, and they too give back to society. And I know you are very proud of this – and very proud of your children and grandchildren.
As a huge tennis fan –and, I’ve been told, a very good player- you like practicing with them at your home on Long Island.
On behalf of the President of France, and in recognition of your extraordinary commitment to French-American cooperation and friendship, it is a great privilege for me to now bestow upon you the insignia of Commander in the Legion of Honor.
Yves-André Istel, au nom du Président de la République et en vertu des pouvoirs qui me sont conférés, je vous fais Commandeur dans l’Ordre national de la Légion d’Honneur./.