Marie Nugent-Head Marlas, Chevalier of the Legion of Honor
New York, May 15, 2014
It is such a pleasure and privilege for me to be with you tonight on this very special occasion, as we are gathered here this evening to honor Marie Nugent-Head Marlas – a tireless advocate for culture on both sides of the Atlantic, an exceptional philanthropist and an outstanding individual.
I would like to extend a warm welcome to Marie’s family and friends who have joined us here this evening to show their support and admiration. With a special word of appreciation to her husband Jim, a great friend of France, to whom I also want to pay tribute tonight, and to her children and grandchildren. Your presence means so much to Marie. It is good to see so many friends and leading francophiles, Bob and Elizabeth Wilmer, Elizabeth Stribling, Leonard Lauder - I wish I could mention each and every one of you by name.
Chers amis, the Legion of Honor that I will bestow upon Marie in a few minutes was created in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte to reward extraordinary accomplishments and outstanding services rendered to France, based on a decision taken by the President of the French Republic.
It is France’s highest award and one of the most coveted in the world.
Marie and Jim and many of you are key players in the Franco-American friendship and let me start by saying that French-American relations, and this is good news, have never been stronger than they are today, as illustrated by President Hollande’s very successful state visit to the United States three months ago.
Speaking of state visit, it reminds me of that of President Kennedy to Paris back in the 1960’s (…).
Well, the same President Kennedy once expressed a sentiment that reminds me of Marie’s work in philanthropy. He said – and I quote : "The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose ... and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization." - end of quote.
Chère Marie, you have both united and improved our French and American civilizations. From cinema to opera and ballet, you have brought France and America together in a joint effort to better our world. You approach philanthropy with a curator’s eye, an artist’s heart and an energy that is second to none. You are a woman of vision and action, a real doer. You are one of the very few French individuals who has a transformative impact here in New York. Your reach extends throughout this city and you have invigorated so many cultural institutions with a special flair for French-American culture.
At New York City Ballet, your masterful fundraising helped transform a classic institution into a modern artistic powerhouse. You raised more than one hundred million dollars during your eleven years as the company’s Director of Development, and have then been very active on its Board.
This evening, we are fortunate to have been joined by so many excellent friends and board members of New York City Ballet, including its executive director, Kathy Brown.
Chère Marie, you played an instrumental role in bringing New York City Ballet to Paris in 2008. Years later, in 2012, you brought Paris to New York as Chairman of the Gala à la française. Fellow chairmen Charlotte Moss and Barry Friedberg, along with Jim, of course, are here this evening.
Together you mounted a celebration of French dance at the David H. Koch theater featuring two world premieres: the first, a Peter Martins ballet with music by French composer Marc-André Dalbavie, and the second, a new ballet by Benjamin Millepied. The evening included a major revival of Balanchine’s Symphony in C, which was created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947 to a score by Bizet. This work embodies French-American exchange, and Marie played a key role in sharing this seminal moment with a New York City audience.
Your commitment to the dance world is also demonstrated through your devotion to the American Friends of the Paris Opera & Ballet, a cause close to your heart. And I am glad that Olivia Flatto can be with us this evening with Adam.
As we can see, you are so much more than a supporter, you are an engaged activist for cultural causes. This same energy you have brought to New York’s premier institutions and to French-American organizations such as the French Institute / Alliance Française, you spread throughout your home country, especially to the hills of Provence and the Mediterranean.
As a member of the Association of American Friends of the Lyric Art Festival, you have transformed the festival’s image, increased the number of its partners and raised significant funds. In addition, the group, now called the International Friends of the Aix Festival, reflects your inclusive and cosmopolitan spirit.
As far as film is concerned, you make your mark in Nîmes. You co-founded the summer film festival called Un réalisateur dans la ville, showcasing the work of the greatest filmmakers with free entry and outdoor screenings. Your artistic vision has been praised by Carole Bouquet and Gérard Depardieu, not to mention the mayor of Nimes and many others.
In this respect I would like to acknowledge your profound respect for our national heritage and monuments. You are so passionate about this subject that you and Jim renovated a magnificent 18th-century château where you host discussions on culture and politics. If you need an Ambassador there, I volunteer.
Your commitment extends from Nîmes to the Château of Vaux le Vicomte, where you created an American Friends group to preserve this extraordinary example of French architecture. And you have facilitated the use of this château, which has special meaning for your family, for educational programs with FIAF and the Ballet.
Let me give you another example of Marie’s commitment. In 2007, Bob and Elisabeth Wilmers founded the Partner University Fund, which promotes academic and research partnerships at the graduate and post-doctoral levels and supports more than 1,500 students annually.
Its impact is quite extraordinary. To give you just one example, I recently awarded a Legion of Honor medal to the 2013 Nobel laureate in Medicine, James Rothman, who had received a PUF grant for his fundamental research with French labs – and that research led to the Nobel Prize.
And here again, Marie, you acted as a sound advisor to the program and guided the Embassy’s team through a real strategic planning process.
I could give you endless examples of the organizations touched by Marie’s goodwill and global-mindedness. I think of her support for French-American Aid of Children, which is very well represented tonight (Marguerite Mangin, Odile de Schiétère-Longchampt, Stanley Weisman), the Fondation Foch and the Tolstoy Foundation, whose mission to respect human dignity is more pressing than ever.
Chère Marie, you are a true grande dame, a wonderful and worldclass ambassador of French elegance. And your work has made a difference in many fields.
So tonight, Chère Marie, on behalf of the President of the French republic, and in recognition of your exemplary commitment to the arts and to the French-American friendship, it is my privilege to bestow upon you the insignia of “Chevalier” in the Legion of Honor.
Marie Nugent-Head Marlas, au nom du Président de la République, et en vertu des pouvoirs qui nous sont conférés, nous vous faisons Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.