It’s September 2013. Preparations at the French Embassy are underway for U.N. General Assembly week, and I am told that the minister of foreign and European affairs, Laurent Fabius, will be decorating Philip Roth as Commander of the Legion of Honor at the groundbreaking ceremony for Albertine, a new French bookshop on Fifth Avenue.
I am put in touch with Andrew Wylie, Roth’s agent, who shares his contact details. A phone number. It rings, and Roth picks up. He surely has better things to do than talk shop and logistics for this official ceremony, I think. I’m 29, timid, bashful, and nervous. I begin to rush through the details.
“I will need your guest list, the contact information for every guest, whom do I approve the invitation with, how long would you like to speak, the Minister offers his remarks, pins the medal on you, awkward kisses, you should prepare a response…”
He cuts me off.
“Ms. Katz, I do not know you, but we will become well-acquainted over the next few weeks. I will only correspond with you. Via fax and phone. Understood?”
“Here are the rules of the game, Ms. Katz. Do you have a fax machine? Is it in your office? Will you be sure to be the person receiving my messages?”
“It is not in my office but I promise to wait for the messages and receive them personally.”
“Good,” he answered. “Will be in touch.” He hangs up.
The next three weeks were filled with the absurd hustle of diplomatic telegrams and endless logistical meetings related to the upcoming U.N. General Assembly week. Meanwhile, I spent my days racing down the hall of the Embassy to receive Roth’s faxes, each of which was preceded by a polite phone call.
“Are you there?” he would ask. “My fax is on the way. GO.”
I would run. The paper would emerge through the machine with the message. “Please confirm that “so and so” is on the list.”
The phone rings again.
“Did you get it?”
Sometimes the message would be a request to check that a guest was duly listed. Bob Silvers. Don DeLillo. Each new name required a renewed charge down the polished hallway, followed by pleasantries on the phone. A little check that another human was at the other end of the fax machine. Only I would do. So I found a new friend, if we can call it that, through a machine that had become extinct nearly before I was born.
The 27th of September finally arrived, and there he was. An American legend, the ultimate master of irony and self-deprecation, who, as The New York Times noted yesterday in its homage, so “irritated the rabbis” (my father is a rabbi, so this was particularly appealing to me) for his ventures into vulgarity and redefinitions of Jewish identity, virility, fragility. There he was. He was delightful.
I escorted him upstairs to the cultural counselor’s office. There were polite exchanges among diplomats. Some Champagne. A few cigarettes. Everyone was so impressed by this slight, commanding figure.
Someone breaks the silence to fill the air and offers up an unnecessary question. Had everything gone smoothly in the planning of this grand moment where Roth would become a Commandeur? He turns and looks directly at me with a touch of charm, a twinkle of mischief, and says, “We had fun, n’est-ce pas?”
The ceremony with all its formality proceeds. Laurent Fabius delivers a speech explaining that this award is the most distinguished and highest honor that France can bestow. It was created by Napoleon, and only those to whom the nation is truly indebted receive it. On a velvet pillow the heavy medal is presented, glistening with a satin red ribbon. Everyone applauds as if on cue. The medal is lifted and the Minister begins “Au nom du Président de la République et en vertu des pouvoirs…”
Suddenly, the medal falls to the ground. A few seconds of awkward silence follow. People begin to laugh. Roth smiles happily, as if he had orchestrated the entire moment. Which somehow, he had.
Emily Hamilton (Katz) was the Director of Development and Communications at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States from 2011 to 2016.