Michael Kahn, Dick Lugar honored by Queen Elizabeth with Order of the British Empire

They didn’t get an audience with Queen Elizabeth II, but two locals got a nice present from the British monarch: A diplomatic honor.

michael kahn's medal_image_982w Michael Kahn wearing his Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) (Kevin Allen)

In the past week, former Sen. Dick Lugar and Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Michael Kahn both received the Order of the British Empire, a honor for chivalry established in 1917. It’s rare for Americans — only about eight are presented every year.

Tuesday’s investiture ceremony for Kahn was surprisingly simple: A handful of friends gathered in British Embassy, with brief remarks by Ambassador Peter Westmacott and even shorter thank-yous from the honoree. It’s not every day “an American boy from Brooklyn” gets one of these, said a beaming Kahn.

The decoration — gold and blue enamel on a coral ribbon — was presented in a box, then placed around Kahn’s neck. There’s a mini version, too, although everyone was a little fuzzy on when and how to show it off. “It’s very beautiful, but I can’t wear it anywhere,” Kahn joked after the ceremony. Then he brightened: “I can wear it around the house.”

Kahn received a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE); five days earlier, Lugar got a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (KBE), the next rank up. Both are honorary awards because they’re not British subjects; they can’t use the title “Sir,” but can put the initials after their names and wear the medal at white-tie events.

British Ambassador Peter Westmacott with former senator Dick Luger at his ceremony last week. (Carrie Dorean/For the British Embassy) British Ambassador Peter Westmacott with former senator Dick Lugar at his ceremony last week. (Carrie Dorean/For the British Embassy)

So, how does a Yank get one of these? Some countries hand out honors like lollypops, but the Brits are pretty strict about the recipients: Colin Powell, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, Rudolf Giuliani, Billy Graham and Alan Greenspan have a KBE; Kevin Spacey and former Folger Library head Gail Kern Paster have a CBE.

Lugar told us he was surprised two months ago when Westmacott informed him of the honor. “It was completely out of the blue,” he said. Officially, Lugar was recognized for forging the US-UK defense alliance; unofficially, the fact that he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and continues to raise money for the university’s Pembroke College probably didn’t hurt.

Kahn was cited for his 25 years as artistic director for the Shakespeare Theatre, bringing the Bard to Americans and employing all those British actors and directors. Donors Bill and Dorothy McSweeny were having dinner with former British ambassador Nigel Sheinwald two years and “we were just saying how much Michael has done,” Bill McSweeny told us. “And the idea just took off. Everyone wanted to do it.”

WASHINGTON DC - APRIL 23 - HANDOUT IMAGE: Michael Kahn is congratulated by Lady Westmacott after his Investiture Tuesday night. (Carrie Dorean For the British Embassy ) Michael Kahn is congratulated by Lady Westmacott after his Investiture Tuesday night. (Carrie Dorean For the British Embassy)

Two years later, with approval from the palace, an investiture on April 23— Shakespeare’s birthday and St. George’s Day, the patron saint of England. Can’t get much more British than that.

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Amy Argetsinger · April 24, 2013