You’ve seen this happen before. A great writer takes the stage to talk about his new book – The Great American novel or the Great American meltdown circa 2008. He opens his mouth, you wait, you wait, you doze and time drags on until you get to the book signing. Great writers do not always make good oral storytellers.
Not so this past Friday at the Arader Gallery on Madison, when Mark Leepson, took us on a magical tour through his new biography of the Marquise de Lafayette, titled "Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General". A blend of big stage history, amusing anecdotes, and doses of poignancy, Leepson spun a fascinating tale of this remarkable figure of the American Revolution.
Mark Leepson bought that all to life for the twenty or so lucky people who gathered on a dreary rainy, Friday night. Tell you the truth, I wasn’t really expecting much - dry colonial history on a wet night in NY. But an hour never went by so fast.
Every American school child has heard the outlines of this story before. A young, wealthy, aristocrat crosses the seas in defiance of French royal edict in pursuit of glory and battle. He bravely leads colonial troops uses his influence in the French court to gain critical support for the colonies against the British. What you don’t get a sense from the schoolbooks is how much he loved the 13 Colonies and how much that love was returned by the American people. On his tour of America in 1824-25, he was welcomed by massive crowds in every town that he visited retracing memorable events and battles of the Revolutionary War and greeted with a fervor that befits one of the true fathers of our country.
To this day a US flag and French tricolor fly over his grave in France, and every July 4th, a gathering of French and American dignitaries including the US ambassador gather at the grave site to pay tribute to this hero of both sides of the Atlantic. The French military band plays the Star Spangled Banner and then Le Marseillaise in what must truly be a moving experience and a reflection of the deep debt of gratitude we owe France - something that is easy to forget. Like Gus Grissom said in the Right Stuff - no bucks, no Buck Rogers. No French, no revolution. Full disclosure - Mark didn't use that bit of pop culture.
One interesting fact among many was that at the pivotal Battle of Yorktown, there were more Frenchmen fighting (on land and sea) then there were colonials. He also let drop that in addition to Lafayette only six foreigners have ever been given US citizenship by act of congress. Mother Teresa was another. For the rest you figure it out or buy the book.
Credit to Walter Arader for pulling this together and the folks at Kaller Historical Documents for bringing some amazing historical documents (a Declaration of Independence printed in Boston in July 1776) and signed letters by Lafayette, George Washington and other giants. And check out the book. Haven’t read it yet, but if it’s anything like the talk it will be a can’t-put-it-down kind of a book.