They were quite the odd couple – a dour middle-aged frontiersman with a spotted military history and an upstart teenage Frenchman who grew up with princes and loved to think the best of everyone and everything.
But it was thanks in large part to their affectionate and dedicated partnership that two revolutions succeeded in changing the world in the late 18th century.
And two countries – another May-December combo at the time – developed a rocky friendship that has survived two world wars, one nuclear age, and an outbreak of Freedom Fries.
Not that George Washington had high hopes when he first met the Marquis de Lafayette. In For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette and Their Revolutions, a fresh and engaging new look at the pair, the American general declares himself to be "mightily perplexed" about what to do with the buoyant 19-year-old Frenchman.
Washington saw "that terrible combination of very little experience with grand and excited ideas about his prospects … a pushy French teenager would seem the last problem Washington needed," writes James R. Gaines in his revealing new history. But our first president ended up having second thoughts about that first impression. Besides becoming his best friend, Lafayette served as an effective general for the American side and helped convince the French king to provide financial help to the needy Americans.
It was ultimately a bad decision for the king, whose largess led to bankruptcy and ultimately sent heads rolling, including his own. But Lafayette's love affair with the US – he adored its "youth and majesty" – helped ignite a near-permanent mutual admiration society between the two countries.
(Not that there weren't some kinks now and then. Back during the Revolutionary War, some South Carolinians thought of the French as an "almost dwarfish" nation of poorly dressed frog-eaters. On the other hand, a Frenchman warned Lafayette that Americans were the product of "fanaticism, the insatiable desire to get rich and misery." Mon dieu!)
As for their own friendship, Lafayette and Washington shared high-born backgrounds and desires to attain glory and honor, which back then had a lot to do with public reputation and historical staying power. There's another word for their guiding force: ambition.
Mr. Gaines, a Paris resident and former managing editor of People, Life, and Time magazines, has clearly spent years studying his two subjects. The bibliography alone sprawls over a dozen pages.
So much research often leads to notebook-emptying, and Gaines fills too many pages with less-than-fascinating topics like infighting within the top ranks of the American Revolutionary Army. At times, Washington and Lafayette disappear amid the complicated double history of the revolutions.
Fortunately, Gaines has a dry sense of humor and an appreciation for human foibles, making him a fine companion even during the slower parts of "For Liberty and Glory." The American founding fathers, in particular, come across as extraordinary men with ordinary obsessions and – surprise! – senses of humor.
Washington, for example, frets about getting a silver tea set from France and grumbles when Lafayette fails to write. John Adams thinks it would be nice to call the new American president "His Most Benign Highness," an idea that Thomas Jefferson deliciously calls "the most superlatively ridiculous thing I ever heard of."
And, in a story reminiscent of Calvin Coolidge's supposed response ("You lose") to a woman who tried to get him to say just three words, Alexander Hamilton dares a colleague to slap the chilly Washington on the shoulder in greeting; the general removed the offending hand and stared icily at the offender.
On the French side, there are even more strange characters, including a spy named the Chevalier D'Eon, a man in woman's clothing who could duel with the best of them, and Pierre Beaumarchais, the creator of the character "Figaro" and a crucial player in the French Revolution.
For his part, Lafayette is a loving father and husband (never mind the mistress), attracted to a new philosophy called mesmerism that created influential concepts like animal magnetism. Nearly universally loved, the most famous Frenchman of his time – other than the doomed king – named his son after his father figure, one George Washington.
Nowadays, Lafayette is mostly forgotten in the US, although an American military officer movingly invoked his name at his tomb after a landing in France during World War I ("Lafayette, we are here!") and his name graces a park across the street from the White House.
Sept. 6 will mark the 250th anniversary of Lafayette's birth – an event unlikely to be much noted in the US. Today, Americans of every political stripe protest their government at Lafayette Park, but most never glance at the statue of an aristocrat-turned-revolutionary. If they did, they'd see a man who proclaimed that the world relied on America to "stand a lesson to oppressors, an example to the oppressed, [and] a sanctuary for the rights of mankind."
In other words, Lafayette saw exactly the kind of America so many of the protesters are hoping to ensure.
• Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.