From Empire, by Gore Vidal, 1987. (Novel 4 in the 7-novel "Narratives of Empire" series.)
Empire, set in 1898-1907, concerns American politics, journalism, and manners in the age of Presidents William McKinley and Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt. Caroline Sanford, the granddaughter of the narrator of Burr and 1876, Charlie Schuyler, is a principal character, along with her half-brother Blaise, as are several important historical personae.
Caroline recalled a precocious girl at Allenswood who had actually been seduced. The girl's highly secret report to Caroline, her best friend, was the only firsthand account that Caroline had ever received from that strange country where men and women committed the ultimate act. Although Caroline had pressed for specific details (the statuary in the Louvre had created a number of confusions, those leaves), the girl had been, maddeningly, spiritual in her report. She spoke of Love, a subject that always mystified, when it did not annoy, Caroline; and could not be persuaded to tear the leaf from the mystery. But the girl had described the transformation in the young man's face from the archangel that she saw to satyr or, a kindly second thought, wild animal, and how the face, all scarlet one moment, went gray-white, with exhaustion or whatever, the next.
Occasionally, Colonel Astor would come out on the verandah and gaze, rather bewilderedly, at his wife. He was an eccentric man, with a full moustache and bald forehead that receded in agreeable sympathy with his chin. He was happiest, it was said, on his yacht, the Nourmahal, away from Mrs. Jack. Since Mrs. [Alva Vanderbilt] Belmont had so fiercely blazed an exciting new path through the wilderness of society, the sword of not Excalibur but divorce in her hand, it was now, for the first time, conceivable that even an Astor might get a divorce. Admittedly, the Vanderbilts were still a number of rungs beneath the Astors on the gilded ladder, but what Alva Vanderbilt Belmont had done Ava Willard Astor might also do.
Lord Pauncefote joined them, having no doubt exhausted Helen Hay with his notorious and habitual long answers to questions not put to him.
[President McKinley,] stood in the doorway, large and serene, eyes glowing with--was it opium he was supposed to take? In his left silk lapel he wore a pink carnation, to set off Ida's pink roses. Caroline got up from her chair and curtseyed. The President crossed to her; he took her hand and, gently, seated her again. The low and beautiful voice was as rustic as Ida's but without the canting nasality. "I'm glad you could come, Miss Sanford. Sit down, Mr. Hay. Ida . . ." Fondly, he touched his wife's face; fondly, she kissed his hand. Caroline noted how pale each was. But then he had nearly died of pneumonia after the New Year's reception, and she had had a nervous collapse the previous summer. Caroline tried to imagine what it was like to be at the head of such a vigorous, loud nation; and failed.
Lunch was as simple and as enormous as the President's dove-gray waistcoated paunch, which began very high indeed on his frame and curved outward, keeping him from ever sitting close to table, which accounted, no doubt, for the single shamrock-shaped gravy stain on the black frock-coat that hung in perpendicular folds to left and right of the huge autonomous belly, like theater curtains drawn to revel the spectacle. Quail was followed by porterhouse steak which preceded broiled chicken, each course accompanied by a variety of hot bread--wheat muffins, corn sticks, toast, and butter. Butter flowed over everything, and the Major [President McKinley] ate everything while Ida picked at this and that.
[The President] smiled at Caroline, and she was struck, yet again, by the beauty of his plain face. Over the years, goodness of character had transformed what might otherwise have been a dull, somewhat bovine appearance into an almost god-like radiance--almost because, unlike most gods, there was no fury, no malice, no envy of mortal happiness in William McKinley, only a steady radiant kindness, like a comforting nimbus about that great head, whose rounded chin reflected the afternoon sunlight, thanks to the butter with which it was, like some sacred balm, anointed.
[Governor "Teddy"] Roosevelt had taken Blaise's left elbow into his right hand, a curious gesture which might seem a demonstration of intimacy or at least good feeling to an observer, but to the victim...it was more like a gesture of physical control. [A]lthough the Governor was like a policeman, he was hardly the robust physical specimen that legend proclaimed. [H]e was simply rubbery, with an enormous head and neck.... The belly was definitely fat; the limbs were definitely thick but not muscular. [W]hen strangers asked to shake his hand and wish him well, he would flash those huge rock-like teeth and exclaim, in three distinct syllables, "Dee-light-ed!"
Image: "Our Martyred President - William McKinley." American Stereoscopic Company. Copyright 1901 by R. Y. Young. You can view this item here on the website of 3-D-antiques.net.
Video: "Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt Leaving the White House in 1897." American Mutoscope Co. You can view the film here on the American Memory website of the Library of Congress.