When the McKinleys first met, Ida was a great beauty, rich and headstrong and somewhat spoiled, but McKinley didn't notice. He was a Civil War veteran just starting out as a lawyer. One year after they married, Ida gave birth to a baby girl, Kate, who was said to look much like her father. But Kate died when she was only four, and a second child lived only five months. Ida never really recovered. In recent years she had grown exceedingly nervous and only the president seemed able to settle her down.
New Year's Day, however, as the receiving party moved into place, the press noted that Mrs. McKinley's face was flushed with pleasure. She loved these state occasions. For all the talk about the democratic spirit, there was widespread fascination in 1900 with the American equivalent of court life and the prerogatives of privilege. Newspapers around the country carried in detail exquisite descriptions of the women's gowns, their jewels, the feathered aigrettes worn by congressional wives, the spangled black net dress worn by Mrs. Elihu Root, the wife of the new secretary of the War Department--all was news.
The popular Russian ambassador, the Count de Cassini, arrived monocled and pomaded in a fur-trimmed tunic and high, polished boots. He was, as usual, accompanied by the mysterious and exotic eighteen-year-old, Mlle Marguerite Cassini. Marguerite served as the ambassador's official hostess and was the subject of great capital gossip. She was always presented as Cassini's beloved niece, when in fact she was his daughter. The Chinese minister, Wu Ting Fang, said to be the cleverest and wittiest after-dinner speaker, appeared in a hat of green and crimson silk, while his elegant wife wore a headdress of black, held in place with magnificent diamond pins. It would be a difficult year for the minister.
The president greeted the large American military contingent led by General Nelson Miles, the commander of the army. McKinley knew full well that Admiral Dewey, the small and truculent hero of Manila Bay, was furious that he had not been placed at the head of the line, but the president refused to break with tradition. Protocol required naval officers to follow the army, and the admiral found himself in the wake of the youngest army lieutenant in line. The president was bemused by Dewey's discomfort. There was little love between the two and there would be less before the year was over.
After Alexander Graham Bell and his friend Samuel Langley, the inventor of a fantastic flying machine, had paid their respects, Mrs. McKinley, clearly fatigued, retired to the cramped private quarters on the second floor. The mansion now had electric lighting, a steam heating system, bathtubs with hot and cold running water, an elevator, and a few telephones. But the house had been built as the home and office for the president of a small republic. The country had expanded but the White House had not. The second floor was a jumble--the presidential offices and the McKinleys' private quarters were side by side. Ida rather liked the arrangement. Her husband was seldom out of her sight.
Eleven secretaries meandered through the halls, often working into the night, and sometimes on Sunday. Next to the telegraph room, the map room, and secretarial offices lay the president's office and the oval library. Down the corridor were five bedrooms, two dressing rooms, and one full bath. In the presidential bedroom, where Mrs. McKinley spent much of her time crocheting, stood two brass postered beds beneath a portrait of Kate. The family dining room and kitchen were on the first floor of the house and officially out of bounds to all but family and personal staff, but aides regularly had to shoo tourists away.
Tradition required American presidents to remain accessible to the people, and every weekday McKinley was in Washington hundreds of citizens arrived expecting to meet him. In the great East Room, where Mrs. John Adams had once dried the family wash, they gaped at the crystal chandeliers and frayed upholstery and hoped for a casual chat with the president himself. McKinley was a cordial man who seemed to enjoy his role as national host. On New Year's Day, as the official guests were heading off to private receptions, the general public was finally admitted for a presidential smile and handshake. Two hours later, when McKinley left the Blue Room and headed up the stairs to join his wife, aides noted he had greeted 3,354 people.
Copyright © 1998 Judy Crichton.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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