The film begins with a newsreel montage, depicting celebrities of the turn of the 20th century such as Harry Houdini, Theodore Roosevelt and the architect Stanford White (Norman Mailer), as well as life in New York City. The newsreel is accompanied by ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.). The millionaire industrialist Harry Kendall Thaw (Robert Joy), makes a scene when White's latest creation, a nude statue on the roof of Madison Square Garden, is unveiled. The model for the statue is Evelyn Nesbit (Elizabeth McGovern), a former chorus girl who is now Thaw's wife. Thaw becomes convinced White has corrupted Evelyn and humiliated him, and publicly shoots White, killing him.