Anne Royall was a professional, first and foremost — a point she had to keep reminding herself the morning she caught President John Quincy Adams swimming naked in the Potomac.
"Caught" might not be quite right, since she had planned it and followed him, waited in the woods while he disrobed and dove (rather gracefully for a man of politics) beneath the quicksilver surface. An onlooker might have found her pursuit romantic, the greenery lush about her, dappled with rosy light. But the widow Anne was sharp-tongued and ruthless and had been waiting for this a long time.
"You've forced me into this position, you realize," she called out to the shocked and sputtering man before her. "Four years, 18 requests in writing, and still you refuse me an interview. I doubt the men at The Post have trouble of this kind."
The president, who had started swimming like a madman to the opposing shore, paused and turned to face her, his body fully submerged. He blinked. The two were silent a moment as Anne watched him take in the situation. Finally, he spoke:
"Ms. Royall, is it?"
"I forced you to hold my clothing captive?"
Anne glanced down at the president's trousers, spread like a dark puddle over the sun-bleached pebbles.
"It was the only way you'd listen. A woman's actions are all she has."
Though her voice was confident, she clasped her hands to hide their shaking. What had made her say that? She was conversing with the president, not scolding a petulant child. And yet, was that a smile playing at his lips?
"I wonder if you know," he started slowly, "just how few people in this country speak to me in that manner. No more than a handful, wouldn't you guess? Of my closest friends and family?"
"I have little doubt."
"And that doesn't humble you?"
"My sights are set on greater things."
The president nodded and scowled slightly.
"They must be. You're barely fazed by the indecency of my condition."
Anne bit her lip to keep a smile from breaking her stern expression.
"I've been alive for 55 years, Mr. President. It takes very little to faze me any more."
President Adams gave another nod — more definite this time, as if he had decided something in his head. He appeared to have found solid ground and was standing firmly in the river, shoulders exposed. Behind him, Anne could see the sun breaking away from the horizon. She took a breath.
"I understand the severity of my impropriety in coming to you this way, in your most private hour. I'm here because I have accomplished very little in my life, and my husband is dead. I have no income. What I do have is a talent, a gift for writing — and yet no one will hire me or publish my work."
She reached into her dress pocket and removed a notebook and pencil. Gripping them tightly in her fist, she locked eyes with the president.
"But no one will refuse a presidential interview. I'm prepared with serious questions that deserve serious answers and, with your permission, could craft an inspiring piece. One that will be remembered."
Anne would never forget how the president looked at her in that moment — with something akin to admiration. When he spoke, his tone was thoughtful.
"Not an easy thing, writing," he said. "And not for the dull or slow-witted."
He squinted at Anne and smiled.
"But you, Ms. Royall, are neither of those things. Avert your eyes, release my garments, and we shall have a talk."