Anne Royall, no cure for a “common scold”

By Bob Stepno

Start with a national banking scandal (how timely) and add a tough frontier-bred woman editor who keeps her pistols handy — except when lecturing the president of the United States on the pen being mightier than the sword.

The folks at DuPont’s Cavalcade of America seem to have liked the “… was a lady” phrase, since they used it in the titles of episodes about both Nellie Bly and Anne Royall, “Nellie Was a Lady” and “The Printer Was a Lady.” They also appear to have been fans of Anne Newport Royall, broadcasting her story twice in two years — using one script, under two titles and with two casts.

In both cases, the cast was impressive. The 1942 “The Printer Was a Lady” brought Broadway star Lynn Fontanne to the microphone for her “first sponsored performance on the air,” according to the Cavalcade announcer. The 1944 incarnation, “Witness for the People,” brought together three actors with other stage, cinema and journalist credentials and coincidences.

So who was Anne Royall, and why haven’t you heard of her? Royall (1769-1854) was no “stunt girl” reporter like Nellie Bly, and she didn’t work for a big-name paper like Pulitzer’s World, but she beat them to print by a half-century — and raised hell in Washington for years. Even if there’s no truth to the often repeated story about her getting her first presidential interview in the 1820s by sitting on John Quincy Adams’s clothes while he was in swimming, she met every president from Washington to Lincoln.

A New York Times review of her 1908 biography summed her up in a headline: “Pioneer Woman Journalist, Traveler and Agitator.” After writing book-length travel collections, Royall started two newspapers, Paul Pry in 1831 and The Huntress in 1836, “each a compact package of powdered gall,” according to American Heritage magazine.

The Times in 1909
remembered her as a Freemason and “an assailant of Christianity,” suggesting that was what led to her 1829 arrest as “a common scold,” threatened with being dunked in the Potomac. That episode is the one dramatized in the radio story, but it makes the confrontation more a matter of Royall’s support of Andrew Jackson in his battle with the United States Bank.

In the radio script, the confrontation over religion is merely her critics’ excuse for trying to suppress her paper, which was taking on “thieving politicians” in Congress who were drawing loans on the bank. The episode also features Jackson’s secretary of war arguing a “pen is mightier than the sword” case in her favor, an irony not lost on the old general-turned-president, and Royall packing pistols and firing warning shots to keep the bankers away from her press. (She only takes an umbrella to the hymn-singers.)

“For more than thirty years Anne Royall was a Voice,” Sarah Harvey Porter’s 1908 biography of Royall concludes, “a strident Voice, crying out for national righteousness — at a time, too, when nearly all other American women of the pen were uttering themselves in sentimental verse or milk-and-water prose.”

More recently, Jeff Biggers has called Royall “America’s first blogger” and “Godmother of Muckraking.” Others have called her “America’s first professional female journalist,” although some might argue that title for another Cavalcade heroine, Anna Zenger in the 1730s, or Hannah Watson of Hartford (1777), or other women who took over for incarcerated or deceased printer-husbands.

Back to the radio, and some coincidences: The star of the 1944 production was Academy Award winner Fay Bainter. She also had been near a Hollywood “newsroom” in Woman of the Year in 1942, as liberated journalist Tess Harding’s suffragist aunt. (Tess was played by Kate Hepburn, in both the film and a radio adaptation.)

The freedom of the press theme of the broadcast is underscored in a wartime introduction by Walter Huston, who was, in fact, married to a journalist, Rhea Gore. His intro:

“Yesterday I was telling a friend of mine who works on a newspaper about this evening’s Cavalcade play. I told him it was about a woman who fought to win freedom for the press. And he said, ‘Walter, you should have put on that show last week. It would have been more appropriate then. It was freedom of the press week.’
Well, frankly, I had to disagree with him, because to my way of thinking a free press is something we ought to thank god for every day of every week in the year.
Why do you suppose the Nazis made bonfires of the very same books you will find in the bookstore around the corner… It is because tyrants are afraid of the power of a free press.”

The story opens with a newsboy’s shouts, “Penny a print, penny a print, Anne Royall’s latest paper is just off the press…” and Huston’s narration:

“People laughed at Anne Royall. Some pretended not to hear. But everyone did hear all the same, it was even heard in the president’s mansion…”

Also in the cast, Ray Collins, who plays President Andrew Jackson, had been a member of the cast of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” — like Agnes Moorehead, who played Nellie Bly on Cavalcade. (Collins played a not-Jacksonian political boss Kane tried to expose.) It is probably not a coincidence that, also like Moorehead, Collins was a veteran of Welles’ Mercury Theater radio players — and of The Shadow (as Commissioner Weston). Cavalcade may have been patriotic cheerleading and raising DuPont’s image, but it certainly cast the top people in the radio drama field.

From the Library of Congress:
An Uncommon Scold by Cynthia Earman. Including bibliography and references.

“As the self-appointed guardian of democracy, Royall exposed graft and corruption wherever she went. Her boldness and tenacity were remarkable in an era when society was obsessed with the trappings of gentility…”

From her 1908 biographer, Sarah Harvey Porter:

“I sought Mrs. Royall’s ten volumes of Travels in the United States and the files of her newspapers published weekly for nearly a quarter of a century in Washington, D.C. In spite of their crude vehemence, I found these writings to be the expression of a sane, generous, virile and entertaining personality… there are good reasons why the dust of prejudice and oblivion should be blown from her tomb.”

A note on the John Quincy Adams nude-swimming interview: Although there was once an “Anne Royall’s Rock,” supposedly marking the spot where the reporter camped out on the president’s clothes, Pulitzer-winning historian Daniel Walker Howe says, “The story of her securing an interview with a naked president while Adams was swimming in the Potomac is, alas, apocryphal.” (p.495, What hath God wrought: the transformation of America, 1815-1848, 2007.) None of the many blogs and “history” websites that mention the story site a source. Neither does Howe, but his credentials suggest due diligence behind that wistful “alas, apocryphal.” (Time magazine in 1949 also called the story “probably apocryphal,” while mentioning that Harry Truman loved to tell it. So did Time itself.)

Possible sources at the time of the broadcast:

Porter, Sarah Harvey. (1908) The life and times of Anne Royall, The Torch Press (Google Books copy).

McGeehan, Francis Irma. (1934) Anne Royall : a forgotten journalist, thesis (M.A.–English)–Catholic University of America.

Jackson, George Stuyvesant. (1937) Uncommon scold, the story of Anne Royall,
Boston, B. Humphries.

More on Cavalcade of America

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.
This entry was posted in 19th century, cavalcade, historical figures, reporters, women. Bookmark the permalink.

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