f. scott fitzgerald in rockville, maryland: how did the creator of “the great gatsby” end up here?

Saturday, September 7:  When I got home in late July from living abroad for the last three years, I headed directly to the nearest bookstore and bought Moon Handbooks for Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania.  I also bought Lonely Planet Washington, D.C.  I figure if I am going to be stuck here for a good long while, I may as well explore the areas surrounding my home on long day or weekend trips.  Eliminating wanderlust from my life is simply not an option, at least not an option I could live with happily.

a cool-looking tombstone in St. Mary's Cemetery in Rockville, Maryland
a cool-looking tombstone in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Rockville, Maryland

Today, I decide I will set out to explore the Maryland suburbs of Washington.  I have a big trip planned.  I will head to Rockville, then to Silver Spring, then to Bethesda, where I will eat dinner at my favorite tapas place, Jaleo, and then watch one of four movies at Bethesda Row Cinema.  It’ll be a Maryland kind of day.

I’m surprised, while looking through An Explorer’s Guide: Marlyand (yet another book I bought), to find the F. Scott Fitzgerald Burial Place at St. Mary’s Church on the corner of Rockville Pike and Viers Mill Road in Rockville.  Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda Sayre, lies beside him in the middle of this busy intersection next to a metro rail station.  I can’t help but wonder how such a famous author ended up here, in this green island bordered by strip malls and passed by thousands of commuters daily.

St. Mary's Church in Rockville, Maryland
St. Mary’s Church in Rockville, Maryland

Later, I listen to an NPR story by Kitty Eisele called ‘Gatsby’ Author Fitzgerald Rests In A D.C. Suburb.  In the story, Eisele says that Fitzgerald defined the Jazz Age, living out the era’s excesses.  Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, he also lived in Paris and New York. He wrote his first novel, This Side of Paradise, while an undergraduate at Princeton; this novel won him fame and wealth. His third novel The Great Gatsby is one of the most celebrated books in American literature.

My personal favorite Fitzgerald novel is his fourth, Tender is the Night, which I read when I was an English major at the College of William and Mary.  It’s the story of the rise and fall of Dick Diver, a promising young psychoanalyst, and his wife, Nicole, who is also one of his patients. It was Fitzgerald’s first novel in nine years, and the last that he would complete.  The novel seemed to run parallel to Scott and Zelda’s lives in the 1930s, while Zelda was hospitalized in Baltimore for schizophrenia.

Fitzgerald died in December 1940, leaving behind 5 novels and 180 short stories — and only about $40 in the bank.  He was writing screenplays in Hollywood when he died at 44 of a heart attack; during this time, his wife Zelda, mentally ill, was being shuttled back and forth between hospitals and sanatoriums. He considered himself a failure at the time of his death because, by that time, people were no longer interested in his novels about the Jazz Age.

When his family tried to have Scott buried in his father’s plot at St. Mary’s, the priests turned him away because he hadn’t been a practicing Catholic.  He was buried in a nearby cemetery under rainy skies with only 25 people in attendance, much like the Great Gatsby himself.   The Protestant minister who buried him didn’t even know who he was.  There was not even a headstone, as Fitzgerald was penniless when he died.

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre's tomb at St. Mary's Church near some busy Rockville roads
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre’s tomb at St. Mary’s Church near some busy Rockville roads

The NPR story tells how Zelda wrote that Scott seemed to think he would end up in Maryland, “snuggled up under a stone” with Zelda.

It was only later, 35 years after he had been turned away from St. Mary’s, that the church finally allowed him to be buried, alongside Zelda, in the family plot.  The NPR story tells about gifts that people have left on the grave: an amber-colored necklace, a fountain pen with pink sparkles on it, spare change, and even small bottles of alcohol that one would get on an airplane.  The last is ironic because Fitzgerald was a heavy drinker.

On my visit today, I find an empty bottle of Prosecco with an American flag in it, another empty wine bottle, coins, and a sprig of crepe myrtle.

A sprig of crepe myrtle left for the Fitzgeralds
A sprig of crepe myrtle left for the Fitzgeralds

Engraved on the headstone at St. Mary’s are the last words from The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for WHYY’s Fresh Air and a professor of literature at Georgetown University, sees that last line as a challenge to Americans.

“What those last lines are asking us to think about,” she says, “is whether or not it’s a worthless effort to try to get ahead, run faster, be stronger, in light of the fact that ultimately we all die and are pulled back into the past, or whether that’s what makes us great, that we do try.”

Final words from "The Great Gatsby"
Final words from “The Great Gatsby”
St. Mary's Church
St. Mary’s Church
St. Mary's Church
St. Mary’s Church

I think it’s depressing and shameful that a writer of Scott Fitzgerald’s talent and stature lived such a sad tale in the end.  I write blogs and fully expect to die in obscurity, but I don’t understand how such an immensely talented man could have lived his final days penniless and wracked by failure.  Sadly, it says a lot about our money- and success-obsessed society.

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10 thoughts on “f. scott fitzgerald in rockville, maryland: how did the creator of “the great gatsby” end up here?

  1. I think, as talented as Fitzgerald was, he made multiple bad choices in his life foremost of course being his alcoholism. Maintaining success requires continual work and discipline, neither of which were his forte.

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    1. I think you’re right in many respects, Carol; however, falling from grace after achieving heights so early on in his life, and then having to deal with Zelda’s mental health issues I think would drive many people to alcoholism. Yes, he did make bad choices, but I guess having dealt with mental health issues in my family for most of my life, I can sympathize. I can also relate to his despondency over his later failures.

    1. Maybe so, mrs. carmichael. But I can’t help but have sympathy for him, despite any choices he made. He had to deal with Zelda’s mental health issues and his own later failures, and his alcoholism probably stemmed from all of those burdens. There’s nothing worse than dealing with failure, and mental health issues. At least in my eyes. I’d rather have a physical illness any day.

      1. utterly agree with you there. Just recovering from a very big night out at the O2 seeing Rod Stewart that got slightly out of hand. On my second breakfast right now and hoping I’ll feel better soon – so I’m more on F S’s wavelength at the mo.

    1. Thanks so much, Jo. I found this story interesting too; it was a great tidbit from NPR. They always have such great stories on there. I learned a little something too. I never knew Fitzgerald had family ties to this area! 🙂

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