No offense, Scott and Zelda, but this plot of land, pinched between Rockville Pike and Veirs Mill Road, is easy to miss.
Thousands of commuters drive past with nary a wave. Red Line trains zip by, oblivious. Nearby strip malls yawn.
Not exactly the kind of place where you’d expect to find a Great American Writer and His Wife.
But there they are, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, underneath a canopy of oak trees on the grounds of the historic St. Mary’s Catholic Church, their place immemorial marked by a simple, flat, gravestone. It bears the classic last lines of Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
You may have heard: The book has been made into a movie, which opened Friday and is credited with catapulting the novel onto Amazon’s bestsellers list. The couple’s granddaughter, writer-filmmaker Eleanor Lanahan, said the movie stayed true to the novel and was “very good.”
Things have changed for Scott and Zelda. “We usually see a handful of people visiting the cemetery in a given week,” said Rev. Monsignor Robert Amey, who has been with St. Mary’s since 2009. “That number has tripled in the last week.”
Larry Durkin, a Baltimore native, made the pilgrimage Wednesday afternoon. “ ‘The Great Gatsby’ is a piece of Americana,” he said, smiling. “I read it much later in life, after my grandsons were assigned the novel. I liked it so much, I read it twice.” Durkin and his wife also visited the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum in Montgomery, Ala. “He left a mark on the world whether or not he realized it at the time.”
Some visitors leave mementos, most commonly flowers, spare change and liquor. Aspiring authors leave pens, and admirers occasionally write handwritten notes. A top hat, adorned with a martini glass ribbon, is the most recent addition.
“It is a way for people to respect and feel close, both emotionally and physically, to people that they admire,” said Steve Goldstein, a cemetery historian. “It is fascinating to know that you are standing on the one place on Earth where the celebrity is literally right underneath your feet.”
Scott and Zelda weren’t always here. But Rockville makes sense as their final resting place.
Although he was born in St. Paul, Minn., Fitzgerald has deep roots in Maryland. His father was born in 1853 on a small farm near Rockville and married his mother in Washington in 1890. Maryland-born Francis Scott Key — composer of “The Star-Spangled Banner” — is Fitzgerald’s namesake and distant cousin.
In 1940, Fitzgerald suffered a fatal heart attack at age 44, while living in Los Angeles. By all accounts, he wanted to be buried with about 15 of his relatives interred at St. Mary’s.
“I belong here [in Maryland], where everything is civilized and gay and rotted and polite,” he wrote in a 1935 letter to his friend and secretary, Laura Guthrie. “I wouldn’t mind a bit if in a few years Zelda and I could snuggle up together under a stone in some old graveyard here.”
The church initially rejected the family’s burial request; Fitzgerald was a lapsed Catholic at the time of his death. His risque and provocative Jazz Age writings, alcoholism and marriage to a Protestant did not improve matters.
He was initially laid to rest at the Rockville Union Cemetery — a Protestant graveyard located a mile and a half away. His funeral, much like that of his title character Jay Gatsby, attracted little fanfare. About 25 people attended, including the six pallbearers hired by his editor. Zelda joined her husband eight years later, after dying in a fire at a North Carolina asylum.
The Fitzgeralds’ only child, Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald, successfully petitioned to have the couple moved to St. Mary’s in 1975. “The church believed it important,” Amey said, “to consider his God-given talents and literary genius.”