The grave lies in a yard of tombstones behind the 1817 chapel of St. Mary's Catholic Church where Veirs Mill Road and Rockville Pike come together in a congested asphalt braid.Metro rails skirt past on the east. Through the branches of eight oaks loom the modern monoliths on the Rockville skyline, the GBS (General Business Services) tower, and the new 16-story county office building, a glass and prefab high-rise more impersonal than the computers soon to be moved inside it.
In this unlikely place, where the past coexists uneasily with the future, lies the body of F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the titans of American literature.
Just as people make mention the 30 dogs once owned by J. Edgar Hoover are buried in a pet cemetery in nearby Aspen Hill, the curious fact that the great F. scott and his starcrossed Zelda lie smack in the middle of Rockville, is marked as a scrap of Montgomery County trivia -- and that's that.
But then, the dead are different from you and me -- especially in Rockville.
Whereas in another city the gravesite of the man who wrote "The Great Gatsby" and "Tender Is the Night," and whose books sell 500,000 copies a year, might be a literary shrine, or at least a local jewel in the civic crown, Fitzgerald's grave in Rockville, lodged 50 unseemly feet from one of the busiest intersections in the county, languishes in the bosom of a benign but indifferent host.
This is not to say newspapers have ignored the gravesite, or that the good burghers of Rockville refuse to acknkowledge it, or that no one makes any effort to honor the illustrious author. People do visit the grave, although nobody knows how big the smattering actually is. "Occasionally college student show up," says a parishioner who works in the rectory of st. Mary's Church, which administers the graveyard. But, she adds, "Nothing much happens. It doesn't make any difference to me."
Ask seven-year mayor William Hanna -- does he have any thoughts on the relationship between his city and the author of "The Great Gatsby"?
"Not really," says the mayor. "Everybody has a right to be buried where he wants to."
Prompted, though, Hanna will wax mayoral. "We're pleased to have Fitzgerald buried in Rockville," he declares. "He's part of our heritage. And I'd prefer you say peace, not obscurity. He lies here in peace."
Still, it doesn't surprise Hanna that the grave of the author is not well known, publicity or not. "There's certain people who don't know where the civic center is either," the mayor says, speaking as a man who knows his constituents.
Although Fitzgerald was born in Minnesota, his father Edward hailed from Montgomery County, and both parents were buried in St. Mary's small graveyard beside their relatives. The famous author had given friends the impression that the family plot beside his forebears was where he, as well, wished to spend eternity.
When he died in 1940, however, the parish priest, more concerned with Fitzgerald's lapsed Catholicism than his literary reputation, barred him from being buried in his family plot, and he was shunted off to Rockville Cemetery.
In 1975 a group of Rockville residents helped Fitzgerald's daughter Scottie secure permission to rebury her father among his kin. Zelda, who died in a nursing home fire in 1948, had been laid to rest beside her husband, and both their remains were reburied in St. Mary's at a ceremony in November 1975.
Shortly afterward, a Friends of Fitzgerald society organized to raise money to buy books for a special Fitzgerald shelf in the Rockville library. The city, in its munificence, dedicatedthe site of an old Dodge dealership, squeezed between Veirs Mills and the Pike across the street from the church, as Fitzgerald Triangle. There a plague graces a grassy median along with a few shrubs and young evergreens whose needles drop when big trucks blow past.
Given how tenuous Fitzgerald's connections are with Rockville, perhaps it's understandable that the city seems too unmoved by its literary celebrity to make other than a modest commemorative effort. Fitzgerald never lived nor wrote a novel in Rockville, and visited infrequently and without fanfare only to see an aunt.
Still, during all those years he lay with Zelda in one graveyard just a country mile from his clan in another, people would come looking for him. The first grave was so hard to find that the historical society had a small man printed. Visitors occasionally would find that people had left mementoes on Fitzgerald's grave -- top hats and white gloves, roses and notes.
"We thought, we could ignore him or do something modest," remembers Sandra Sonner, one of the founders of Friends of Fitzgerald. "He did have those ancestral ties. He felt those ties, and it's a slim thread we have for fame." a
The Princeton Club of D.C. contributed money in memory of its famous alumnus, and 100 people turned out for a fund-raising party that reaped $1,000 for the Fitzgerald shelf in Rockville's Library. Fitzgerald's daughter Scottie came along with Mathew Bruccoli, the foremost scholar of her father's work. "They got lost on the way," Sonner recalled with a laugh.
"You know Rockville."
Today, the ironic overtones of his presence in Rockville are stronger than ever, for in the four decades since he was first buried, Rockville has transformed from a rural village of 2,047 where everybody knew everybody to a skyscraper city of 43,000, full of strangers and wrong turns.
The same commercial forces that F. Scott Fitzgerald feared were engulfing the pastoral promise of America are engulfing his grave, heightening the sense of the site's insignificance -- as if it were a mere remnant of ground the developers overlooked -- and the sense of the past imperiled by a new world closing in.
"There's a tremendous amount of irony attached to having Scott and Zelda there," says Jackson Bryer, a professor at the University of Maryland who teaches Fitzgerald but who admits to having never visited the writer's grave and to being fearful of what his students will say if they find that out.
"In one letter Fitzgerald said something about 'Zelda and I snuggling down together' and the image was of a rural bucolic setting. But the land's been filled in. The whole sitution in "The Great Gatsby" is similar. Civilization is corrupting Gatsby's dream, Gatsby's pastoral innocence. If you look at the last page it's all about the fresh green brest of the new world. It's about how civilization has encroached on rural America, and Rockville is the perfect example."
The gray granite headstone reads: "Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, Setember 24, 1896, December 21, 1940; his wife Zelda Sayre, July 24, 1900, March 10, 1948." In the hush of the place the roar of the traffic glancing past seems no more than a hoarse murmur, and the high-rises on the horizon bear an eerie likeness to gigantic tombstones. On the ground lies a polished slab inscribed with the resonant words at the close of "The Great Gatsby": "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
"It really is perfect," Bryer says again. "That graveyard is Fitzgerald's boat against the stream. I think I'll use it in class, now that you mention it."