When I recently visited St. Mary’s Church in Rockville, I noticed that both F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, were buried in the cemetery. It seems baffling to me because neither one was born or lived in this area. They did not die here, either. Would you please solve this mystery?
— Carmen Smith ,
American high school students know the famous writer by the name that graces the covers of his novels: F. Scott Fitzgerald. Even knowing that the “F” stood for “Francis” doesn’t provide much of a clue as to the author’s Maryland connections. But what if Answer Man was to tell you Fitzgerald’s full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald?
Well, Answer Man just did. And it was. The Jazz Age wordsmith was named after the distant cousin who wrote what became “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The Key family had a strong presence in Maryland. Fitzgerald’s father, Edward, was born in Rockville. And after Edward died, that’s where he was buried, in the family plot in the cemetery of St. Mary’s Catholic Church.
Things were not to be so straightforward for his son. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in Hollywood in 1940 at the age of 44. He didn’t leave explicit instructions on where he was to be buried, but his wife, the former Zelda Sayre, who then living in an Asheville, N.C., sanitarium, insisted he be laid to rest in the family plot at St. Mary’s.
That’s when the problems started. Fitzgerald was, famously, a drunk. His fiction doesn’t exactly strike one as celebrating the glory of God. But it wasn’t those facts that stood in the way of Fitzgerald’s burial in a Catholic cemetery. A parish priest told John Biggs Jr., the author’s Princeton roommate and executor, that because Fitzgerald had not gone to confession and taken communion regularly, he was unfit to be buried in consecrated ground.
Wrote Perry Deane Young in a remarkably detailed 1979 Washington Post Magazine story on Fitzgerald’s final resting place, “What it comes down to is this: Fitzgerald was denied a Catholic funeral and burial which he wouldn’t have wanted anyway.”
Instead, Zelda paid for to have Fitzgerald buried at Rockville Cemetery, about a mile away from St. Mary’s. An Episcopal priest who had trained to be a Catholic priest but decided to marry read the Book of Common Prayer. The mentally fragile Zelda was not well enough attend, but the couple’s 19-year-old daughter, Frances — known as “Scottie” — came down from Vassar for the service.
Eight years later Zelda was killed in a fire at her nursing home. Her husband’s casket was removed, the hole dug deeper and Zelda’s casket placed on top. She had only paid for one space.
If not quite penniless when they died, the Fitzgeralds were close to it. Fitzgerald’s literary reputation had not yet achieved the level that today makes his work part of the core curriculum — and still brings in healthy royalties.
As his posthumous acclaim grew, so too did the number of visitors to the grave, people who saw in Scott and Zelda the perfect Jazz Age couple: Charleston-dancing, gin-drinking bon vivants gadding about Paris. It was said that “hippies” were going to the cemetery and moving flowers from other plots to place upon the Fitzgeralds’.
By 1975 the grave was looking somewhat grubby. Members of the Rockville Civic Improvement Advisory Commission and the Rockville Women’s Club started looking into how it might be spruced up. They contacted the Fitzgeralds’ daughter, who was living in Georgetown. Scottie said that, actually, her parents were meant to be buried somewhere else.
This time the local Catholic diocese had no problem accepting Scott and Zelda. Archbishop William Baum said that Fitzgerald was “an artist who was able with lucidity and poetic imagination to portray the struggle between grace and death. . . . His characters are involved in this great drama, seeking God and seeking grace.”
Put that in your freshman term paper and smoke it.
In November 1975, the two caskets were moved to St. Mary’s and buried in the Fitzgerald family plot, Zelda atop Scott. The arrangements were handled by the same business that had originally buried them, the Pumphrey Funeral Home.
Answer Man visited the grave recently. It was littered with a scattering of pennies, some pens and pencils, and two tiny bottles of rum. A slab over the grave is inscribed with the famous closing line of “The Great Gatsby,” the one about boats beating against the current.
This car-clogged corner of Rockville may seem a strange place for one of America’s literary lions, but, as Perry Deane Young concluded in his 1979 article, “Maybe Scott and Zelda lie where they belong after all. They didn’t exactly fit anywhere in life so there was no reason to think they would find some perfect place in death.”
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.