Monday, September 24, 2012

On the anniversary of F. Scott Fitzgerald's birth

'Gatsby' Author Fitzgerald Rests In A D.C. Suburb

Jess Gitner/NPR
The grave of The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald lies next to a major thoroughfare for commuters between Rockville, Md., and Washington, D.C.


September 7, 2012
Every weekday, thousands of commuters to the nation's capital drive past the grave of a celebrated American author, and it's a good bet they don't realize it.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author of The Great Gatsby, was born in St. Paul, Minn.; he's associated with that city, as well as Paris, the Riviera and New York. But he's buried in Rockville, Md., outside Washington, D.C., next to a highway between strip malls and train tracks.

Scott Fitzgerald, as he was known, was the prime chronicler of the Jazz Age of the Roaring '20s. He wrote of insouciant youth, flappers and millionaires — a postwar generation of young Americans skeptical of its elders and eager to embrace a prosperous age.

With his wife, Zelda, Fitzgerald became an emblem of the era, living out many of its excesses. His first novel, This Side of Paradise, begun while he was an undergraduate at Princeton University, earned acclaim among critics and instantly brought the author wealth and notoriety.

He followed that with The Beautiful and the Damned and The Great Gatsby, one of the most celebrated books of American literature. Gatsby was followed by two other novels and 180 short stories.

But Fitzgerald's heavy drinking took a toll on his health and wealth, as well as his critical reputation. He died at age 44 of a heart attack, while writing screenplays in Hollywood.

From California To Maryland

At the time of his death, Fitzgerald considered himself a failure. After the Great Depression, readers and publishers were no longer interested in tales of the Jazz Age, and he was hard-pressed to find his novels on bookstore shelves.

When he died unexpectedly before Christmas in 1940, Fitzgerald's wife and his lawyer arranged for his body to be sent from California to Maryland, to be buried next to his father in a family plot at St. Mary's Catholic Church.

The writer's family had deep roots in the state; he's named after distant relative and Maryland native Francis Scott Key, author of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Writer Maureen Corrigan has visited Fitzgerald's grave often. The book critic for WHYY's Fresh Air is also a professor of literature at Georgetown University and gets her car fixed at a garage near the Rockville cemetery.

Corrigan says she always finds fresh gifts and tokens next to the grave.

"The two things that I've seen almost consistently at the gravesite," she says, "are small bottles of alcohol, that you would get on an airplane, and spare change."

Parallels With 'Gatsby'

Corrigan is at work on a book about how Americans read The Great Gatsby. She finds eerie similarities in Fitzgerald's burial and that of his most famous character.

Fitzgerald was initially refused burial at St. Mary's, on the grounds that he wasn't a "practicing" Catholic at his death. Instead, after an impersonal service, he was interred at another cemetery nearby.

"It was raining," says Corrigan, "and there were about 25 people, so he got more than Gatsby. But the Protestant minister who performed the service didn't know who he was. So when you read Gatsby's burial, you really do get a chill, because it almost seems to anticipate what would happen to the author."

And as for a grave marker for this landmark American author?

"I doubt there was one," says his granddaughter, Eleanor Lanahan. "He was totally broke when he died. I don't think anyone had much money to spend on a gravestone."

Lanahan's mother, Scottie, was the Fitzgeralds' only child. In family pictures, Scottie looks likes a third Musketeer to her dashing parents.

Eventually, Zelda Fitzgerald was institutionalized in Maryland for mental illness; her husband and daughter moved nearby. Lanahan says Zelda wrote that her husband "always thought he'd be going back to the rolling hills of Maryland."

Indeed, Fitzgerald wrote a friend, "I wouldn't mind a bit if Zelda and I could snuggle up under a stone in some old graveyard here."

'Borne Back ... Into The Past'

Seven years after his death, Zelda did join him in that cemetery, after she died in a fire at an asylum. Their graves were virtually forgotten for almost three decades, until a local women's group contacted Scottie about erecting a plaque.

Instead, the group and Scottie approached St. Mary's again, 35 years after Fitzgerald had been turned away. The church agreed to allow the couple to be moved into the family plot.

This time, there was a headstone, chosen by Scottie, with the famous last words of The Great Gatsby inscribed on it: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Corrigan reads 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."

In 1986, Scottie Fitzgerald was buried with her parents in the family plot at St. Mary's. Her grave is at their feet.

23 comments:

  1. What a sad story, and another prove of how fame and fortune at one stage of someone's life are no guarantee of lasting forever, especially not when something like alcoholism or other drug addictions are involved.
    Who paid for the burials and headstones, I wonder? The women's group, or some kind-hearted relation?
    My sister read "The Great Gatsby" when she was in her teens, and was very much impressed. I must admit I never read anything written by Fitzgerald - a bit of a strange thing for someone who was once, long ago, trained as a librarian...

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    1. Over time, so many people we now think of as great, died penniless and sometimes unknown. So sad.
      Funny they didn't mention that, but my guess is that it was Scottie.
      I've read it many times during different stages of my life. It always amazes me.

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  2. Thank you so much for bringing this to us. I read Gatsby for the first time in a college English class with a wonderful teacher. Most of the class didn't like him, but the teacher and I did. It might be time for another re-reading.

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    1. It will be interesting to see how the years have changed or not changed your opinion. I never tire of it.

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  3. Thanks for writing this. It's touching. I read Gatsby in high school and couldn't understand the fascination with it then, and hardly now, maybe I should re-read it. But it's nice to read about Scott's life and the sweetness that has followed a bitter end.

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    1. I personally think Gatsby is a bit too old for teenagers to 'get.' But then again, that's when many readers fell in love with the book. I definitely think it is worth you trying again. I so love it.

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  4. What a very interesting piece of literary history, but sad as well. I am going to a DC wedding in October and if I have time, I am going to stop and pay my respects to this great American writer. Thanks for posting this.

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    1. I would do two things down there - visit Fitzgerald's grave, and Julia Child's kitchen at the Smithsonian!!

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  5. Such a thoughtful post. I have been charmed by Fitzgerald for years. Maybe because Zelda was from Alabama where I live, maybe because I am fascinated by the era in which he wrote, or because he is one of the best writers who ever struggled so hard to have his voice heard.
    While the last line of Gatsby is memorable, so is the first paragraph: In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice I've been turning over in my mind ever since. "Whenever you feel like criticizing any one," he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages you've had."
    I reread this novel almost every year and always find new things to ponder.
    Thank you for the information on the graves as I don't think it is widely known.

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    1. That's so wonderful that you read it so often. I feel the same way - whenever I do read it, there is something new that I've not seen before. There's an old biography of Zelda which I read when in my twenties that you might like (if you haven't read it). It is still available.
      Zelda by Nancy Milford. I might want to read it again, as I think about it.

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  6. I read The Great Gatsby in high school and it was such a different world from the sugar cane fields of Hawaii. It was a disturbing book. I don't think I could really get a grip on it until much later in life. The Fitzgeralds had such a tormented life. I guess I'm glad they could be together in the end.

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    1. I just said to Nancey above that I thought the work is too old for high schoolers. It was a different world from small town New England too! I wonder if Hawaiian authors were/are taught in schools.

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  7. This is such a moving post, Nan, and a nice tribute to F. Scott Fitzgerald. I did not know of his connection to Francis Scott Key. Thank you for enlightening me this day.

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  8. It seems to me that Fitzgerald is one of our great American writers and that "The Great Gatsby" is a nearly perfect novel. Thanks for posting the piece about him, Nan.

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    1. You are so welcome. I thought it was very interesting when I first heard it earlier this month on NPR, and decided to post it on his birthday.

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  9. Great to hear about one of my favourite authors, and see a photograph of his grave.
    Thank you so much, 'The Great Gatsby' is one of those books I return to re-read regularly, it's superb writing in my opinion.

    Jane

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    1. I ma so pleased you enjoyed this article. It was all new to me when I heard it on NPR.

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  10. That's a really interesting post Nan. I knew he had a problem with drink, and died penniless, and I knew Zelda died in an institution, but I had no idea where they were buried, or where he came from, so it's fascinating to see your pictures and read about what happened, and how a proper memorial was created.

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    1. I have a wonderful 1962 biography written by Andrew Turnbull, which is still (hooray!) in print. And there are others if you search. His life and his work are endlessly interesting.

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    2. Here is a piece about the Turnbull book.
      http://www.bookrags.com/biography/andrew-winchester-turnbull-dlb/f

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  11. I had no idea! My uncle lives quite near there. I think it's time for a visit...

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