All that jazz: grave of F Scott Fitzgerald recalls the life less ordinary

America Letter: the novelist’s final resting place is sober compared with the latest celulloid version of ‘The Great Gatsby’


It was hard to know whether F Scott Fitzgerald was spinning in his grave at the latest film adaptation of his classic novel, The Great Gatsby , by pyrotechnician Baz Luhrmann, this week.

Fitzgerald’s final resting place is sober and unremarkable, in stark contrast to the extravagance of the characters and setting of his most famous novel, brought to life in such an explosion of colour in Luhrmann’s movie, which has opened in Ireland.

The grave of F Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, is located in Rockville, Maryland, a commuter town 20 miles northwest of Washington DC on the second last stop on the city’s Metro red line.

It is as unlikely and as anonymous a setting as you can get for the high priest of America’s Jazz Age and two of the best-known socialites of early 20th century America.

There are none of the pastel-bright colours of Luhrmann’s film here; just the washed-out greys of a sleepy American cemetery under a covering of oak trees. The area is depressingly suburban, with a rat-run highway of cars running next to the church grounds. Carved into the tombstone on the grounds of St Mary’s Catholic Church is Fitzgerald’s last line from The Great Gatsby : “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The number of visitors is said to have tripled since the publicity for the new movie started in recent weeks. But my three-year-old daughter and I were the only visitors to the cemetery for about an hour last Tuesday morning. There were a small number of women going into the church to say morning prayers, but none ventured into the cemetery to visit the grave of one of America’s greatest writers.

Partying ways
Resting on the couple’s grave is an assortment of rotting flowers, a scattering of pens and pencils, and a handful of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters for the alcoholic pauper who died aged 44.

Someone has also left a brown trilby hat decorated with a ribbon of cocktail glasses on the grave in a nod to the couple’s partying ways. There is a hand-written poem called “Big Scott” resting under a bouquet of flowers with the line: “I wish I could have drunk gin with you behind bedroom doors.”

Fitzgerald was born far from this cemetery, in America’s midwest, in St Paul, Minnesota, though his family’s roots were in Maryland. His father was born on a nearby farm in 1853. Scott was named after his famous distant cousin, Francis Scott Key, author of the US national anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner .

While Fitzgerald never lived in Rockville, he visited the Maryland town throughout his life.

‘Rotted and polite’
As a seven-year-old he was a “ribbon holder” at the wedding of his cousin Cecilia Delihant at Randolph Station, south of Rockville, on April 24th, 1903.

He returned to Rockville from Paris for his father’s funeral at St Mary’s Church in 1931, alluding to his feelings in Tender is the Night , his 1934 novel: “It was very friendly leaving him there with all his relations around him . . . Dick had no more ties here now and did not believe he would come back . . . ‘Good-by, my father . . . good-by, all my fathers.”

Fitzgerald had wanted to be buried at St Mary’s among the 15 members of his family – the Fitzgeralds, Delihants, Scotts and Robertsons.

“I belong here, where everything is civilized and gay and rotted and polite,” he wrote in 1935 in a letter to his friend 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 there.”

But after his death from a heart attack and years of hard living in 1940 there was no place for Fitzgerald, a lapsed Catholic who had married a Protestant, at St Mary’s, nor for his wife, Zelda Sayre, when she died eight years after him in a fire at a North Carolina mental hospital.

A request from the family to have the author buried in the family plot was rejected. Instead Fitzgerald was laid to rest about a mile down the road at the Rockville Union Cemetery, a Protestant graveyard.

In the 1970s they were reinterred alongside the rest of the family at a ceremony, entitled Tender is the Day, on November 7th, 1975. Scottie, who died in 1986, now rests just a few feet from her parents.

The cemetery, a historic site listed on the national register, is in ways a fitting final resting place for the creator of the hedonistic anti-hero Gatsby, a monument to the destructive power of living the American dream.

The austere grave of a once rich man who died at 44, washed up with just a handful of friends at his funeral, brings Fitzgerald’s own famous line to mind: “There are no second acts in American lives.”