One of the goals I set for myself in late November was to read the books written by the Lost Generation of Paris during the Jazz Age. I’ve made a considerable dent and cried when I opened my Christmas present from my husband — books he thought I’d enjoy shipped from Shakespeare and Company in Paris featuring this group. I was in Maryland last week and took the opportunity find “The Great Gatsby.” or at least, learn more about the man behind the Gatsby by visiting the burial site of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Tucked away at the corner of Viers Mill and Rockville Pike in Rockville, Maryland, stands St. Mary’s Church. As many times as I’ve driven past this area of railroad tracks and strip malls, I had no idea one of the literary greats was resting yards away from my car. “Were this grave site in Ireland, hourly visits by tour buses packed with camera-toting tourists would be the norm and Rockville, a nice Washington, D.C. suburb, would be awash with t-shirts touting the famous literary connection.”*
The Great Gatsby
Making my way from the parking lot to the small cemetery, I knew finding his grave would not take the same effort as finding Jim Morrison’s grave in the labyrinth that is the Père Lachaise in Paris. Walking through the small, flimsy gate, I looked around and off to my right, there was a grave markedly different than the others — sitting on it were bottles of beer and champagne. Making my way across the cemetery, I looked around at the unkempt grounds and wondered how the writer of a novel that is a contender for the title of the “Great American Novel” could be an afterthought awash in exhaust fumes.
As he was a non-practicing Catholic, and had lived a well-documented “notorious” lifestyle, Fitzgerald was denied the right to be buried in his family plot and was originally interred at Rockville Union Cemetery. It has been alleged that the Protestant minister who performed the ceremony didn’t know who he was. Almost as if it had been foreshadowed in the book, Fitzgerald’s sadly unsensational farewell was in fact very similar to that of his description of his own character’s funeral, Jay Gatsby.
At the time of his death, his wife, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, was living in Asheville, NC, at Highland Hospital, a sanatorium for the rich and famous attempting to recover from their ills. (Zelda had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, but modern experts say she as bipolar based on her behavior.) Despite the married couple’s troubles, she knew Fitzgerald wished to be buried in his family plot in the Catholic cemetery in Rockville and instructed those in care of his body to send him back east. Zelda joined him in 1948, after her tragic death from a fire at Highland and buried on top of him, as she had only bought one space. Their daughter, Scottie, successfully petitioned the Church in the mid-70’s and they were reinterred in the Fitzgerald family plot.
The Great Gatsby’s main theme is about being corrupted by money and dishonesty, the American dream of happiness and individualism disintegrates into the mere pursuit of wealth. Though Gatsby’s power to transform his dreams into reality is what makes him “great,” his death proves that both Gatsby’s dream and the American dream—is over.
F. Scott Fitzgerald spent extravagantly and chased money his entire career to continue living the glitzy lifestyle he and his wife Zelda had become accustomed to. He was first published by the Saturday Evening Post during the 1920’s for the sum of $400 and introduced to an audience of 2.5 million readers. Within a year, he was receiving $500 for stories and by 1929, was being paid $4,000 per story, which would be, roughly, $54,000 today. The Post published 65 of his stories between 1920 and 1937. In 1924, he wrote an article for the Post entitled “How To Live on $36,000 a Year.” It is a humorous piece describing the ineffectual attempts he and his wife made to live within a budget.
Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in 1940 at the age of 44 in Hollywood. At the time, he was broke and considered himself a failure and his work forgotten, as “The Great Gatsby” had received poor reviews and mediocre sales. Years of excessive drinking had left Fitzgerald in poor health and the stories he was best known for, tales of the glitzy Jazz Age, had fallen out of favor after the Great Depression. Finding a copy of “The Great Gatsby” on bookstores shelves by 1940 was nearly impossible, yet the novel experienced a revival during World War II, and became part of American high school curricula, followed by numerous stage and film adaptations in the decades to follow. In 1998, the Modern Library editorial board voted it the 20th century’s best American novel and second best English-language novel of the same time period.