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.
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. Jess Gitner/NPR
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.