STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A few months ago, one of our colleagues came to a meeting with a discovery. She had just learned of the surprising place where a great American writer was buried. That discovery evolved into a summer-long series we call "Dead Stop," in which we've been touring notable cemeteries. And we end with that first discovery - the grave of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Fitzgerald was the writer who defined the Jazz Age, with stories of carefree youth, flappers and millionaires. He became an emblem of the era, living out many of its excesses. We thought we'd first hear a little of the author himself. Here, he's reciting part of a favorite poem - Ode to a Nightingale, by John Keats.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
F. SCOTT FITZGERALD: My heart aches, and a drowsing numbness pains my sense as if of hemlock I had drunk, or emptied some dull opiate to the drain...
INSKEEP: The voice of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was born in St. Paul, Minnesota; who lived in Paris, and wrote about that city as well as New York and the Riviera. Yet he is buried in suburban Maryland next to a highway, between strip malls and train tracks; a mystery our own Kitty Eisele wanted to explore.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)
KITTY EISELE, BYLINE: Thousands of commuters drive past F. Scott Fitzgerald's grave every day, and it's a good bet few of them realize it. This cemetery, at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Rockville, dates to the early 19th century. It's a small, green island in a sea of asphalt. But as we pull into the church parking lot, things quiet down.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOORS CLOSING)
EISELE: A gray hearse is pulling out. The sign on its side reads "Pumphreys." That's the same funeral home that handled Scott Fitzgerald's burial, in December of 1940. He left behind five novels and 180 short stories, as well as plays and movie scripts. We've come here today with writer Maureen Corrigan. You may know her as the book critic for WHYY's Fresh Air. She's also a professor of literature at Georgetown University, and she's working on a book about how Americans read "The Great Gatsby." Corrigan stops by Fitzgerald's grave often; her car mechanic is nearby. And on this late summer day, it's clear many other fans have been here recently, too.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: There's an amber-colored necklace, a quarter, a fountain pen that's got pink sparkles and zebra stripes on it, and two rocks - and a piece of chalk.
EISELE: Corrigan says she always finds gifts and tokens left by the simple, granite headstone.
CORRIGAN: The two things that I've seen almost consistently, at the gravesite are small bottles of alcohol that you would get on an airplane trip; and also, change - spare change.
EISELE: The liquor is ironic. Fitzgerald's health was wrecked by years of heavy drinking. He died at just 44 while living in Hollywood, writing screenplays. By then his wife, Zelda, had been shuttling for years between hospitals and sanitariums. She couldn't come for the funeral. But she agreed to have her husband's body shipped east to be buried here - next to his father, in an old family plot.
The Fitzgeralds had deep roots in Maryland. Scott was named for relative Francis Scott Key, who wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner." But a church official refused him burial, saying he wasn't a practicing Catholic at his death. So Fitzgerald was interred at a different cemetery nearby, after a hasty service a guest described as one of life's grim jokes.
CORRIGAN: The burial descriptions are eerily like those of the burial of Gatsby.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) A little before 3, the Lutheran minister arrived from Fleshing, and I began to look involuntarily out the windows, for other cars. So did Gatsby's father. And as the time passed, and the servants came in and stood waiting in the hall, his eyes began to blink anxiously; and he spoke of the rain in a worried, uncertain way. The minister glanced several times at his watch, so I took him aside and asked him to wait for half an hour. But it wasn't any use; nobody came.
CORRIGAN: It was raining. 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 description, you really do get a chill because it almost seems to anticipate what would happen to the author.
EISELE: And as for a marker for this landmark American writer?
ELEANOR LANAHAN: Oh, I don't know. I doubt it. I mean, Scott was totally broke when he died.
EISELE: Eleanor Lanahan is Scott Fitzgerald's granddaughter.
LANAHAN: I think he had something like $40 in the bank. So I don't think anyone had much money to spend on a gravestone.
EISELE: Lanahan's mother, Scottie, was Scott and Zelda's only child. In family pictures, Scottie looks likes a Third Musketeer to her dashing parents. But when Zelda's mental illness grew worse, she was institutionalized in Maryland. Scott and Scottie moved nearby. Again, granddaughter Eleanor Lanahan:
LANAHAN: Zelda wrote that he always thought he'd be going home to the - the rolling hills of Maryland.
EISELE: Scott wrote a friend: "I belong here, and I wouldn't mind a bit if Zelda and I could snuggle up under a stone, in some old graveyard here." Seven years later, Zelda did join him in that cemetery. 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. Together, they approached St. Mary's Church again - 35 years after Fitzgerald was turned away. This time, the church agreed to allow Scott and Zelda burial in the family plot. And this time, there was a fitting headstone.
LANAHAN: My mother chose the epitaph.
CORRIGAN: Which has the last words of the Great Gatsby on it: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
EISELE: Critic Maureen Corrigan.
CORRIGAN: I read that last line as a challenge to Americans. What those last lines are asking us to think about, 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 we're pulled back into the past - or whether that's what makes us great; that we do try.
EISELE: In 1985, Scottie Fitzgerald was buried with her parents, in the family plot at St. Mary's Church. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Scottie Fizgerald was buried in 1986.] Her grave is at their feet.
Kitty Eisele, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: See the Fitzgerald family grave at npr.org. It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)