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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.