WASHINGTON, November 7, 2012 — It took 35 years, but the iconic couple of the Jazz Age had found their “final resting place.”
It was perhaps an unlikely location. Not in Hollywood where F. Scott Fitzgerald had worked on motion pictures and was penning his final novel, “The Last Tycoon,” when he suffered a fatal heart attack. Not in New York City where he and Zelda danced and drank and dipped in the fountain of the Plaza. Not on the French Riviera where they cavorted with fellow literati. They were each, instead, laid to rest in Rockville, Maryland.
Then, on November 7, 1975, the celebrated couple was again laid to rest, this time for the first time at the same place. If this is confusing, please, let me explain.
I was present that crisp autumn morning as some 90 fellow Fitzgerald admirers gathered in the cemetery of St. Mary’s Catholic Church for this solemn, yet celebratory, occasion: the re-interment ceremony for the great American writer and his artistic wife. This event served to correct a long-standing confluence of unfortunate circumstances.
Daughter Scottie Brought Them Back
On that yellow morning with only a slight chill, tobacco-brown leaves skittered across the grounds between old headstones. Slowly, individuals moved into a close semi-circle as the Rev. William J. Silk, pastor of St. Mary’s, began speaking. He welcomed all, read the rites, and expressed his delight at the changed position of the Catholic diocese regarding the burial of F. Scott Fitzgerald in these sacred grounds.
After that, Frances Fitzgerald Smith, “Scottie” to Fitzgerald devotees, thanked the Women’s Club of Rockville and the St. Mary’s parish for making the occasion possible. She then shared fond personal memories of her legendary parents.
A eulogy was next offered by Professor Matthew Bruccoli of the University of South Carolina, considered the dean of Fitzgerald studies and author of several books about the couple. Mr. Bruccoli read excerpts, not from St. Paul, but from Scott Fitzgerald of St. Paul, Minnesota. And as he read, it seemed one could almost hear the tinny sound of a distant gramophone spinning out “After the Ball Is Over” or some sad song of that bygone Fitzgerald era.
At the conclusion of the outdoor service, all were invited to join daughter Scottie in the rectory for an opportunity to share thoughts and ask questions. The main questions were why Fitzgerald had been buried in Rockville instead of some more exotic place and why hadn’t he been buried in this cemetery originally.
Scottie explained. When her father died a few days before Christmas of 1940, his body was transported to Rockville, Md., to be interred here in the St. Mary’s family plot
along with his father Edward, who was born and raised in a well-established Montgomery County family. The young author sometimes visited his relatives in Locust Grove and he had attended his father’s funeral at St. Mary’s in 1931.
Fitzgerald Not Considered Worthy of Churchyard
At the time of Fitzgerald’s own death in 1940, the local diocese declared the writer to be a lapsed Catholic and forbade his burial in this sacred ground. The monsignor of that time added as a personal note, “and we find his books objectionable.”
No resistance was voiced. The writer, sadly, had long since lost his ephemeral fame. The year he died, all of his books were out of print. His body was, therefore, shunted a country mile away across a winding road to Rockville Union Cemetery.
There the Fitzgerald grave was lost among a myriad other obscure headstones with nothing to dignify or distinguish it. On one of my visits to that neglected gravesite, I overheard two older women who were puzzled as to why Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (his full name engraved on the headstone) would have such a humble gravesite after composing our national anthem. Their error was that F. Scott was a descendant of the composer of “The Star Spangled Banner” and not his ancestor.
Zelda died eight years later in a fire at the North Carolina sanatorium where she was a mental patient. She was interred in the same plot along with her husband.
There the two lay for years like loving sleepers or sleepy lovers awaiting an alarm to sound.
An Insane and Insatiable Romance
That alarm was sounded in 1975 when daughter Scottie teamed with the Woman’s Club of Rockville and the contemporary Catholic diocese, which relented after 35 years and authorized the transference of the Fitzgeralds to the family plot in St. Mary’s, the author’s original choice for his burial site.
Scott once wrote: “And I wouldn’t mind at all if in a few years Zelda and I could snuggle up together under a stone in some graveyard here. That is really a happy thought and not melancholy at all.”
Zelda wrote, “Old death is so beautiful. We will die together, I know.”
In reality, they died eight years apart. But they had lit a flame of insane and insatiable romance in the decade of the Roaring 20s, an eternal flame that burns to this day. Evidence last year’s Woody Allen movie, “Midnight In Paris,” which featured representations of the scintillating Scott and the zany Zelda in a dervish of mad romance.
Scott himself called theirs a relationship “beyond the definition of relationship. He considered it to be “one of a century.”
They were “everything to each other — all human relationships,” he said. “We were sister and brother, mother and son, father and daughter, husband and wife.
“A part of me will always pity her in a sort of deep ache that is never absent for more than a few hours,” he wrote, “an ache for the beautiful child that I loved and with whom I was happy like I never shall be again.”
She, Zelda, wrote to Scott: “I love you, anyway — even if there isn’t any me or any you or even any life — I love you.”
“Remember,” he wrote, “that I hated to swim naked from the rocks, while you liked absolutely nothing better?”
The Couple Had Symbolized the Jazz Age
The iconic couple of the Jazz Age had lived apart and together, loved apart and together. They shall always, always be linked together.
And on this day of November 7, I pause to recall Scott and Zelda who 37 years ago to the day had found together their “final resting place.”
The gathering slowly pulled apart as quietly as it had assembled, each person doubtlessly feeling that they had somehow shared a connection with the legendary couple in a way that few living today had.
Visitors to his grave, especially on the anniversary of his death, often leave tokens of affection in the form of flowers or martini glasses or liquor or even beer bottles.
There have been two significant changes to the family plot since that day in 1975: 1) the death of daughter “Scottie” on June 16, 1986. Her headstone stands at the foot of her parents’ gravesite and 2) the large marble ledger over the gravesite with its epigraph, the last line of “The Great Gatsby.”
“And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. “
Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as Paul Harvey, William Safire, and Shirley Povich. Vance has shared his life experiences and knowledge of D.C. with the Washington Historical Society, the Kiwanis clubs of the Washington area, and on WAMU’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show.”
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