The headstone sits plainly in the churchyard, next to a much older grave with faded, ancient words. The rest of the sloppy, slanted stones in the yard are old and faded and weatherworn– forgotten. And yet, here is a stone, clean and well cared for, the resting place of a husband and wife. The husband was born in 1896 and died in 1940, and the wife was born in 1900 and died in 1948. Neither lived to see the 1950’s and all their clandestine, clean folds, their primitive modernities and primal luxuries. Neither lived to see anything past that final decade, ten years or so after their heyday. And, yet, their lives were complete without what could have been, almost. They lived more in those 40-some-odd years than most do in 80, 90, 100. But they were so young. And here, in a new century, 70 years later, their grave is clean and cared for. A bottle of open sauvignon sits on the lower stone, next to a glass filled with its contents. A tea candle sits beside the glass, recently snuffed by the wind. Pennies and stones sit on the upper-stone’s head, a visitor’s acknowledgment– I came for you!
You can almost see the two ghosts sitting there in the yard, the husband in a well-tailored suit and the wife in minks and furs. They sip from the sauvignon and their pockets jangle with the weight of many pennies.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald
September 24, 1896
December 21, 1940
July 24, 1900
March 10, 1948
A Literary Mecca
Today, I closed the cover over the last page of The Great Gatsby, having read it for the first time. In all of my many years as a lover of literature I had never found the time to read Fitzgerald. And, now, after only a few days after picking up the book on a whim, I was enthralled. Not by his decadent, overwrought lifestyle like many, but by the brilliance and depth of his prose; the way my brain latched on to every word and sunk into it like an animal’s hungry maw on a chunk of raw meat. The whole day lay ahead of me, so I decided to go on a little trip.
F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, were buried in Rockville, Maryland, in a family plot. They were interred at St. Mary’s, Rockville’s oldest Catholic church. Fitzgerald was not from Maryland, but he often visited an old family estate, and took residence in Towson, a suburb of Baltimore, for some time. F. Scott and Zelda felt an affinity for Maryland, and, so, after a feud between the Fitzgerald’s daughter and the Catholic Church, who claimed that the man was not a practicing Catholic during his life, the Fitzgeralds were finally buried on the hill in Rockville.
Living in Northern Virginia, just a half-hour’s drive from Rockville, I decided I should take the time to drive up and pay my respects to a man whose work I already so admire. For, when it comes to prose, I latch on to what I love and hold tight, steadfast, and never let it go.
The road to Rockville was uneventful, and I wound my way through the hills and flats of Rockville, a suburban Maryland city, the center of the sprawling Montgomery County. The sky was grey and a rough wind slapped against the car’s windshield. School children leapt off buses and into traffic, swerving and running wit their hands over their head, excited for the end of the school day, the promise of Christmas break glowing in their eyes. A homeless man stood on a median and begged for change, holding a sign ‘Homeless with a bad heart– help?’. I imagined him as Klipspringer from Gatsby, a shiftless freeloader who lives in Jay Gatsby’s marvelous estate.
St Mary’s came up suddenly on the right, and I jerked my way through a lane of traffic to make the narrow turn into the parking lot, which was full of running cars, of parent’s waiting for the Catholic day school to spill their children out unto the street. I parked behind the school, a modern building, and walked around the line of cars to the old Church building, which stood white and regal, facing the busy street, its reflection painted in a towering glass office building across the intersection. Beside it was a patch of grass– faded, unmanicured– behind a black gate. The gate wasn’t locked and there was no one in the yard save for me. There in the center was the largest, cleanest grave, the author’s final resting place.
What does it mean, when even F. Scott Fitzgerald can’t make money writing? What does it mean when America’s most treasured author dies of drink, falling against a mantlepiece into his mistress’ arms? What does it mean when his wife, a sharp mind herself, dies alone in a mental hospital fire, eight years later?
I ask his grave this, silently. I put my hand against the stone and mutter useless questions to a man who has been dead for over 70 years.
And, don’t tell anyone this, but I think i felt a shiver go through my arm and down my spine, and I think I felt a little more calm after that.
In the final chapters of The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby, really, James Gatz, dies in a swimming pool, shot through with bullets. The narrator, Nick Carraway, phones everyone who ever knew Gatsby–his numerous party guests, his business associates, Klipspringer the freeloader.
No one comes to the funeral,and the grandiosity of Jay Gatsby’s pretended life is over, finally and wordlessly.
I went to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s grave on a cold and grey December evening to tell him this:
You are not Jay Gatsby, and your fire burns still, and the party is never over, and the book is never put down.