“Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”
Saint Mary’s Catholic Church in downtown Rockville has a small graveyard—a fenced patch with unassuming headstones. The cemetery has no grandiose statues of angels or saints to adorn the graves and draw attention. However, the graveyard does have one attraction, which brings in local visitors and tourists. In the cemetery rests F. Scott Fitzgerald, the famous American novelist who wrote "The Great Gatsby," a book about the Roaring 1920s, which is still taught in English classes today.
Born in 1896, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald led a scandalous and tragic life. Alcoholism and general debauchery greatly contributed to his fatal heart attack at the age of 44. He lived the life that he wrote about in novels like "This Side of Paradise" and "Tender is the Night." Fitzgerald married Zelda Sayre in April 1920, a woman from Alabama who had an equally difficult life, spending many years in a sanitarium before dying there, at the age of 48, with eight other women in an accidental fire.
The Fitzgerald family has roots in Rockville, and F. Scott is buried on the family plot. But even the grave of F. Scott has a controversial history. In fact, there has been a fair amount of ink spilled over the grave of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Montgomery County Historical Society archives state that Fitzgerald died in 1940 in Hollywood, Calif. in his lover’s apartment, a woman named Sheilah Graham. Because of his adulterous relationship and party lifestyle, the Catholic Church denied F. Scott the rite to be buried on consecrated ground in the family plot at Saint Mary’s. F. Scott had wanted to be buried with his parents, but instead he was buried in a small Protestant cemetery called Rockville Union Cemetery, located about two miles from Saint Mary’s. Zelda’s casket was later placed in the same grave, on top of her husband’s casket.
Many of the Historical Society members have F. Scott Fitzgerald stories. One lady said the original gravesite at the Rockville Union Cemetery had been a personal shrine of hers for years, which also attracted other visitors.
In 1975, F. Scott and Zelda’s caskets were moved to Saint Mary’s, largely through the efforts of their only child, Scotti F. Smith, the women’s club of Rockville, and state legislator Jennie Forehand.
The Historical Society has a collection of archives that not only include newspaper and magazine clippings, but personal essays from local residents. Among the archives is a Gazette newspaper clipping from 1985 which quotes then-county official Russell Hamill, who called the reburial in Saint Mary’s “the longest Irish wake in history.”
Saint Mary’s parishioner Roger Langley wrote an article called “The Longest Irish Wake” for the Potomac Catholic Heritage in 2009. Langley explains F. Scott’s filial connection to Rockville, covers Fitzgerald’s life and literary work, and gives insight into the Catholic state-of-mind concerning a man also known as the “beloved infidel.”
According to Langley, the Fitzgerald family originally settled in the area in 1838, where a suburb of Rockville now exists. Two generations later, F. Scott spent some of his childhood visiting his Aunt Eliza Delihant on a farmhouse near Randolf Station. He also attended his father’s funeral at St. Mary’s in 1931.
At the time of his death, F. Scott had strayed away from his faith in the eyes of the Church, Langley suggests: “By all accounts Fitzgerald was a fallen-away Catholic, married to a Protestant, a college drop-out, a drunk, an irresponsible child all his life, an exhibitionist, who with his wife became the poster couple for a lawless, bawdy, free living, sexually prolific, selfish, gluttonous, crime-driven, and immoral time period he personally proclaimed to be the Jazz Age.”
By all historical accounts, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first funeral in 1940 was dark, wet, and lonely. According to Langley, six pallbearers had to be hired for the funeral.
Thirty-five years later, when the campaign was started to reinter F. Scott and Zelda into St. Mary’s, the Catholic Church had changed and the rigid rules had softened, stated Langely. However, the Church allowed the inclusion of F. Scott and Zelda’s graves mostly because of their daughter Scotti’s wishes. Scotti was the last of the Fitzgeralds buried at Saint Mary’s in 1986.
In addition, Langley stated certain Catholic rites have still been denied F. Scott such as a Rite of Committal with Final Commendation. In effect, F. Scott was permitted a space in the cemetery but without the spiritual benefits.
Monsignor Robert Amey has been with Saint Mary’s since August 2009 but was ordained in 1969. Amey said the Catholic Church relaxed a bit during the 1970s, as they began to learn more about the field of psychology, which may have contributed to the acceptance of F. Scott and Zelda into St Mary’s.
Amey said when it comes to matters of forgiveness, the Catholic Church has let go of its strict doctrine. Instead, they believe the judgment of our eternal souls rests with God, who is merciful.
Amey said every year a group visits the gravesite on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday. He said he saw the visitors last September from his window as he was getting ready for bed one night. Amey smiled as he talked about the “anonymous group” who came to show respects and celebrate.
The grave continues to serve as a shrine for many fans and curiosity seekers, who leave behind tokens of their esteem. A recent visit discovered the grave covered in small change (mostly pennies and nickels), two one-shot bottles of Wild Turkey, and a pair of furry ladies gloves.
The epitaph on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s grave is the final line from "The Great Gatsby": “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”