On the death and burial of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“The poor son-of-a-bitch,” said Dorothy Parker with typically sour wit, upon seeing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s embalmed corpse laid out at a shabby Los Angeles funeral parlor in 1940. She was, of course, quoting Owl-Eyes, the sole extrafamilial spectator at Jay Gatsby’s funeral in The Great Gatsby, and no doubt grimacing about how creator and creation shared largely unmourned deaths.
Fitzgerald, it seems, had not been imagining such a sudden, unceremonious end for himself. Just several months before—as he struggled to write screenplays and his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon—he joked in a letter to his daughter Scottie to hold off on his biography until he had done more.
“I am 43 and may still have a lot to say for myself,” he said. “I think you’d be somewhat premature.”
But a few weeks later, as rain fell over a Protestant cemetery in rural Maryland, there was no denying that Fitzgerald’s career was over. He was a forgotten author, surrounded by only a few acquaintances as well as his daughter, who managed to fit in the funeral between social events.
The Episcopal priest who conducted the ceremony, Raymond Black, acted as if it were of little consequence. Black, who served as the rector of Christ Church in Rockville for thirty years, always waved away reporters when it came to Fitzgerald. “It made no particular difference to me,” he said once. “I was merely performing my duty,” he said at another time. He at last settled on a pious refrain: “I would not refuse a Christian burial to any man.”
Fitzgerald’s biographer Andrew Turnbull recalled in Scott Fitzgerald (1962) that Black’s rote, High Church prayers over Fitzgerald’s body were recited “as if nothing were being said of him or to him that the heart could hear.”
“It was a meaningless occasion, having no apparent connection with the man, save as one of life’s grim jokes designed to make us think,” Turnbull wrote.
As with so many other things in Fitzgerald’s life, none of it was planned to happen this way. The author whose work so often deals with sordid ends had no definite ideas about his own—why would he?—except that he be buried in Maryland, “where everything is civilized and gay and rotted and polite,” as he wrote in a letter to his secretary, Laura Guthrie.
“And I wouldn’t mind a bit if in a few years Zelda and I could snuggle up together under a stone in some old graveyard here,” he wrote, referring to his wife, by then committed to a mental institution. “That is really a happy thought and not melancholy at all.”
But he never settled on a particular “old graveyard.” It was assumed that Fitzgerald would find a home behind a Catholic church. After all, the author was raised a Catholic, was married in the rectory of Manhattan’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and even had his daughter baptized into the faith long after he had lost his own. The Catholic church in Rockville was St. Mary’s, where Fitzgerald’s parents and grandparents were buried.
Fitzgerald had visited the place and had written about it at least twice. The first time was in a story written for Esquire, “On Your Own,” where the narrator attends her father’s funeral at a cemetery in the fictional town of Rocktown, Maryland. The second is a reworked version of that same story, inserted into the novel Tender Is the Night (1934). Here, the novel’s hero, Dick Diver, kneels on the ground beneath which his ancestors lie and attempts to free himself from the weight of his family’s history.
“Goodbye, my father—goodbye, all my fathers,” he says, before leaving the cemetery forever.
That ability to leave the past in the past was a capacity which Fitzgerald himself always craved but never quite attained. Details from his own life and lineage litter his first novel, This Side of Paradise (1921), as do references to his boyhood faith, often in the form of complaints. “I’m sick of Chesterton,” Amory Blaine, the novel’s hero, explains at one point. By the novel’s end, he’s sick of everything: “I know myself, but that is all,” he sighs.
As with creation, so with creator. The author spent his entire life disentangling himself from his murky Irish-Catholic lineage, bouncing between the personas of westward-looking pioneer and East Coast socialite. In this light, it’s unsurprising that St. Mary’s refused to take Fitzgerald’s body. By the time he died, in Hollywood, the most unreal city, he had swung so far west that only the Episcopalians could reel him back in.
In truth, though, Fitzgerald always belonged with his Catholic ancestors rotting in Maryland. Fitzgerald of all people knew that the past, no matter how one strives to escape or alter it, will eventually overtake any resistance. And so it’s equally unsurprising that St. Mary’s eventually reclaimed him, thirty-five years after his death. “Boats against the current” and all that.
That line, from the conclusion of The Great Gatsby, is Fitzgerald’s most famous for a reason. It’s a sentence that, even free from the context of the novel, signals wistful resignation to a uniquely American sort of nostalgia. And it is the epitaph on Fitzgerald’s gravestone, which, as a result of development sprouting from Washington, D.C., is located no longer in the countryside but amidst a vast and unfocused suburban sprawl.
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