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Movie could pique interest in 'Great Gatsby' author's Rockville grave

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Peg Warshaw bent to collect coins that had fallen off the grave of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The 71-year-old New Jersey resident carefully replaced them -- along with a pen, some loose stones and a one-ounce bottle of Seagram's 7 whiskey -- atop "The Great Gatsby" author's headstone.

Warshaw made the pilgrimage Wednesday with her husband, Robert, and her brother, Andrew Fedlam, a Rockville native who has visited the grave site on Rockville Pike many times.

"With the new movie coming out soon, it made everybody read 'The Great Gatsby' again, so I asked my brother if we could visit the grave," Warshaw said.

The family had the cemetery of St. Mary's Catholic Church to themselves that afternoon. Tourists occasionally visit the grave of the famous author, his wife and his daughter, but church officials don't expect a flood of new activity with the release of the new movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio on Friday.

"Around his birthday we see a lot of activity, people coming at night," said Pastoral Assistant Joan Madaras. "Sometimes schools come if they have a project, if they're reading the book."

Fitzgerald's father was buried at St. Mary's, where the Fitzgeralds have a family plot. Although neither F. Scott nor Zelda spent much time in Maryland, the family had connections in the state: F. Scott's full name is Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, as he is a distant cousin of the "Star-Spangled Banner" author.

"In St. Mary's chapel he attended his father's funeral in 1931, and it was around that time he decided he wanted to be buried with his ancestors and it very much felt like home to him," said Mary van Balgooy, executive director of Peerless Rockville, a historic preservation society.

Fitzgerald was originally buried in the Rockville Union Cemetery, because as a lapsed Catholic the church ruled he could not be buried beneath hallowed ground. F. Scott's daughter, Frances "Scottie" Fitzgerald Smith, successfully petitioned the church to have the remains of both of her parents moved to the family plot in 1975.

The headstone includes the famous last line from "The Great Gatsby" -- "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Van Balgooy said she expects the upcoming movie to pique interest in the gravesite.

Author Maureen Corrigan discovered the site by accident because it was near her car dealership, but now visits it often. Corrigan, critic in residence and English lecturer at Georgetown University, said it isn't common anymore for people to make pilgrimages to their favorite authors' graves, but the devoted still do it.

"Maybe that's an old-fashioned thing, people going to grave sites. I don't see my students making these trips," Corrigan said. "Maybe there will be a slight uptick [after the movie is released], but I don't expect hundreds or thousands of people gathering at the grave."

The coins, pens and liquor bottle at the gravesite are tributes, Corrigan said, though she pointed out that the coins and liquor may be in bad taste, as Fitzgerald struggled with money problems and alcoholism toward the end of his life.

"That tribute paying, we don't have Westminster Abbey here, our writers are scattered all over the place," she said. "In lieu of a place, we go to our writers' graves to pay tribute."

abrownfield@washingtonexaminer.com

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