Tracking Down a Tragic Couple

I knew where it was at, I thought, but after nearly an hour driving around Rockville, Maryland, I wasn’t sure I was ever going to find it.

But I wasn’t going to quit.

Just as I had read, it was totally surrounded and nearly obscured by gleaming, high-rise office buildings, apartments, and condominiums. Any peace and quiet that had once hovered over this small, sacred knoll next to a modest, steepled church had long since been shattered by hoards of streaming cars, delivery trucks, and city busses.

Yet there they lay, at least in spirit, beneath a carved tombstone — the only home they ever shared with each other for more than a few months at a time.

Scott and Zelda.

And at their feet their daughter Scottie, who died in 1986, after having spent a lifetime trying to heal from a childhood of shuffling from boarding school to boarding school, only knowing her invalid mother as a patient in a series of psychiatric hospitals, and her famous father as an itinerant hotel guest, including two years in room 441 at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville.

Frances Scott Key Fitzgerald had died in Hollywood at the age of 44 from a heart attack brought on by 26 years of alcohol abuse and a self-destructive lifestyle. His body had been shipped back to the Fitzgerald family plot outside Baltimore, where in 1948 Zelda joined him, in a sense.

In 1936 Scott had brought Zelda to Asheville to continue her treatment for schizophrenia at Highlands Hospital. By March of 1948 she had been given her release by the hospital’s physicians, but had opted to stay on for a few more days. Late on a Wednesday night, a fire started in the basement kitchen, shooting up the open shaft of a service elevator inside the antiquated wooden structure. The staff was able to lead the most severely handicapped women patients sleeping on the lower floors to safety on the lawn, but Zelda and eight others, trapped behind locked doors and barred windows on the upper floors, could find no escape. The inferno raged through the night as firemen and townspeople looked on helplessly — and hopelessly. When the flames finally died and the embers cooled, the only recognizable remains of Zelda Fitzgerald were one of her charred ballerina slippers.

As I stood at the end of the granite slab bearing the final lines from The Great Gatsby, I was joined by a young couple who smiled ruefully over the mementos fans had brought to the Fitzgeralds’ final resting place: a soggy copy of Tender Is the Night, coins, pebbles, a notebook, pens and pencils, two empty whiskey bottles, and a tall martini glass.

Sad, but fitting tributes to squandered talents and wasted opportunities.

As Scott once said, “Zelda and I did not ruin each other. We ruined ourselves.”

Lessons to be learned, even without reading their books.

Until next Monday,

As Grandma Hickok used to say, “Use it — or lose it!”


“So we beat on, boats against the current,

borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The Great Gatsby

Lower Photo:

Next Week: The Unusual Journey of a Roycroft Chandelier