Most folks figure that the Poe Toaster is stone, stone dead. It’s getting on three years now he’s been a no-show for the macabre middle-of-the-night tributes to Baltimore’s most famous decedent. If the idea toasting tortured authors is your thing, though, you can still find literary pilgrims making clandestine visits to an urban cemetery, leaving gifts of half-consumed spirits and funeral bouquets on a quiet grave.
L: A photo of the Poe Toaster from Life; R: Poe, courtesy Library of Congress
F. Scott Fitzgerald rests in the simple cemetery of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Rockville, Maryland (about an hour’s drive from Poe’s final stop in Baltimore). Fitzgerald, of course, authored The Great Gatsby, considered by many scholars to be the Great American Novel. He’s there at St. Mary’s beside several family members; the Fitzgeralds had roots in Maryland’s countryside stretching back more than a century.
Fitzgerald’s peaceful repose at St. Mary’s belies the winding and tortured journey he took to get there. He was a genius, no doubt, but the characters he cast were very much a reflection of his own life. His temperance-be-damned approach to living, not to mention his constant traveling, took a steep toll on his health and shortened an otherwise remarkable life.
Fitzgerald forsook his Catholic faith as a young man, and when death caught up with him at age 44 in 1940, leadership of the church forbade him burial beside his parents at St. Mary’s. His life had been a downhill spiral despite success he achieved as a novelist during his lifetime. About thirty people showed up for his funeral service and interment at Rockville Cemetery, the local municipal burial ground. Eight years later his wife Zelda, who battled mental illness for much of her life, was laid to rest beside him.
Fans and mourners paid visits to the Fitzgeralds’ resting place, but over time the grave became unkempt, overgrown, beneath the standard many felt this iconic couple deserved. The Fitzgeralds’ one and only daughter Scottie petitioned church officials, and they allowed Scott and Zelda to be reinterred in the Fitzgerald plot at St. Mary’s in 1975.
People leave booze on Fitzgerald’s grave.
It’s much easier to pay respects to the couple now; St. Mary’s sits at the corner of a busy Rockville intersection (here on Google Maps), and you can’t miss all the Fitzgerald headstones in the northeast corner of the tidy cemetery.
“There’s no lock on the gate, so people can let themselves in,” Monsignor Robert Amey, pastor of St. Mary’s, told me. “They’re welcome to do that, we only prefer that they not do it at night.”
For the most part, Amey told me, Fitzgerald’s toasters honor that request, except, of course, for one special evening every year. The morning of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday, September 24, his grave bears ample evidence of having been visited the night before.
Msgr. Amey said that people who don’t make it for Fitzgerald’s birthday come all other times of the year, leaving tokens on his grave–half-consumed liquor bottles, change, flowers. The day I visited Fitzgerald all those things were there plus a number of writing-themed mementos: pens and pencils, a couple diaries, a note apologizing that the latest film adaptation of The Great Gatsby included music by Jay-Z.
L: F. Scott Fitzgerald, courtesy Library of Congress; R: On Fitzgerald’s grave, bottom lines read “I am sorry they used Jay-Z in the soundtrack to your movie. Nate”
And speaking of that 2013 rendition of Fitzgerald’s opus, Amey said that visits to the cemetery spiked after the movie came out. “There was obviously additional interest, and visitation probably tripled, including some busloads of students, but it’s hard for me to say because I don’t see most of the people that go there,” he said.
Amey said he and St. Mary’s parishioners don’t mind the attention and are glad the Catholic Church’s arms have opened a little wider in the decades since Fitzgerald’s death. “He was as good man in many ways, a talented writer. That’s God-given and we want to recognize him for that,” said Amey.
L: St. Mary’s Church cemetery; R: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s parents
Fitzgerald’s fans differ some from the Poe Toaster. The latter was a quirk, a curiosity, a single, shadowy figure whose identity will likely never be known, a recluse who stole into a dark cemetery in the wee hours to remember a virtuoso the same way year-after-year. The tributes paid Fitzgerald have a gayer air about them, graveside eulogies at all hours that might be little more than an airplane bottle of Schnapps or some lint-dusted pocket change–exactly the sort of salute Daisy Buchanan might have made just for kicks.
But the sentiment of the Poe Toaster nevertheless lives on at Fitzgerald’s grave: honoring the life of a hero of American culture in a way that would suit his style of fiction. I’d like to think that if each man knew the way his short life was being hailed, he’d first have a good chuckle then grab a pen.
The municipal cemetery (down the street from St. Mary’s) where Fitzgerald was buried from 1940-1975