ROCKVILLE – Amy Tan, the author of “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Kitchen God’s Wife,” received the Fitzgerald Award Oct. 12 at the 23rd annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival in Rockville.
The festival began in 1996 to celebrate the 100th birthday of Fitzgerald, who spent some of his life in Rockville and who, along with many family members, is buried at St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Veirs Mill Road.
The festival, which also featured short story contests for students and adults, was sponsored by The Friends of the Library, Montgomery County, Peerless Rockville and The Writer’s Center in Bethesda.
Originally a one-day event, it has grown to become a three-day event.
“It was a success. We thought Miss Tan was incredible,” said Pam Gates, festival spokesperson. “It was just like you were sitting around talking with friends. All (previous honorees’ talks) have a charm to them, but this one was magical,” she said.
Gates also praised the festival’s move to Glenview Mansion in Rockville. For the past two years, it had been held at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville. Glenview was a smaller, more intimate location, Gates said.
One part of the festival included a talk about the City of Rockville as it looked in the 1920s and 1930s, when Fitzgerald, who wrote “The Great Gatsby,” spent time there.
Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. in 1896, but spent many summers in Rockville, where his grandparents had a farm, according to Eileen McGuckian, the former executive director of Peerless Rockville.
It was close to the current location of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Today that is considered Gaithersburg, but in the early 1900s, it was in the Rockville election district, she said.
In the 1800s, Rockville was home to many tobacco farms, but as that crop dried up the land, residents turned to dairy farming.
In 1920, Rockville was a small town with 1,145 residents. It grew slowly, increasing to 1,422 residents in 1930, according to McGuckian.
Once the railroad stopped there, it allowed residents to travel to Washington, D.C., the population began to climb, and the pavement of streets like Rockville Pike and Veirs Mill Road began around 1925, she said.
“We are talking about a small town Fitzgerald knew,” McGuckian said. “It was a very small, sleepy town, and all around this town, there were farms.”
The trolley came through between the years 1900 and 1930.
Some of the bigger mom-and-pop stores included Grossman Bros., a meat market that delivered twice a day, and Vincent Drug Store.
“There were lots of churches, (with) most of them with fewer than 50 congregants,” McGuckian said. “Schools, of course, were segregated.”
Baseball was popular, and once each year, the white team played the “colored” team, as it was referred to back then, she said. There was a library, but for several years, it operated out of a law office. The Rockville Fire Department was formed in 1922, following a large fire. There was a small airport on Rockville Pike for many years, but it never had enough business, and soon lost out to what is now Reagan National Airport.
Around this time, the residents were 2/3 white and 1/3 black, she said.
Fitzgerald’s father, Edward, was a young boy of 10 when Civil War General Jeb Stuart marched through Rockville on his way to Gettysburg. His father told the story often, which made a big impression on his son, McGuckian said.
Edward Fitzgerald died in 1931, and F. Scott Fitzgerald returned to Rockville for the funeral. At that time, he was writing, “Tender is the Night.”
His mother died a few years later, although he did not return to the area at that time, McGuckian said.
Following the death of his parents, Fitzgerald went to college, married, had a daughter and traveled in Europe.
He constantly tried to borrow money and was depressed, especially following the institutionalization of his wife, Zelda. He moved to Hollywood in the hope of making money writing screenplays.
“He died of heartache brought on by alcoholism, depression and despair” in December 1940, McGuckian said.
Because Fitzgerald was a lapsed Catholic whose books covered subjects that the church considered blasphemous, St. Mary’s did not allow him to be buried alongside his parents, she noted.
Instead, he was buried at Rockville Cemetery, where his body remained until 1975.
At that time, he was moved to St. Mary’s, where his daughter also was buried, making it the burial site of five generations of Fitzgeralds.
People continue to visit his grave and often leave bottles of alcohol, writing paper and books, McGuckian said.
“Maryland is always in Fitzgerald’s heart, but he doesn’t get back there often,” she said.
Other festival events included writing workshops, a lecture by Vaddey Ratner, author of “In the Shadow of the Banyan.”
The keynote speaker was David Brown, author of “Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald.” He spoke about “Southern Sympathies: Maryland and the Making of F. Scott Fitzgerald.”