On January 26, 2012, Maria von Trapp would have celebrated her 107th birthday. To commemorate the day, we separate the woman from the myth. Originally published March 2011.
We all know all about Maria von Trapp – the plucky nun who spun around on a hilltop while singing, taught the von Trapp children how to sing, and fell in love with their father, marrying him as the Third Reich clamped down on their home. Oh, and she bore a striking resemblance to Mary Poppins…
The smash musical The Sound of Music was based on the life of the von Trapps as told by Maria in her book, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, and it does get some of the facts right. Others, meanwhile, are embellished or just plain made-up. The Sound of Music is a great story, but what’s the real story? Here are a few facts – some familiar, some a bit surprising – about Maria von Trapp.
1. Maria (Kutschera) von Trapp was born on January 26, 1905, on a train. Her parents were en route to a hospital in Vienna, but they didn’t quite make it.
2. She was orphaned at age six.
3. The uncle who raised her after her parents died was an atheist, and he taught her to mistrust religion and the Bible.
4. As a college student, Maria stumbled upon a church service when she thought she was attending a Bach concert. Although she was in the wrong place, she stayed to listen to the priest’s words, and she was stunned by how strongly they moved her.
5. Soon after graduating from college, she pursued her new religious feelings by entering the Benedictine Abbey of Nonnberg as a novice.
6. Though she felt devoted to her religious calling, Maria struggled under the tight discipline of the convent and the lack of exercise and fresh air. Her 1926 appointment to the von Trapp house was, in part, an attempt to let her spread her wings a bit before taking her vows. It was to be a temporary, 10-month assignment.
7. She wasn’t hired as a governess to all seven of the von Trapp children, but as tutor to just one: young Maria, who was recovering from scarlet fever.
8. Maria didn’t fall in love with Georg von Trapp, the children’s father – not right away, and not even before their marriage.
9. Nevertheless, they did marry in 1927. Maria, unsure if she should leave the convent to marry a man she liked but didn’t love, was swayed by his suggestion that she could be a second mother to the children. The nuns of the convent also encouraged her to marry, feeling it was God’s will.
10. The marriage, obviously, didn’t take place just days before the Nazis took Austria. In fact, that event was 11 years in the future.
11. Maria didn’t teach the children to sing – the family was already quite musical. She did teach them a specific kind of singing: madrigals.
12. By encouraging the children to sing, she wasn’t subverting the orders of a cruel, unmusical father. In fact, Georg was a kind and gentle parent who enjoyed making music with his family.
13. As the years went by, Maria came to love Georg deeply.
14. In addition to Georg’s seven children (Rupert, Agathe, Maria, Werner, Hedwig, Johanna and Martina) from his previous marriage, Maria and Georg had three children together: Rosmarie, Eleonore and Johannes.
15. Not always the sunny charmer of the musical, Maria was known for her hot temper. But even when she grew very angry, she was quick to forgive and forget.
16. Though the family was wealthy in the early days of the marriage, they lost almost everything in the worldwide depression of the early 1930s. Maria helped save the family through her thrifty nature, dismissing many servants and imposing general belt-tightening on the household. The depression also prompted the family to consider turning their hobby of singing into a money-making profession.
17. Just like in the musical, the Trapp Family Singers won first prize at the Salzburg Music Festival in 1936. The musical ramped up the drama with the family escaping the Nazis directly from the festival, but in reality they remained in Austria for two more years.
18. In 1938, the family was asked to sing at Hitler’s birthday party. A staunch anti-Nazi, Georg declined – and the family realized their vocal dissent put them at risk.
19. Not long before the Nazi occupation of Austria began, the von Trapps left for New York. They didn’t sneak out under hot pursuit by the Nazis – they simply left via train, hiding their activities from no one.
20. Almost immediately after arriving in the U.S., the family began touring the country and performing concerts.
21. When asked by immigration officials how long she planned to stay in the U.S., Maria said – contrary to the intentions declared by her six-month visa – “Oh, I am so glad to be here! I never want to leave again!”
22. The family settled in Stowe, Vermont, and ran a music camp. In later years, Maria ran the Trapp Family Lodge, a resort in Stowe.
23. Maria became a U.S. citizen in 1944. All the children also became citizens – only Georg retained his Austrian citizenship.
24. The family took issue with the musical for its incorrect portrayal of Georg as a cruel man (Georg himself couldn’t comment, as it was produced after his death) and with other inaccuracies. But despite some problems with the script, Maria took it in stride and felt she was portrayed rather well. She thought Julie Andrews was a bit “too gentle” – but this didn’t stop her from cheerfully appearing with Andrews on TV’s The Julie Andrews Hour in 1973.
Written by Linnea Crowther