29: The Sound of Music

There are few movies that stand near the top of the all-time list for income. One of those movies is The Sound of Music.

With a budget of about $8 million when it was produced in the 1960s, it was one of the bigger budget films when it was made. That $8 million is about $62 million in today’s United States dollars.

In a 2008 interview, the youngest of the von Trapp family portrayed in the film, Johannes von Trapp, said, “The Sound of Music was great, but it was an American version of my family’s life. It wasn’t what we were.”

So if the movie isn’t who they were, that begs the question: who were the real von Trapp family?

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Episode Transcript

There are few movies that stand near the top of the all-time list for income. One of those movies is The Sound of Music.

With a budget of about $8 million when it was produced in the 1960s, it was one of the bigger budget films when it was made. That $8 million is about $62 million in today’s United States dollars.

When it was released in 1965, it raked in over 35 times that amount, about $286 million on its way to an impressive five Academy Awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture in 1966. That equates to about $2.1 billion dollars today. Yes, that’s billion with a “b”. And since then it’s made a couple hundred million more. So when you adjust for inflation, as of this writing, that ranks The Sound of Music as the fifth-highest grossing film of all time.

That’s behind Gone with the Wind at number one, followed by Avatar, Star Wars, and Titanic.

In a 2008 interview, the youngest of the von Trapp family portrayed in the film, Johannes von Trapp, said, “The Sound of Music was great, but it was an American version of my family’s life. It wasn’t what we were.”

So if the movie isn’t who they were, that begs the question: who were the real Trapp family?

The true story behind The Sound of Music

The movie opens with breathtaking scenery of the Austrian mountains. As the camera pans around, an orchestral score begins. Soon, we see Maria, who is played by the super talented Julie Andrews. We hear her start belting out the theme song to the movie. And so the movie begins as we’re introduced to Julie Andrews’ version of Maria. Her character is set up as one of the more troublesome nuns in a remote abbey.

Because of Maria’s troublesome behavior, the Abbess decides to send Maria to the home of a retired Captain von Trapp, who’s played by Christopher Plummer.

In the movie we never really learn either Maria’s last name, although it’s worth pointing out in the Rogers & Hammerstein Broadway musical that the movie is based on, Maria’s last name is Rainer. That’s not true. Rainer was Maria’s mother’s maiden name, but not her father’s or her last name. So before we continue, let’s clarify a few things about the real people, starting with Maria.

The real Maria wasn’t quite this character that Julie Andrews portrayed.

In truth, the character Maria was based on a woman named Maria Augusta Kutschera. Maria was born on January 26th, 1905. Two years later, her mother died and her father sent her off to live with an older cousin.

It was here that Maria grew up under strict household rules. She was an atheist and a socialist until her college years, when her worldview was changed by a Jesuit priest. That’s how she ended up dedicating her life to a convent.

On the other hand, the real Captain that Christopher Plummer portrays in the film was Georg von Trapp. Born on April 4th, 1880, Georg von Trapp joined the Austrian Navy at the age of 18. Like in the movie, the title Captain comes from that time, as he served in from 1898 to 1918 during both the Boxer Rebellion and World War I.

The movie eludes to the Captain having a wife before the timeline of the film, although there’s not a lot of information about her.

The true story here is that Georg von Trapp married Agatha Whitehead while the Captain was still in the Navy. Agatha was the granddaughter of Robert Whitehead, who was the inventor of the modern torpedo. So that’s where the Captain received much of his wealth, as Agatha inherited money from her grandfather.

After Captain von Trapp left the Navy at the age of 38, it was Agatha’s inherited wealth that let the couple settle down with their family. Sadly, Agatha passed away on September 3rd, 1922 from scarlet fever that she contracted from one of her children.

In the movie, after Maria arrives at the von Trapp family home, she’s left alone and starts wandering around the house. That’s how she stumbles upon a dark ballroom. She meets the stern Captain von Trapp when the door bursts open. This room is off limits, something she later learns from the children has been the case ever since their mother passed away.

That’s not true. In fact, Georg and Agatha never lived in the home in the movie together. In truth, Georg moved from where they lived in Erlhof to a new home in Salzburg in 1924, two years after Agatha passed. It was because of her passing that Georg felt his family needed a change of scenery. Erlhof is in what’s modern-day Germany, about 250 miles to the north of Salzburg, Austria.

So it’s not possible to have rooms in the home that their mother used, as the movie indicates.

There’s another little detail that shows us the military precision that the Captain uses to run his family. That’s the whistle. He has a unique call for each child.

This is actually true. According to the von Trapp family’s official website, “In Salzburg, we had a large house and large gardens, so he used that whistle to call us instead of his voice, which we might not have heard. Each one of us had a special call, and one call for when he wanted all of us. When we heard this, we stormed to him, but we never had to march or stand at attention.”

Another big difference between the movie and the true story comes with the purpose of Maria’s arrival at the von Trapp home. In the movie, Maria is called to the Captain’s home to be a governess for all seven children.

The children in the movie are Liesl, Friedrich, Louisa, Kurt, Brigitta, Marta, and Gretl. And the actors portraying the children are Charmain Carr, who plays Liesl, Nicholas Hammond who plays Friedrich, Duane Chase playing Kurt, Angela Cartwright playing Brigitta, Debbie Turner who plays Marta, and last but certainly not least, the youngest child, Gretl, is played by Kym Karath.

None of these children’s names are real. They were all changed for the movie. The real Trapp children were Rupert, Werner, Johanna, Agathe, Maria Franziska, Martina, and Hedwig.

But while the movie says Maria was tasked with being the governess for all seven children, the truth is that Maria was a schoolteacher at the abbey. Then young Maria Franziska contracted scarlet fever. This was the same sickness that had taken Agatha’s life, so Georg used his wealth to try to help Maria Franziska. One of those things was to contact the local abbey to get an in-home tutor.

Maria was tasked with the job, and that’s how the real Maria ended up in the von Trapp’s home.

In the movie, Julie Andrews’ version of Maria arrives at the home and quickly starts teaching the children about music. Through musical excursions and outings, the children find more joy than they’d experienced in a long time. The children fall in love with Maria, and Maria with the children.

There’s tidbits of truth here, but the premise is a little different than what actually happened. Of course, all of the songs in The Sound of Music were made up for the movie. But even more than that, the von Trapps were already very musically inclined. Maria didn’t have to teach them “When you sing, you begin with Do, Re, Mi” like she did in the movie. And they didn’t have to hide from Captain von Trapp, like the movie claims.

In truth, Georg von Trapp loved musical activities with his family. He wasn’t the cold-hearted patriarch that the movie makes him out to be. All of that warming of the heart as Georg and Maria fell in love through music was made up for the movie.

As we start to see the Captain and Maria grow closer together in the movie, there’s another woman in the picture. This is Baroness Elsa Schraeder, who is played by Eleanor Parker. Captain von Trapp gets engaged to the Baroness, something that causes quite a bit of distress for the children and Maria—who finds herself falling in love with the Captain.

In truth, Baroness Schraeder is based on a wealthy Vienesse countess whom the children called Princess Yvonne. Interestingly, in 1956 there was another movie which told the story of the Trapp family. Simply called The Trapp Family, this film was the inspiration for the Broadway musical that The Sound of Music was based on.

However, there was no Baroness role. Instead, The Trapp Family more accurately cast the actress Maria Holst into the role of Princess Yvonne. So like they did with the children, the name of the real person was changed in the movie, and we ended up with the character of Baroness Schraeder.

Although her name may have been different, the character was fairly similar to the real person. Granted, the events and conversations that took place in the movie between the Baroness and the Captain may not be accurate, the overarching storyline is similar to reality. According to a letter written by one of the children, Agathe, Princess Yvonne, as the children called her, was apparently a cousin of Georg von Trapp’s first wife, Agatha.

So that’s likely how the two met.

In the movie, once she realizes she’s falling in love with the Captain, Julie Andrews’ version of Maria runs back to the abbey. As someone who’s never experienced love before, and knowing the Captain is to be engaged to the Baroness, she seeks the advice of the Mother Abbess. This character, played by Peggy Wood, advises the young Maria to follow her heart.

She does this with yet another great song, Climb ev’ry mountain.

None of this happened. In truth, once Maria was assigned to be the governess for the one ill daughter of Georg von Trapp, she never returned to abbey. The Baroness did, though, realize that Georg and Maria were falling in love with each other. One day, just like in the movie, the real Princess Yvonne told Maria that Georg was in love with her.

This came as a shock to Maria, who wasn’t in love with Georg. She was, however, in love with the children. According to Maria’s autobiography:

“I really and truly was not in love. I liked him but didn’t love him. However, I loved the children, so in a way I really married the children…by and by I learned to love him more than I have ever loved before or after.”
So she married Georg to stay with the children. Eventually, she did fall for Georg, but it wasn’t the love at first sight for Maria that the movie makes it seem.

Here is a good time to mention that the timeline of the movie is skewed as well. In the movie, all of these events are happening just before the Nazis take over Austria. But that’s not true.

A brief overview of the real timeline would be that Georg and his first wife, Agatha, had their first child in 1911. Georg then left the Austrian Navy in 1918, when World War I ended. Then in 1922, Agatha passed away.

In 1926, Maria came to help tutor one of the children, Maria Franziska, who took ill from scarlet fever. Then the following year, on November 6th, 1927, Georg married Maria, making her Maria von Trapp.

Germany annexed Austria on March 12th, 1938. While there was plenty of Nazi propaganda before the official annexation, Georg and Maria were married before the Nazis even rose to power Germany. And a full 11 years before the Nazis took over Austria.

So perhaps it’s because of the altered timeline that the movie doesn’t mention three more children that Georg and Maria had together in those 11 years. They were Rosmarie, Eleonore, and Johannes.

So while the timeline is off, the next major plotline in the movie surrounds Georg von Trapp being called into the German Navy after they annex Austria. But Georg refuses to join the Nazi Party.

This is very true, but there’s more to the story than the movie indicates.

Before the Nazis took over Austria, Georg had moved all of his savings from London to an Austrian bank owned by a friend of his. This was a move that would prove to be a problem. In 1929, the crash on Wall Street that caused the Great Depression in the United States stretched around the world. It also affected banks around the world, and the Austrian banks failed.

By 1935, the Trapp family had run out of money. Their servants were sent away, and the family moved into the top floor of their estate so they could rent out the other rooms. One of the people who stayed in their home was Father Franz Wasner. It was Father Wasner who helped the Trapp family start their singing career as a way to make money.

So by the time the Germans annexed Austria, the Trapp family was touring around Austria as a family of singers. On one of these trips, in the summer of 1938 just after the annexation of Austria by Germany, the Trapp family was singing in Munich when they met Hitler himself at a restaurant there.

However, this was more of a chance meeting. It wasn’t this encounter, but it was because of Captain Georg von Trapp’s military background that the German Navy recruited Georg. But just like in the movie, Georg vehemently opposed the Nazi Party. He’d had enough of war, and didn’t want to leave his family. So he refused to join the German Navy.

The German Navy, on the other hand, didn’t really like that.

The movie ends when the Trapp family performs one last time in Austria. While no one else knows, the Trapp family has arranged an escape after this last performance.

With Nazis closing in, the Trapp family manages to escape the auditorium. The soldiers search for the family across the city. One of these being the young Rolfe, played by Daniel Truhitte. In the movie, Rolfe was the romantic interest of the Trapp’s oldest daughter, Liesl.

This makes for a tense moment when a family friend is now in the Nazi Party, and ends up trying to turn them in.

While that sort of romance could have happened at the time, and there were plenty of family friends who turned on their own family, friends, and neighbors at the time, this particular budding romance was made up for the film.

The movie’s final moments end happily as we see the Trapp family escaping over the mountains.

The overarching plotline is correct, but the details were all made up. By that, what I mean is the Trapp family did escape the Nazis. But it didn’t happen the way it did in the movie. There wasn’t one last, very touching performance as the Captain bids a sad farewell to the Austria he loves by singing the song Edelweiss.

In fact, the song Edelweiss was made up for the Rogers & Hammerstein musical.

According to the memoirs of Agathe called Agathe von Trapp: Memories Before and After The Sound of Music, she says the family simply crossed the street, boarded a train, and requested asylum in the United States.

Providing a few more details in a 2003 interview with Opera News, Maria Franziska said, “We did tell people that we were going to America to sing. And we did not climb over mountains with all our heavy suitcases and instruments. We left by train, pretending nothing.”

Still, and this is purely my speculation, but I’d venture to guess that with all of these details it’s safe to say that while the Germans did want Captain von Trapp to join their Navy, he apparently wasn’t the highly sought target as the movie implies. Otherwise, the Nazis certainly wouldn’t have let the family go to America to perform.

Even if the United States and Germany weren’t at war, it wasn’t like they were exactly friendly. So if Captain von Trapp had been some highly prized Navy Captain, the Nazis wouldn’t have let him left. I think history proves that the Nazis were willing to do whatever it took to get what they really wanted.

So the whole chase scene where the Nazis are trying to track down the Trapp family toward the end was made up for the film. While the movie claims this happened in 1939, again the timeline is a little off here.

In truth, the Trapp family arrived in America toward the end of 1938. We know this because there’s documentation of the last child of Georg and Maria von Trapp being born in Philadelphia in January of 1939. He was the tenth child, and the only one to be born in the United States.

After the events in the movie, the Trapp family continued their singing careers. They moved to a comfortable home in Vermont, and spent much of the 1940s touring the United States singing. They continued this until 1957, when the Trapp Family Singers officially broke up.

Oh, and as you can tell by the name “Trapp Family Singers”, they dropped the word “von” from their last name. That’s a common word in a lot of Austrian and German names that used to mean “from” and denoted where someone was from; however, over the centuries that turned into an indication of nobility.

There’s not much documentation about why this was, so this is just my speculation but maybe that was a marketing thing—after World War II, maybe they didn’t think Americans would be as likely to see the Von Trapp Family Singers. Or maybe it was just for the sake of simplicity; the Trapp Family Singers rolls off the tongue a little easier than the Von Trapp Family Singers, at least for us Americans.

Anyway, I just wanted to point that out because throughout this episode, I’ve referred to them as the Trapp family unless I’ve mentioned a specific person. That’s just because they dropped “von” in their own family’s surname when they toured the U.S.

After the Trapp Family Singers broke up, the family’s relationship stayed close-knit, but they went their separate ways to find new careers.

On May 30th, 1947, Georg von Trapp died of lung cancer at the family home in Stowe, Vermont. Maria lived for another 40 years. She passed in a Morrisville, Vermont hospital of heart failure three days after having surgery on March 28th, 1987 at the age of 82.

After her parent’s passing, their home went to Maria Franziska. She turned it into a travel destination called the Trapp Family Lodge. Today, the Trapp Family Lodge is a beautiful 2,500 acre resort that overlooks the town of Stowe, Vermont, from the nearby mountains. Stowe is about 25 miles to the east of the New York and Vermont border along Lake Champlain.

As of this writing, of the original Trapp children, only the three youngest are still alive. Rupert, the oldest, was born on November 1st, 1911, and was a physician by trade and was married twice, and had two sons and four daughters. Rupert passed away at the age of 80 on February 22nd, 1992.

Next is Agathe. She was the second-oldest, born on March 12th, 1913. She continued her love of music as she enjoyed life as a singer and artist. She never married or had children, but living in Baltimore, Maryland, she ran a kindergarten at the Sacred Heart Catholic parish in Glyndon, Maryland. Agathe passed away at the age of 97 on December 28th, 2010.

Maria Franziska, the little child whose sickness ultimately brought Georg and Maria together, was born on September 28th, 1914. She didn’t stay in the United States after the Trapp Family Singers broke up. Instead, she went to Papua New Guinea to be a missionary. In 1965, she returned to the family home in Vermont where she helped run the family’s lodge.

For five days, from July 22nd to July 27th, 2008, Maria Franziska, Johannes and Werner’s widow, Erika, were the only members of the Trapp family to return to their childhood home in Salzburg.

On February 18th, 2014, at the age of 99, Maria Franziska passed away.

The fourth-oldest child was Werner. He was born on December 21st, 1915. He married in 1948, and had six children. Four sons, and two daughters. One of his daughters, Elisabeth von Trapp, has continued to carry on the family’s musical tradition with her career as a folk singer. Werner passed away at the age of 91 on October 11th, 2007.

Hedwig was the fifth-oldest child, born on July 28th, 1917. She followed in her step-mother’s footsteps as she was a schoolteacher by trade. She lived in Hawaii and never married, nor did she ever have any children. She passed away at the age of 55 on September 14th, 1972.

Sixth-oldest was Johanna. She was born on September 7th, 1919. She got married in 1948, and ended up moving back to Austria. Living in Vienna, Johanna and her husband had seven children. She died in Vienna at the age of 75 on November 25th, 1994.

The final of the seven children from Georg and his first wife Agatha was Martina. She was born on February 17th, 1921. She was married, but sadly didn’t survive the birth of her first child. She died of complications during childbirth on February 25th, 1951 at only 30 years of age. Her daughter was stillborn.

The first of the children from Georg and Maria was Rosmarie. There’s some discrepancy about when she was born. According to some, she was born on February 8th, 1928. This date came from Maria’s petition for naturalization, papers she signed under oath when Maria arrived in the United States. But then later in her autobiography, Maria von Trapp said Rosmarie was born on February 8th, 1929—one year after the other paperwork. If it was 1928, seeing as Georg and Maria were married November 6th, 1927, that would mean Rosmarie was conceived out of wedlock. Not exactly something the Catholic religion smiles upon. So which was it? We don’t know.

Like her older sister, Rosmarie was also a missionary in Papua New Guinea for many years. She hasn’t married, and doesn’t have any children. As of this writing, she’s currently living in Pittsburgh.

Eleonore was born on May 14th, 1931. She married in 1954 and has seven children—all girls. She’s also alive as of this writing, and lives in Vermont with her family.

The last of the Trapp family children is Johannes. He was born on January 17th, 1939. He married in 1969 and has two children, one son and one daughter. Together with his son, Sam, Johannes currently runs the family resort in Stowes, Vermont.

In the end, even though the movie changes quite a few of the details, no one can deny the Trapp family’s story is an extraordinary one that certainly deserves to live on through history.

Today, you can visit Georg and Maria. Along with four of their children, Rupert, Werner, Hedwig, and Martina, Georg and Maria von Trapp are buried alongside each other in a cemetery at the family lodge.

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