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Winter 2005, Vol. 37, No. 4Movie vs. Reality:
The Real Story of the von Trapp Family
By Joan Gearin
I first saw the movieThe Sound of Musicas a young child, probably in the late 1960s. I liked the singing, and Maria was so pretty and kind! As I grew older, more aware of world history, and saturated by viewing the movie at least once yearly, I was struck and annoyed by the somewhat sanitized story of the von Trapp family it told, as well as the bad 1960s hairdos and costumes. "It's not historically accurate!" I'd protest, a small archivist in the making. In the early 1970s I saw Maria von Trapp herself on Dinah Shore's television show, and boy, was she not like the Julie Andrews version of Maria! She didn't look like Julie, and she came across as a true force of nature. In thinking about the fictionalized movie version of Maria von Trapp as compared to this very real Maria von Trapp, I came to realize that the story of the von Trapp family was probably something closer to human, and therefore much more interesting, than the movie led me to believe. Part of the story of the real von Trapp family can be found in the records of the National Archives. When they fled the Nazi regime in Austria, the von Trapps traveled to America. Their entry into the United States and their subsequent applications for citizenship are documented in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Fact from FictionWhileThe Sound of Musicwas generally based on the first section of Maria's bookThe Story of the Trapp Family Singers(published in 1949), there were many alterations and omissions.
Traveling with their musical conductor, Rev. Franz Wasner, and secretary, Martha Zochbauer, they went by train to Italy in June, later to London, and by September were on a ship to New York to begin a concert tour in Pennsylvania. Son Johannes was born in January 1939 in Philadelphia. When their six months visitors' visas expired, they went on a short Scandinavian tour and returned to New York in October 1939. They were held at Ellis Island for investigation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, apparently because when asked by an official how long they intended to stay, instead of saying "six months," as specified on their visas, Maria exclaimed, "Oh, I am so glad to be here—I never want to leave again!"The Story of the Trapp Family Singersnotes that they were released after a few days and began their next tour.
In the early 1940s the family settled in Stowe, Vermont, where they bought a farm. They ran a music camp on the property when they were not on tour. In 1944, Maria and her stepdaughters Johanna, Martina, Maria, Hedwig, and Agathe applied for U.S. citizenship by filing declarations of intention at the U.S. District Court in Burlington, Vermont. Georg apparently never filed to become a citizen; Rupert and Werner were naturalized while serving in the U.S. armed forces during World War II; Rosmarie and Eleonore derived citizenship from their mother; and Johannes was born in the United States and was a citizen in his own right.
Georg died in 1947 and was buried in the family cemetery on the property. Those who had applied for citizenship achieved it in 1948. The Trapp Family Lodge (which is still operating today) opened to guests in 1950. While fame and success continued for the Trapp Family Singers, they decided to stop touring in 1955. The group consisted mostly of non-family members because many of the von Trapps wanted to pursue other endeavors, and only Maria's iron will had kept the group together for so long. In 1956, Maria, Johannes, Rosmarie, and daughter Maria went to New Guinea to do missionary work. Later, Maria ran the Trapp Family Lodge for many years. Of the children, Rupert was a medical doctor; Agathe was kindergarten teacher in Maryland; Maria was a missionary in New Guinea for 30 years; Werner was a farmer; Hedwig taught music; Johanna married and eventually returned to live in Austria; Martina married and died in childbirth; Rosmarie and Eleonore both settled in Vermont; and Johannes managed the Trapp Family Lodge. Maria died in 1987 and was buried alongside Georg and Martina.The von Trapps andThe Sound of MusicThe von Trapps never saw much of the huge profits The Sound of Music made. Maria sold the film rights to German producers and inadvertently signed away her rights in the process. The resulting films,Die Trapp-Familie(1956), and a sequel,Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika(1958), were quite successful. The American rights were bought from the German producers. The family had very little input in either the play or the movieThe Sound of Music. As a courtesy, the producers of the play listened to some of Maria's suggestions, but no substantive contributions were accepted. How did the von Trapps feel aboutThe Sound of Music? While Maria was grateful that there wasn't any extreme revision of the story she wrote inThe Story of the Trapp Family Singers, and that she herself was represented fairly accurately (although Mary Martin and Julie Andrews "were too gentle-like girls out of Bryn Mawr," she told theWashington Postin 1978), she wasn't pleased with the portrayal of her husband. The children's reactions were variations on a theme: irritation about being represented as people who only sang lightweight music, the simplification of the story, and the alterations to Georg von Trapp's personality. As Johannes von Trapp said in a 1998New York Timesinterview, "it's not what my family was about. . . . [We were] about good taste, culture, all these wonderful upper-class standards that people make fun of in movies like 'Titanic.' We're about environmental sensitivity, artistic sensitivity. 'Sound of Music' simplifies everything. I think perhaps reality is at the same time less glamorous but more interesting than the myth."
* * *Examining the historical record is helpful in separating fact from fiction, particularly in a case like the von Trapp family andThe Sound of Music. In researching this article, I read Maria von Trapp's books, contemporary newspaper articles, and original documents, all of which clarified the difference between the von Trapps' real experiences and fictionalized accounts. My impression of Maria from Dinah Shore's show was the tip of a tantalizing iceberg: the real lives of real people are always more interesting than stories.
While the von Trapps' story is one of the better known immigrant experiences documented in the records of the National Archives and Records Administration, the family experiences of many Americans may also be found in census, naturalization, court, and other records.Note on SourcesThe National Archives and Records Administration, Northeast Region–Boston in Waltham, Massachusetts, holds theoriginal records of the von Trapps' naturalizations as U.S. citizens. Declarations of intention, petitions for naturalization, and certificates of arrival are in Petitions and Records of Naturalization, U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont, Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group (RG) 21. The passenger arrival list of the SSBergensfjordand the Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry are inPassengers and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897–1957(National Archives Microfilm Publication T715), Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, RG 85, and are held in many National Archives locations. Readers looking for a first-hand account of the family's story should consult Maria von Trapp'sThe Story of the Trapp Family Singers(Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1949) and her autobiographyMaria(Carol Stream, IL: Creation House, 1972). Interviews consulted for this article appeared inThe Washington Post(Jennifer Small, "Apparently, Julie Andrews was too tame to do her justice"), February 26, 1978, p. A1;The New York Times(Alex Witchel, "As 'The Sound of Music' returns to Broadway, the von Trapps recall real lives"), February 1, 1998, p. AR9; andOpera News67 (May 2003): 44.Joan Gearin,an archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration, Northeast Region–Boston. She holds a B.A. in International Relations and an M.S. in Library and Information Science from Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts.
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