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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Solving the problem of Maria: A shocking Cannonfire investigation

(This site sometimes publishes non-political pieces on weekends.)

Of all the confessions I've made in this column, this is the most humiliating: I have had a lifelong fascination with The Sound of Music.

Stop laughing so hard. You'll annoy the neighbors.

Please understand: I haven't seen the film in decades and probably could not sit through ten consecutive minutes of the thing today. Hum any of those damned songs in my presence and I'll flip into Charles Whitman mode.

So why the fascination? Because a secret -- a hidden scandal -- lurks behind the well-known story of the von Trapp family. I've long sensed the presence of such a secret -- and now I know the truth.

I have solved the problem of Maria.

Many of you already know that the Rogers and Hammerstein musical presents a mythologized version of events. (As Maria von Trapp once wrote: "One must allow Hollywood to do a little Hollywooding.") In reality, the von Trapp family was Croatian. (Croatia was once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.) Paterfamilias Georg von Trapp took Italian citizenship in 1918, and thus was never in danger of being conscripted into Hitler's service.

American audiences might have had less sympathy for Georg von Trapp had they known his military history. As a U-boat commander in the first World War, he sunk quite a few British, Italian, Greek and French ships -- including the French armored cruiser Léon Gambetta, which lost 684 souls on April 27, 1915.

The romance of Maria and the Captain took place in the 1920s, not (as the film claims) in "the last golden days of the Thirties." The von Trapps did not live in nearly so grand a fashion as the film led many to believe. A Depression-era bank failure destroyed the family fortune, most of which had been inherited from Captain von Trapp's first wife, the granddaughter of the inventor of the torpedo. Financial necessity thus prompted the leap into show business. The family also took in boarders.

The movie got one thing right: Captain von Trapp genuinely detested the Nazis. The family did not escape from Austria on foot; they simply boarded a train to Italy a day before the borders were closed. Soon thereafter, Himmler commandeered the family home. (At the end of The Sound of Music, we see the family heading in the general direction of the Berghof, which is not the best way to go if you're trying to escape Hitler.)

The film's Maria says that she was inspired to become a nun while observing the sisters from atop Mt. Unterberg. In reality, you can't see the Abbey of Nonnberg (founded in 714!) from the mountain. Maria was raised by an abusive socialist who despised religion; she converted to Catholicism after having wandered into something similar to an American-style "revival" meeting.

In the 1950s, she sold the film rights to her family's story for all of $9000. The first screen versions were two lavish, popular German-language films, Die Trapp Familie and Die Trapp Familie in Amerika. Segments of these movies are available on YouTube -- and as much as it pains me to admit it, the German productions feature better singing. Although a bit more accurate than The Sound of Music, these films also convey a fairytale aura, as exemplified by the final moment of the first film, when Maria turns to the camera and sweetly says "Gute Nacht." (She repeats the gesture in the sequel with a beatific "Auf Wiedersehen.")

The available clips make the second film seem downright trippy. America must have seemed just as exotic to German audiences in the late 1950s as Salzberg seemed to Americans in 1966. In this scene, the von Trapp urchins find themselves in a dark, seedy Manhattan alley, surrounded by drunken sailors and (gasp!) actual black people. The kids diffuse tension by crooning the Stephen Foster classic "Old Black Joe." At the film's climax, the family manages to solve their problems with the INS by singing -- a trick which many Mexican migrants surely would like to replicate.

The German Maria is Ruth Leuwerik, who comes across as regal, beautiful, ethereal -- and infuriatingly submissive. See, for example, this scene from the first film, which mirrors one of the most famous sequences in the The Sound of Music. You'll gain a new appreciation for the British spunkiness of Julie Andrews.

(I've asked this before, but the question bears repeating: Why do all the pro-Nazi Austrians in The Sound of Music have German accents while all the anti-Nazi Austrians have British accents?)

All of the above is fun to know -- but mystery enters the tale when we consider the marriage of Maria and Georg von Trapp.

She once bluntly admitted that she did not love him at the time of his proposal -- he was 47; she was 22 -- and agreed to marry him only because she had become attached to the children. She also said that she was seriously tempted to complete her novitiate.

The National Archives has preserved the real motivation for this union. When Maria von Trapp applied for U.S. citizenship, she filled out a sworn statement affirming that she married the Captain on November 26, 1927. Their first child, Rosemarie, was born on February 8, 1928.

Simple math forces us to a shocking conclusion: When Maria walked down the aisle, she was with child, and had been so for nearly seven months. To put the matter bluntly: The middle-aged Captain von Trapp impregnated a 22 year-old novice shortly after she started to work for him.

(Rosemarie is still alive, incidentally.)

In a 1998 interview, Johannes von Trapp said that his family has always been "about good taste, culture, all these wonderful upper-class standards that people make fun of in movies like 'Titanic.'" I concede his point -- as long as we understand that even the best families may have...well, certain moments. Goatherds aren't the only guys who get lonely.
Interestingly enough, in one of Maria's memoirs, she says that there were rumors that the reason the Baron married her was because she was pregnant, implying that these rumors were baseless. I guess not.

The family was apparently quite upset by the way the Captain was portrayed as basically cold and unfeeling and a bit of a martinet. In reality he was rather passive. It was Maria who was tough. They had one daughter who ended up having a nervous breakdown.
Maria would occasionally appear on locally-produced daytime TV shows here in L.A.. Although she seemed quite jolly, she never gave the impression of being an old softie.
I have read Agathe von Trapp’s biography -- I sensed there was a bit of tension between the Baron's children of his first marriage and their stepmother.

It could be true...and it could be a typo. I don't know. I've seen her wedding picture and she certainly does not look 7 mos. pregnant.
What utter nonsense! Anyone who studies the wedding photos of Maria and Georg von Trapp can easily see that she is not pregnant! Rosemarie was born on Feb. 8 1929.
Both the German films are available on YouTube, and well worth watching. Maria is anything but submissive in the film set in America. But the chronology is askew, as the two older schoolboys portrayed in 1958 had already fought for the allies in World War II! Loved the music, especially the boy with the high soprano. Mysterious about that birth date, but other evidence seems to point to it being a typo.
Re Gerry's comment: Mysterious about that birth date, but other evidence seems to point to it being a typo.
It couldn't have been a typo, because the birth year of 1928 has been entered on 2 immigration documents several years apart.
look at the wedding photo. there is no way she was married with that much fanfare while 7 months pregnant. and she certainly doesn't look pregnant. oh, right... someone who doesn't speak english could never possibly make a mistake with the INS. but sure... your "obsession" is noted.
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