The events in the The Sound of Music are so dramatic, it's easy to forget that the film is based on a true story of love, passion, and family devotion that unfolded against the backdrop of fascism and war.
The von Trapp saga begins in 1910, when distinguished naval commander Georg von Trapp met Agathe Whitehead at a ball. Not only was it love at first sight, it was an almost royal match. Captain von Trapp was as distinguished a war commander in Austria as Eisenhower was in America following World War II. And the von Trapp-Whitehead marriage had the same mythical aura as that of the Kennedy-Bouvier union. Both Georg and Agathe came from privileged families, and the von Trapps were able to live comfortably off the interest from Whitehead's inheritance.
The fairy tale started to take a turn when the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed after World War I. Now without a coast, Austria no longer required a navy, and the Captain lost his post. When Agathe died, von Trapp was inconsolable. According to Johannes von Trapp, his father was as devastated by the end of his naval career as by the loss of his wife: "My father's life was the navy." explained Johannes, "He was uncomfortable doing anything else. He was simply lost."
After the loss of their mother, the children had an endless parade of governesses. One would be hired for the older children, one for the younger, and one to run the household. But the children wanted to have just one governess, and Maria seemed to be a perfect fit.
Even before Maria arrived, introducing madrigals and other complex music, the children were musically inclined. Encouraged by the Captain, they sang all the time, and he often accompanied them on guitar, mandolin, and violin. Maria, along with Father Wasner, a neighborhood Priest, brought a sophistication to the family's singing, but according to Johannes, the Captain's naval stature helped the family forge their careers. Even before they began singing the Captain was very well known, and his name lent a certain air of importance to their group.
When Captain von Trapp lost his fortune after the Austrian national bank folded, the children had to learn how to work, doing laundry and other household chores. They looked at their misfortune as an adventure, but their father was hit hard by the loss. He had nine children to support, and no money. When the von Trapps began to earn money by singing in public, the Captain faced another conundrum. For a man in his position, earning a living on stage was considered dèclassè. But they had little choice. As the head of the family, the Captain would come out and introduce the group after they had performed a few numbers, and then at the end of the show he would come back out and take a bow.
This new life was abruptly halted when Hitler invaded Austria. The Captain brought his family together and said, "We are standing at the open grave of Austria." He asked them if they wanted to stay or to leave. Despite the hardships sure to face them, they had no moral choice but to depart. Although it was a terrible blow to leave their home and all their belongings behind, when they learned that Himmler himself had taken over their house, their grief was almost unbearable.
The von Trapps arrived in America in 1938, and spent the next eighteen years on the road. Because they traveled so much, the children basically had to put their personal lives on hold. Every time they made a stop during a tour, Maria made all of the family visit a nunnery. A strong figure, Maria would not hear of any of the children leaving the family to strike out on their own, even after some married and had families. She also seemed torn between what she thought God wanted her to do and what she felt to be most important -- which caused her to lash out at her family.
When the Captain died on May 30, 1947, the children started to rebel. They were tired of living on the road, and they wanted to start families and settle down. All of the children eventually broke away, and the von Trapps stopped touring in 1956. The family corporation bought an old farm house in Stowe, Vermont, with everyone helping to build the home and take care of the farm. They soon found out that this was not enough to support the whole family, so while they were away on tours they rented their home to skiers. This was the beginning of the von Trapp hotel business.
Maria: After spending 30 years as a missionary in New Guinea, died at the age of 82 in 1987 and now rests alongside her husband on their property in Vermont.
Rupert: A medical doctor until the mid-1980's, he died in 1992 at the age of 80, leaving behind six children and ten grandchildren.
Agathe: Lives near Baltimore, Maryland, where she helps run a kindergarten.
Werner: After leaving the family group to become a dairy farmer, he had six children and thirteen grandchildren.
Hedwig: Worked at the lodge until her death in 1972.
Johanna: Married in 1948, she left the family group to live in Vienna and has six children.
Martina: Sang with the group until 1952, when she married. Died in childbirth the same year.
Rosmarie: Lives in Stowe, Vermont, where she is a companion for a 100-year-old woman who was a friend of her mother's. She has brought music back to the von Trapp Lodge by giving recorder lessons and leading sing-alongs.
Eleonore (Lorli): The mother of seven children, she stopped singing in 1952 and now spends time with her children and ten grandchildren.
Johannes: A graduate of Dartmouth, with a master's degree in forestry from Yale, he is now president of the von Trapp Family Lodge, Inc., and has two children.