Monday, December 30, 2013

The Real Maria von Trapp: An Arranged Marriage

The Sound of Music made Maria von Trapp's name famous in the United States. But Maria's real story gets lost in the Broadway makeover of her life. On coming to America, Maria Augusta Kutschera von Trapp wrote two memoirs: The Story of the Trapp Family Singers in 1949, and Maria in 1972, both of which I devoured as a young person. My mother was given Maria's first book to read when she was a student at Sacred Heart Hospital School of Practical Nursing. It left an indelible mark on her religious faith and on her parenting.

In no way can Maria von Trapp be described as "voiceless". She loved to speak, frankly and bluntly, and she did it often, lecturing audiences all over the world. Unfortunately, this sometimes meant depriving her family, especially her daughters, of their own voices. This, according to Maria, is her own story.

Maria was born on an Austrian train as her young mother was returning to Vienna after an extended holiday visit to her parents. When Maria was just two years old, she lost her mother to pneumonia--and her father to grief-filled wandering. Little Maria was raised by a kind but elderly cousin who had already raised Maria's half-brother (after their father lost his first wife, the boy's mother, in a tragic accident). The woman was very religious, taking Maria to morning Mass and reading her Bible stories which sometimes horrified the grieving child's sensibilities.
"Once my foster mother found me in a corner curled up over the Bible as I pierced the eyes of those bad men torturing our dear Lord--with a crochet hook." (Maria)
Maria grew up lonely and very anxious, with a large family of imaginary friends for company. When her father passed away, the young orphan was placed in the care of an abusive relative with a not-yet-diagnosed mental illness. The abusive foster father was both an atheist and a socialist and raised Maria to be critical of religious faith. When she escaped his home for the progressive teachers college, independent at last, the outspoken teen engaged a well-known Jesuit professor in argument. The white-haired priest convinced her that she was simply ignorant, that she had been born a Catholic and was Catholic still, and absolved her of her sins: "Ego Te Absolo".

The young woman left in such a daze that she walked into an oncoming streetcar and was knocked unconscious, but was otherwise unhurt.
"I got the book the priest suggested and saw... cold facts which were the opposite of what I had learned from my uncle and schoolteachers."  (Maria)
Maria as a college student
The college student felt she was entering a completely new life. After graduation, she joined some classmates for a hike in the high Alps. Watching a glorious sunset from a glacier overwhelmed and inspired her. And stirred her imagination. She would give her greatest gift back to nature's creator. In dramatic fashion, she would give up her love of mountain nature hikes. She would seclude herself in a dark medieval convent. Leaving her friends to camp on the mountain without her, she walked straight to a train station. Once in the city, she asked a policeman for directions to the strictest convent in town.

Tanned, wearing a backpack, with a coil of rope on her shoulder, and an ice pick in her hand, impetuous Maria asked to see "the boss" of the convent and announced she had come to stay.

Though the progressive and fun-loving young teacher hardly fit into the ancient Benedictine Abbey of Nonnberg, for two years Maria thrived on the feeling of security and sisterhood. Though she gained notoriety as a troublemaker, Maria herself could see that she was finally learning a degree of self-discipline. She used her college training daily as a teacher of fifth graders, a creative and demanding job which she loved. The free spirit had a home at last. She wanted to stay forever.

And then a widowed Navy Captain contacted the Abbey, looking for a teacher for his daughter, also named Maria. Little Maria von Trapp was recovering from illness; the doctor had recommended a year of homeschooling. And so, within hours, Maria arrived at the gate of Villa Trapp, prepared to spend nine months as a personal tutor.

Now Maria, who had felt alone for most of her life, fell in love with the Baron's well-behaved motherless children. As the weeks went by they warmed to her; the young ones crawled into her lap and hung on her stories in front of the fireplace. The family was already musical, and Maria adored music. She taught them her favorite folk songs and introduced new outdoor games with gusto. Here she could enjoy her favorite things while making children happy and  following the Will of God. She could play volleyball, go to Mass, whistle any tune she liked, and even eat well!

Maria felt sorry for the sweet, introverted, and maybe slightly depressed Baron, whom she found likable enough. Though she had no love for him, she utterly adored his children and prayed God would send them a kind new mother--not like his reluctant girlfriend who wanted to send the children away to live in boarding schools.

Even when gentle Georg von Trapp finally fell in love with and proposed to her, Maria still fully intended to return to the convent. "One cannot enter a convent and marry at the same time," she tried to explain to him.

When he asked if that was her final decision, she relied on the Abbey for backup.
"I have something you don't have. I have a Mistress of Novices. Whatever she says I'd consider as coming as from God. It is the Will of God. Let me go and ask her."  (TFS)
But the Reverend Mother herself broke the news to Maria:
" "We prayed to the Holy Ghost, and we held council, and it became clear to us that it is the Will of God that you marry the Captain and be a good mother to his children." "
"I had wanted to know the Will of God; but now when I met it, I refused to accept it. All my happiness was shattered and my heart, which had so longed to give itself entirely to God, felt rejected."  (TFS)
Maria returned to the von Trapp estate and tearfully gave Georg the news: "They said I have to marry you!"

And in November of 1927, Maria Kutschera did marry Georg von Trapp. He was forty-seven. She was twenty-two and ready to serve God "where He needed her most".

But Maria had large gaps in her sex education. And she still had her heart set on being a nun. In her mind, she was merely "extending her leave of absence" in order to raise the Baron's children. Martina was only four, so she would need a mother's care the longest.
"There wasn't any question of having children. I was only to bring up those he had already had.... But I made one fatal mistake: I thought it only happens if you want children." (Maria)
She went so far as to tell her fiance on the eve of their wedding that she still thought marriage an unnecessary step. They could still raise his kids together, after all. The shy former submarine captain only squeezed her hand. She was a college graduate, after all. Surely she didn't...? What had the nuns told her?? Perhaps he began to understand after the ceremony when she suggested he go ahead on the honeymoon and she would follow later.
"When I did understand it--it was too late." (Maria)
The betrayal was sharp. She had offered her chaste self to God and He had given her to someone else! Maria uses the story of Rachel, Leah, and Jacob to describe her feelings of being switched out. "Blazing mad", she told God she didn't want Him anymore, either. For weeks, she found excuses to avoid going to church. But on Christmas Day, she went to confession and decided to let God back into her life. And from then on, the von Trapps always celebrated that as their real wedding anniversary.

Over the months that followed, Maria did truly fall in love with her husband. And she dedicated herself wholeheartedly to her seven stepchildren.

Maria was so unprepared for her own first labor and delivery that she asked the midwife, "Will it take longer than half an hour?" Georg held Maria's hand like the old pro he was until Rosmarie made her debut at last. Though Maria had eight pregnancies in all, only three infants survived, due to problems with Maria's kidneys (a complication of misdiagnosed scarlet fever). Her youngest surviving child was certainly unplanned and a specialist in Munich even recommended abortion, believing another pregnancy was a threat to Maria's life. Being Catholics, the von Trapps were offended by the idea. Fortunately, mother and baby came through all right.

Through financial reverses, the beginning of a family choir, extensive travel across Europe, miscarriages, unplanned pregnancy, multiple sea voyages across the Atlantic, learning English, finding schools, more singing tours, a new baby, applying for citizenship, and the establishment of a music camp, farm, and ski lodge in Vermont, Maria more than had her hands full.

There was not always enough food for the large family. They squeezed into hotel rooms, and later a house that was too small, especially with a newborn. To save money, Maria decided the women of the family would continue wearing their traditional Austrian costumes instead of transitioning to contemporary American styles. She birthed Johannes at home, an oddity in white Philadelphia at that time. She used spankings to control her unruly little ones, especially the mischievous little Lorli, to the grief of the sensitive and conscientious Rosmarie. Sometimes these two youngest sisters were sent to religious boarding schools while the rest of the family traveled.

In the end, Rosmarie suffered much more than her naughty sister, having a "nervous breakdown" shortly after her father died in 1947. Rosmarie was eighteen, and overwhelmed with anxiety. She had been nine when the family left Austria, and unlike her older siblings, she was not asked for her opinion. Years of poverty, the move to America, the incessant travel, the public performances in multiple languages, new schools, family separations, living out of suitcases, two big brothers being drafted into World War II, plus her mother's repeated pregnancies and miscarriages had all been traumatic enough for Maria's shy firstborn. Losing her patient and soft-spoken father, who had always comforted her nightmares, was too much. Rosmarie disappeared for days. When she was found, she was treated with electroshock therapy, which she later described as "awful", and  psychiatric treatment.
"I tried so desperately hard never to give my husband's children the impression that I was their step-mother that I hardly dared to take care of my own babies as they came along. I left them mostly to their older sisters while depriving them of a true mother's love. Years later I made the same mistake all over again with the grandchildren."  (Maria)
Georg died in May. In September, Maria miscarried his last baby. It took such a toll on her physically that she missed their oldest son's wedding, and still took months to recover.

For years, Maria and Georg would say one Hail Mary for each of their children every day "in order that they might find the right mate in life". They preferred an old-fashioned family-style approach to courtship over the modern dating customs they encountered in America. This approach worked for son Werner, who married his sister Martina's best friend and had six children. His brother Rupert also raised six children.

Of the seven von Trapp daughters, Agathe, Maria, Hedwig, and Rosmarie remained single. Martina died giving birth to her first child. Johanna birthed seven children, and raised them in Austria. Lorli lived in Vermont and had seven daughters of her own.

Three von Trapp siblings spent years as Catholic lay missionaries in the South Pacific. Agathe ran a preschool and wrote fondly about her family's experiences before her father married her young stepmother, Maria. Johannes, the youngest von Trapp, capitalized on the family name to build his ski lodge business. He and his wife had just two children.

Rosmarie Trapp
Rosmarie suffered from depression and anxiety, and often felt guilty for trying to live a life different from her mother's. After two tumultuous decades, including an attempt at nursing school that brought on another breakdown, she found a measure of peace in the Israeli desert. Her priest in Michigan headed the Zionist organization Blossoming Rose, which operated a religious kibbutz, where Rosmarie found her own sense of purpose and connection.

In 1971, Maria and some of her daughters got swept up in the Catholic charismatic renewal movement. While attending a Catholic Pentecostal conference at Notre Dame University, Maria made a "personal commitment" to Jesus. She learned to pray in the new personal manner (like the Protestants), speaking aloud to God, extemporaneously, about even trivial matters. She even got comfortable with tongues.
"The new Pentecost for which Pope John XXIII had prayed so fervently at the opening of the Second Vatican Council had happened to all of us right there. One noticed it most in the spirit of genuine love. This was not starry-eyed emotionalism; this was the true thing."  (Maria)
According to Rosmarie, her mother Maria von Trapp suffered from epileptic seizures from her fifties on. Despite brain surgery, Maria was prone to hallucinations, including visions of ghosts. Their mother-daughter relationship was strained for many years, largely because Rosmarie felt her mother had been neglectful or abusive, but they were reconciled before Maria's death in 1987.


  1. "When I did understand it--it was too late."

    That sounds rather ominous. I hope the experience wasn't too traumatic for her, given her ignorance about intimacy.

  2. Wow. I knew parts of this but not the whole. Poor Maria. I had no idea the traumas that took place before her marriage and during the first part of it. What a difficult family situation to be raised in. I'm so glad Rosemarie found peace eventually.

  3. Wow, I new none of this. I have always, always loved the movie and as a small child I can rember fantasize that a nice Maria would marrie my single dad that raised me.

  4. Good article. Tells some details of Maria’s life that I’d never heard of before.