Prologue Magazine

Movie vs. Reality: The Real Story of the von Trapp Family

Winter 2005, Vol. 37, No. 4
By Joan Gearin

See caption below

Maria von Trapp, photograph from her Declaration of Intention, dated January 21, 1944.

(Records of District Courts of the United States, RG 21)

I first saw the movie The Sound of Music as 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 Fiction

See caption below

Maria von Trapp's certificate of arrival into Niagara Falls, NY, on December 30, 1942, authenticated that she arrived legally in the United States.

(Records of District Courts of the United States, RG 21)

While The Sound of Music was generally based on the first section of Maria's book The Story of the Trapp Family Singers (published in 1949), there were many alterations and omissions.

  • Maria came to the von Trapp family in 1926 as a tutor for one of the children, Maria, who was recovering from scarlet fever, not as governess to all the children.
  • Maria and Georg married in 1927, 11 years before the family left Austria, not right before the Nazi takeover of Austria.
  • Maria did not marry Georg von Trapp because she was in love with him. As she said in her autobiography Maria, she fell in love with the children at first sight, not their father. When he asked her to marry him, she was not sure if she should abandon her religious calling but was advised by the nuns to do God's will and marry Georg. "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.  . . . [B]y and by I learned to love him more than I have ever loved before or after."
  • There were 10, not 7 von Trapp children.
  • The names, ages, and sexes of the children were changed.
  • The family was musically inclined before Maria arrived, but she did teach them to sing madrigals.
  • Georg, far from being the detached, cold-blooded patriarch of the family who disapproved of music, as portrayed in the first half of The Sound of Music, was actually a gentle, warmhearted parent who enjoyed musical activities with his family. While this change in his character might have made for a better story in emphasizing Maria's healing effect on the von Trapps, it distressed his family greatly.
  • The family did not secretly escape over the Alps to freedom in Switzerland, carrying their suitcases and musical instruments. As daughter Maria said in a 2003 interview printed in Opera News, "We did tell people that we were going to America to sing.