Debunking…One Can’t Resist

by Joy Tomme

So…the last Trapp Family singer has died. Last Tuesday, February 18, 2014, Maria von Trapp died at age 99.

Maria was the eldest daughter of Georg and Agathe von Trapp. Agathe died of scarlet fever in 1922. It was then that young school teacher and postulant to a Roman Catholic nunnery Maria Kutshera, was hired by Georg von Trapp to tutor his daughter Maria who had been severely ill with scarlet fever and had missed a lot of school.

The von Trapp’s had five other children, but Maria was hired as a tutor only for Maria.

When Rogers and Hammerstein wrote the music and lyrics for “The Sound of Music”– the musical fictionalization of the von Trapp story–history had to be rewritten. History often is inconvenient and unromantic. Captain von Trapp actually had been a loving, warm father, not a strict martinet. Georg’s daughter’s name was changed from Maria to Louisa because the heroine’s name was Maria. The family didn’t walk across the Alps shortly after Georg and Maria married, toting baggage and musical instruments. Georg and Maria married in 1927 and left Nazi-Germany by train in 1935 with no interference from the authorities.

And that’s for starters. But my memory of Maria von Trapp dates from 1958.

At the time, I was secretary to Muriel Francis, a New York press agent for opera singers and musicians. Muriel’s client list included opera stars Ezio Pinza, Lily Pons, Rise Stevens, Blanche Thebom, Phyllis Curtin, composers Marc Blitzstein and Ned Rorem and architect Edward Durrell Stone. I loved knowing little inside stories like Lily Pons’ flutist always had to play flat because Lily Pons invariably sang flat. Muriel’s crew of press agents made up things about the client list and fed the nonsense to columnists who wrote for New York papers. Some of the stories were true, but most of them were silly lies.

The von Trapp singers had disbanded in 1957. However, because of the popularity of the “Sound of Music” musical which opened on Broadway in 1959 with Mary Martin, matriarch Maria was appearing on talk shows. By then, she was 53 and living in Stowe, VT. Georg had died of lung cancer in 1947. The day Maria von Trapp came into Muriel’s office for a sit-down with her press agent was a red-letter day for me. I could not wait to see the famous Maria von Trapp in the flesh.

I can’t remember who went to the front door of Muriel’s townhouse/office at 116 East 65th Street to let the von Trapp entourage in. It probably was Edgar Vincent, Muriel’s star press agent…he was an extremely handsome and elegant man. I had to make up a reason to go into Muriel’s inner sanctum to see Maria and whoever came with her. I think I asked if anyone wanted tea or coffee. Maria was holding forth as I came in. She had brought four or so of the von Trapp singers with her. The men…and by now, all of the male von Trapps were well into their forties…were wearing leder hosen…you know, those leather shorts with leather suspenders. And the women, Maria included, were wearing peasant dirndl skirts with leather cummerbunds and white frilly blouses. I stood in the door, transfixed.

Maria was standing up–she was a very imposing big woman, tall and substantial–she was laughing loudly. When she spoke, she talked in a commanding voice that sounded like Marjorie Main doing Ma Kettle. Finally, Muriel turned to me and glared and I realized I needed to absent myself and I left.

Maria von Trapp hired on as a consultant to the producers of the “Sound of Music” musical. She told them that Mary Martin was far too “tame” to play Maria. They didn’t listen to her, of course. The “Sound of Music” movie of 1965 with Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp put the finishing touches on the von Trapp family history rewrite. Now that the eldest daughter of Georg and Agathe von Trapp is dead, there is no further impediment to a beatification and canonization of Mary Julie Maria Martin Andrews von Trapp as Roman Catholic saint.