Older, wiser von Trapp goes behind the `Music'

Memoir: After years shunning the public eye, the one-time singer hits the road to tell her famous family's true story.

November 08, 2003|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

Never mind that she and her family have traveled the world singing and been the subject of one of the most beloved musicals of all time. Agathe von Trapp spent much of her life as a virtual recluse.

She was 43 before she stopped relying on someone older and wiser and went to the grocery store and the bank herself. For nearly 40 more years after that, she interacted with few people outside a private kindergarten classroom in Glyndon.

But eventually, her desire for the world to know the truth behind The Sound of Music took over. She agreed to let her doctor's husband help get her memoir published. Next thing she knew, she had a multistate book tour, scheduled to stop tomorrow at the Pikesville Senior Center.

FOR THE RECORD - Agathe von Trappe will speak at 1:30 p.m. today at the Pikesville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library, 1301 Reisterstown Road. An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun erroneously said that she would speak at the senior center next to the library.
The Sun regrets the error.

In the movie that dominated the 1965 Academy Awards and broke box-office records, the eldest von Trapp daughter comes out of her shell at 16 going on 17. In real life, it's happening now. She is 90, going on 91.

"It's very strange for me," said von Trapp this week at her Brooklandville condominium in Baltimore County. "I've been living a very quiet life. All of a sudden, these people want to see me."

The Sound of Music tells the story of Capt. Georg von Trapp, a widowed Austrian aristocrat who falls in love with Maria, a nun-turned-governess for his seven children, then escapes the Nazi occupation.

Agathe von Trapp cried when she saw the show at its Broadway opening in 1959. She would have been just as enchanted as the rest of the audience had the characters' last name been Miller. But this was her family's name, and it was not her family's story.

The children's first names and sexes had changed. In real life, Agathe von Trapp had an older brother, but in the musical the eldest child was a girl, Liesl. As the oldest daughter, Agathe von Trapp assumed that was her. But as a teen-ager she never had a boyfriend, much less a telegram-delivering Nazi. "In those days, people didn't date like they do here, and teen-age boys didn't deliver telegrams," she explained.

The nun who became her stepmother was not a governess. She was a tutor for one of von Trapp's sisters, who was too weak from scarlet fever to make a 45-minute trek to school. And the children were quite well-versed in music by the time they met Maria, who went by the nickname Gustl.

Furthermore, the von Trapps did not cross the Alps to escape Austria. They crossed the street and boarded a train.

Agathe von Trapp could have lived with all of that, had it not been for the musical's portrayal of her father as cold and distant. She insists he was nothing of the sort.

That's why, sometime in the 1980s, she put pencil to paper so her nieces and nephews could have an accurate family history. But weakened by a muscle disease, she stopped writing for a long while. Once recovered, she went twice to Europe to dig through archives for the genealogy completed in 2000.

At some point, she began to think of writing for a broader audience. But she wasn't sure she could write well enough. English isn't her first language, and she is dyslexic.

Among those who provided encouragement was her physician, Dr. Janet Horn Yuspeh. At a dinner in June of last year, Yuspeh and her husband, Alan, announced that they would finance the publication of 3,000 copies of von Trapp's memoir. Alan Yuspeh has a friend with a small publishing house in Franklin, Tenn. Janet Horn Yuspeh even offered editing advice, provided in long sessions over tea with jam and bread at the condominium von Trapp shares with longtime friend Mary Lou Kane.

Von Trapp liked that she would have complete control over a self-published book. In 1956, her family lost their ability to monitor the content of the musical - and to collect royalties - when Gustl von Trapp sold the rights to her autobiography to a German film company for $9,000.

Dozens of Agathe von Trapp's hand-drawn maps, portraits and other illustrations from the past half-century are interspersed throughout her book - 211 pages plus a glossy section with family photographs.

The book, Agathe von Trapp: Memories Before and After The Sound of Music, chronicles the Trapp Family Singers, who toured for 20 years. During that time, Gustl von Trapp served as the family spokeswoman. "We never had to talk to anybody," Agathe von Trapp said. "When we were giving concerts, there was no way I could associate with other people."

By the time the group broke up, it had performed in 30 countries. That was January 1956, and Agathe von Trapp was 43. She had never before lived without a parent. She had never made a phone call or written a check. When she forayed into a grocery store, she bought enough for 10.

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