Agathe von Trapp: Eldest daughter of the family who inspired 'The Sound of Music'

Agathe von Trapp was the eldest daughter of the Austrian family who inspired the Rogers and Hammerstein Broadway production and film The Sound of Music. The film was a worldwide sensation, smashing box-office records and snapping up five Oscars. With figures adjusted for inflation, in 2010 The Sound of Music was ranked 3rd in the all-time list of biggest-grossing films, only behind Gone with the Wind and Star Wars. However, the film detracted somewhat from the reality of the Von Trapps' experience and left them distressed, without the consolation of remuneration from the film's vast profits.

Agathe Johanna Erwina Gobertina von Trapp was born on 12 March 1913, in the town of Pola, then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now renamed Pula, in Croatia. She was one of seven children born to the aristocrat Captain Georg von Trapp and his wife, Agathe Whitehead, the granddaughter of Robert Whitehead, the inventor of the torpedo; they married in 1912. Georg became a national hero as a captain in the Austrian navy, commanding submarines during the First World War. As recognition for his valour and heroic endeavours he received the title of "Ritter" ("Sir" or "Baron").

Aged 11, Agathe was sent to school, an experience she recalled as "terrifying". "They made us stand up in front of a big class and talk. I never could get used to it. I never really got over it," she later explained.

Following the death of Agathe's mother in 1922 from scarlet fever, the family was devastated and unable to continue living "in a place where they had been so happy". As a result, Georg sold their property in Pola and bought an estate in Salzburg, Austria. While in their new home, Agathe's sister Maria became very ill. Their father sought a teacher from the Benedictine abbey of Nonnberg in Salzburg to tutor Maria at home. Viennese-born Maria Augusta Kutschera was chosen for a 10-month period, after which she was supposed to return to the convent. However, the children's father fell in love with her – and the couple married in 1927 and had three more children.

The Von Trapps lost most of their wealth, though, following the 1929 Wall Street Crash and subsequent global depression. Agathe's stepmother, Maria, tightened their outgoings by dismissing most of the servants and taking in lodgers. It was around this time that they began considering making the family hobby of singing into a profession, although Georg was reluctant for the family to perform in public, "but accepted it as God's will that they sing for others." As depicted in The Sound of Music, the family won first place in the Salzburg Music Festival in 1936 and became successful, singing Renaissance and baroque music, madrigals, and folk songs all across Western Europe.

However, in the 1930s, Europe, and in particular Austria, was in imminent danger due to the emergence of the Nazis in neighbouring Germany. With the annexation of Austria by the Nazis in 1938, the Von Trapps realised that they were on thin ice with a regime they abhorred. Georg not only refused to fly the Nazi flag on their house and give the salute, but he also declined a naval command and a request to sing at Hitler's birthday party. They were becoming aware of the Nazis' anti-religious propaganda and policies, the pervasive fear that those around them could be acting as spies for the Nazis, and the brainwashing of children against their parents. Finally, they weighed up their options and decided to leave.

Unlike in the film version's depiction of their lives, the Von Trapps did not flee over the Alps to Switzerland. As Georg was born in Zadar (now in Croatia), which became part of Italy after the First World War, he was regarded as an Italian citizen along with his wife and children. Therefore, in June 1938, the family boarded a train for Italy with their musical conductor, Rev. Franz Wasner, and secretary, Martha Zochbauer. From there they travelled to London and then in September by ship to New York to begin a concert tour in Pennsylvania. When their six-month visitors' visas expired, they went on a short Scandinavian tour and returned to New York in October 1939, becoming US citizens in 1948, a year after Georg's death. The family settled on a 600-acre farm in Stowe, Vermont where they established the Trapp Family Lodge. Under their slightly authoritarian mother, Maria, The Trapp Family Singers continued performing until 1956, when Agathe was 43.

Agathe and Mary Louise Kane, a good friend who worked at the Lodge in the early 1950s, started a private kindergarten in Stowe, but in 1958 they moved to Maryland, where they established another private kindergarten on the grounds of the Sacred Heart School in Glyndon, near Baltimore. Agathe took music, German and art lessons; she was a talented watercolourist. The two worked and lived on the grounds until their retirement in 1993.

Always a private and somewhat introspective person, for a time Agathe dropped the Von Trapp and was known as "Miss Trapp" in an attempt to fend off questions about whether she was part of that family.

In the early 1950s, Maria sold the film rights to German producers and inadvertently signed away her rights in the process. The resulting films, Die Trapp-Familie (1956), and a sequel, Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika (1958), were quite successful. The American rights were then bought from the German producers. Thus, the family had very little input in either the play or the movie of The Sound of Music. As a courtesy, the producers of the play listened to some of Maria's suggestions, but no substantive contributions were accepted. In the film, all the names, sexes and ages of the children were changed and Agathe, whose character was called Liesl, was played by Charmian Carr, who sang "Sixteen Going on Seventeen". Agathe recalled however, "As a teen, I had never had a boyfriend, much less a telegram-delivering Nazi." Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer played Maria and her father.

Upon its release, the family was not happy at the way that they had been portrayed. They were irritated by the simplification of the story, about being represented as people who only sang lightweight music, and by the alterations to their father's personality. He had been depicted as a detached, cold-blooded patriarch who disapproved of music, whereas he was actually quite the opposite; he, in fact, helped them learn to sing. In an interview in 2003, Agathe said she "could have lived with" all the inaccuracies "had it not been for the musical's portrayal of my father."

In the 1980s, Agathe began writing her version of the family history, travelling to Europe to research her family history and to sketch maps, collate illustrations and photographs. The book was written with the encouragement of her doctor, Janet Horn, who with her husband helped with the editing and provided the finance for 3,000 copies. The book, Agathe von Trapp: Memories Before and After The Sound of Music (2003), chronicles the Trapp Family Singers and seeks to differentiate between fact and fiction in the Broadway libretto and screenplay.

The publication brought Agathe unaccustomed attention. "It's very strange for me," she said. "I've been living a very quiet life. All of a sudden, these people want to see me."

Agathe, who died of congestive heart failure in Baltimore, aged 97, continued to sing until three years ago.

Agathe von Trapp, singer: born Pola (now Pula, Croatia) 12 March 1913; died Towson, Baltimore 28 December 2010.

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