Sue Perkins tracks down the real Maria von Trapp

The foodie comedian discovers The Sound of Music only told half the story

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Sue Perkins tracks down the real Maria von Trapp
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Pizza and burgers, double portions of French fries/Pasta and cheese boards and mum’s homemade apple pies/Indian takeouts with a chilli that zings/These are a few of my favourite things.

OK, so I’m no Oscar Hammerstein, but you get my drift. I, like all children of the 1970s, grew up in the shadow of The Sound of Music. For the past 40 years, I’ve never been more than a public holiday away from an Edelweiss, a 16 Going on 17 or a damn good Doe-Ray-Me.

But I’ve always thought there must be more to this story than the slightly saccharine tale of a family healed through love and close harmony – so I went in search of the real von Trapp narrative. The first thing to note about this story is how many layers of interpretation it has undergone.

We know the film, but the film was based on a Broadway stage musical, which in turn was based on Maria von Trapp’s autobiography and two German films made about the clan. It’s a veritable Russian Matryoshka doll of fact, fiction, hearsay, PR, spin and merchandising.

As one of the von Trapp children, Maria Jr, said, “It’s a nice story, but it’s not really our story”. So, where to start? Well, let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start (according to Julie Andrews, anyway).

Once upon a time there was a Baron… Whereas Hollywood would have us believe the Baron was a cold and disconnected father, this could not have been further from the truth. He was warm and loving and his children were horrified at his portrayal in the movie version.

Georg Johannes von Trapp was a highly decorated Austro-Hungarian naval officer in the First World War. At the end of the conflict, Austria was reduced in size, losing its seacoast, effectively making him unemployed.

The next devastating blow came when his wife Agathe, mother of his seven children, died of scarlet fever in 1922. The Baron was grief-stricken, and, unable to bear living in the home where they had been so happy, he moved with his brood to a suburb of Salzburg.

Around 1926, one of his daughters was recovering from an illness and unable to attend school, so he enquired at the local nunnery about the possibility of finding a tutor for her. It’s here that Maria the nanny enters the frame. Maria Augusta Kutschera.

Maria turns out to have been a far more redoubtable figure than the Julie Andrews character that took her name. Maria, in real life, was a formidable creature – quick to anger, strict, with a religious fervor that bordered on zealotry.

Georg’s and Maria’s courtship was also a rather more pragmatic affair than Hollywood would have you believe. Georg asked Maria to stay with him and be a second mother to his children. Of his proposal, Maria said, “God must have made him word it that way because if he had asked me to marry him, I might not have said yes.”

Three children later, poor Georg was dealt another body-blow when the Austrian bank holding his life savings failed in the wake of worldwide economic collapse. The family, already performing as a hobby, was now forced into singing for their supper. Literally.

This was the start of decades of life on the public stage, with the von Trapp kids in a constant round of rehearsals, tours and public performances. When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Georg not only refused to fly the Nazi flag at the house, but also declined a request for the family to play for Hitler.

In 1939, after a tour of Europe, they set sail for America. But the land of the free promptly detained them on Ellis Island, stamping Maria’s passport with the words “undesirable alien”.

A return to Europe – and probable death – was only avoided by the ingenuity of the oldest boy, Rupert, who got ashore and enlisted the help of a businessman who had heard them perform in Europe.

And so a new life was started. But Maria didn’t just escape with her family, she also took with her a priest called Father Franz Wasner. The two were of a similar age and background and shared a passion – music. The von Trapps, along with Father Wasner, eventually made their home in Vermont, running singing camps and re-creating the Austrian Dream between the constant touring.

In 1947 the Captain died but, once again, Maria was the engine of the family’s recovery. She wrote her first autobiography, published in 1949, and then sold the rights to Twentieth Century Fox. The rest, as they say, is musical history.

Nowadays, the Trapp Lodge in Vermont welcomes visitors and runs daily “History Tours”. But quite what history they are selling is ambiguous. Is it the history as told in Maria’s autobiographies?

Nonnberg Nunnery kept meticulous records, and yet there’s no mention of Maria having attended there. There’s nothing, either, to back up her stories of being orphaned and adopted by an abusive uncle. What was the exact nature of her friendship with Father Wasner, and why did they fall out decades later?

Can we take as fact the musings of a woman who created herself from nothing and forged a legend out of her ten children and stepchildren – four of whom still survive, including Maria Jr, from the baron’s first marriage, who’s now 98? And what price did those children pay to be part of that legend?

In short, is the narrative that the original Maria spun about the family as much of a fairytale as the Hollywood version?

Climbed Every Mountain: the Story behind the Sound of Music is on BBC2 tonight at 8:15pm