Christmas is a great time for movies on TV. Not only are classic holiday films — It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, Holiday Inn, Miracle on 34th Street — much in evidence but non-Christmas classics abound as well. And so it happened that I stumbled upon The Sound of Music — much to my delight. In one of those weird small world coincidences that happens from time to time, I was looking at a book a few days later (I’m only a little bit embarrassed to reveal that the book was The First 300: The Amazing and Rich History of Lower Merion) when I learned that the Von Trapps spent about 4 years living just up the road in Merion after they left Salzburg. I found that to be terribly interesting. The other interesting thing? I’m apparently the only person in suburban Philly who had never heard about this before.
So here’s how it happened. The Von Trapps fled Salzburg after the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938. It wasn’t because Georg was trying to avoid taking up a new naval command as per the movie. He’d already turned that down with no apparent consequences. The family just had a bad feeling about the Nazis and decided to get out while the getting was good. Good move. Maria and Georg had already been married about 10 years when this happened. She married him because she was nuts about the kids not because she was in love with him, although he did eventually grow on her. And — prepare to be deeply saddened — the family didn’t escape by schlepping across the Alps into Switzerland. They crossed the street and hopped a train for Italy. Georg was born in the Kingdom of Dalmatia, which was at the time a part of Italy, so he and his family were all Italian citizens. By the way, Georg’s first wife Agathe, who died of scarlet fever, was the daughter of the guy who invented the torpedo. And he looked nothing like Christopher Plummer. Georg, not the torpedo guy.
Georg lost all of his money when his bank crashed in ’35, leaving him demoralized and also broke. Maria — who appears to have been a bit of a battle axe — took charge and got the family some concert dates even though her husband thought it was beneath them. By the way, it wasn’t Maria that got the kids singing. Warbling was a Von Trapp family hobby of long standing. After leaving Italy, they traveled to the US and did a concert in Philadelphia where they were heard by Henry S. Drinker, a lawyer, music patron and Bach authority. Drinker intervened when the family got held up at Ellis Island with visa problems on their return to the US in 1939. The problems occurred when Maria told the visa guy, “I love America and I’m never leaving.” Drinker also let the Von Trapps stay in his mother’s house on Merion Road while they got back on their feet financially. No report as to what the mother thought of eleven long-term singing houseguests (Maria and Georg had two of their own by this point in addition to Agathe’s brood). Me, I would have been mightily irked.
The First 300 reports that “like the Swiss family Robinson, they did every chore, made all their own clothes, shoes, furniture, pottery.” All this while wearing dirndls and lederhosen. The Von Trapps left Merion and bought a farm in Vermont in the early 1940s where they eventually opened a resort and music camp. So now you know.