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Memoir ~ Henriette von Trapp ~ Chapter Three

The Memoir of a Survivor


Henriette von Trapp (1927-2013)

edited with an introduction by

Paul M. Levitt

Narrated by Kelly Riordan

Published by LeRoy Chatfield


Chapter Three


 In March, Rupert and I vacationed in Florida, and when we drove from Pompano Beach to Key West, Rupert had me to drive to become accustomed to coping with other cars.  I felt confident and utterly safe.  Finally, I was on my way to complete independence.

     Besides improving my quality of life, my driving proved a boost to the whole family.  Rupert was excused from the grocery and other kinds of shopping, which I could do with the help of the children, especially the girls, who were strong enough to lift the wheelchair in and out of the car.  My weekly grocery shopping became the highlight of my week.  I was also able to assume the afternoon carpooling of my children and pick them up at their various after-school functions that, till now, they had had to forgo.  Their mother was now almost normal.

     But the best part of driving, by far, was the fact that I could take my children to the beach.  Previously, I had hired baby-sitters to do the job, and I would stay at home with the youngest.  I was now able to indulge in my greatest pleasure, sitting at Elephant Rock Beach looking at that beautiful ocean.  For many years, one of my sisters had rented a summer home in the area and would remain for as long as six weeks.  I would join her and the two of us would spend hours with our children through all kinds of weather, even dense fog and strong winds, all bundled up.  It was the easiest and the least expensive place to keep them happy.  I still spend hours at the same beach; in fact, I wait all winter for those two summer months of beach weather.

     For a while, I managed to do my errands using Rupert’s car while he was having office hours.  He did not, though, feel totally comfortable with that arrangement because he could always be called away on an emergency.  So, he bought me my first car, a second-hand Rambler station wagon.  I was so proud of that car.

     In 1959, The Sound of Music opened on Broadway with Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel as the Baroness and Baron.  I remember the day the producer, Richard Halliday, Mary Martin’s husband, came to Adamsville to get Rupert’s signature for one silver dollar allowing him to buy the rights from a German Film Company that had produced a film in Europe about the Trapp Family Singers.  Since my mother-in-law did not believe in lawyers, all the initial (and major) transactions had been done without any legal advice.  As a result, the family ended up with royalties of one tenth of one percent from all the millions made by the play and the movie.  Had Maria sought competent legal counsel, my money worries would have been over for the rest of my life.  Frankly, I will never forgive her for that oversight.  The play opened first in Boston in January, and Rupert and I attended.  I remember thinking it was just all right.  I never did like Theodore Bikel as the Baron.  Christopher Plummer seemed a far better choice.  Like the Baron, he was very handsome and not a disciplinarian, which was how Bikel impersonated him.  In November, we went to New York to attend a performance of the play.  I have since seen The Sound of Music innumerable times.  I think I know all the words of every song, although the singing and type of music is far different from the Trapp concerts.  The story, as I indicated earlier, is mostly accurate, except that in the play and movie Rupert became Liesl, that the family did not climb over the mountain to escape Austria (instead they took the last train to cross the frontier into Italy), and that the father was a softy where his children were concerned.  But he truly did defy Hitler and refuse to put the swastika on his lovely chateau. 

     In May 1964, already the mother of five children, I was late with my menstrual period.  Needless to say, I was terribly upset.  My family was growing up and now that I could drive the last thing I needed was another baby to cramp my new-found independence.  How could I put a baby into a car seat?  This could not be happening.  In my third month, I started to hemorrhage and hoped to miscarry.  Before leaving for our June vacation, to go camping in Stowe, I was strongly advised by my obstetrician not to take this trip.  But nothing could deter me; what would happen would happen.  We took two vehicles, I drove my Rambler, Rupert his Oldsmobile pulling the tent trailer.  We found a lovely campground in New York State near Fort Ticonderoga, close to a beautiful lake, spending five delightful days there and then a week at in Stowe, setting up our camper in one of the meadows.  I never miscarried, and for almost nine months I told none of my acquaintances of my pregnancy, thinking that if I did not talk about it, it would go away.  Talk about an unwanted child!  But God knew what He was doing. He knew how much I needed this beautiful little girl, who would grow up to be my ray of sunshine.  Francoise was born on 25 January, 1965, a lovely healthy baby.  Even though the delivery was normal, I developed serious rectal spasms right after the birth and could not sit up comfortably for over two weeks.  Monique, who was 16, a sophomore in High School, served as mother and housekeeper during my absence.  She became exceedingly tired and thought I would never resume my place in the home again.  After two weeks, I returned and immediately convinced Rupert, a devout Catholic, to give me birth control pills.  I was 38 years old.

     In 1969, I made a serious mistake that ushered in years of marital woe.  Rupert decided to take a trip to Austria, his first in 25 years.  He asked me to go with him, but for several reasons I decided against it.  Francoise was only four years old, still not in school, and I could not bear the thought of putting an ocean between me and my children.  My father had just recovered from a heart attack and when Rupert was away my parents greatly depended upon me for medical referrals.  Also, I was afraid of the unknown and of the difficulties the wheelchair would cause, and truly felt that Rupert would have an easier trip if he did not have a handicapped wife to worry about.  It turned out to be a bad decision.

     On his way to Salzburg, Rupert stopped in Paris to visit Madeleine, his former fiancée.  After all these happily married years, or so I thought, he was still bothered that she had jilted him.  He wanted to know whether Maria, his stepmother, had interfered.  I believe that his tremendous ego had to be assuaged.  All his plans were made in complete secrecy and it wasn’t until the night before his departure, at a going-away dinner party, that he inadvertently disclosed them.  I was dumbfounded.  How could he jeopardize our years together by planning this clandestine reunion with his first love?  He gave absolutely no thought to my feelings and to the consequences of his actions.  Madeleine had agreed to meet him at the airport.  They went directly to her summer home, had a tête-à-tête, and even danced together.  The following evening, they dined and then parted. Madeleine, who had divorced her first husband, was happily remarried and had no intention of renewing a relationship with Rupert.  He, however, felt otherwise.  When he saw her, his former feelings returned, or so he imagined.  This event precipitated the end of my happy marriage. 

     All during his three-week trip, I agonized, especially the two days I knew him to be in Paris.  Before his return, he did write me a loving letter from Vienna, saying he would never again travel without me.  Nevertheless, I was very much on my guard when I picked him up at Logan.  The next day I found his travel diary with all the details of his stay in Paris.  I thought my world had been destroyed and told him so.  It was then Rupert brought Father Landry into the picture, who convinced me to forgive my husband this indiscretion, assuring me it would never recur.  As I wanted to believe him, I agreed, telling myself that in the future I would accompany Rupert to Europe because I could not trust him.

     Rupert’s next European trip found me at his side, notwithstanding my fears and phobias.  We went to Austria so that Rupert could attend the 40th class reunion of his secondary school in Graz. It was truly a beautiful trip.  I fell in love with Austria—Innsbruck, Zell am See, Salzburg, Vienna.  One place was more beautiful than the other.  The weather was superb, the hotels charming and so very European, the food delightful, the scenery magnificent.  My dream was to return with all my children so that they would know their father’s birthplace.  Sadly, my dream never became a reality.

     On our way home, we spent 48 hours in Paris because my mother-in-law had insisted that I owed it to my mother to visit France and some of her relatives, even if it was only for two days.  But France was also Madeleine’s country and my better judgment told me to stay away.  We had a whirlwind tour of Paris with one of mother’s cousins, had a lovely meal at their charming Paris apartment, and after spending the day sightseeing at Versailles visited the other cousin the following evening.  Before going to our relative’s apartment for dinner, we were resting at our hotel, chatting.  Suddenly, Rupert asked me not to bother him, fell silent, and for several minutes sat in deep concentration.  He then proceeded to write furiously.  My heart sank.  A few minutes later, he left to post his letter, which would reach Madeleine the next day.  At that point, all I wanted to do was get on a plane and leave Paris as fast as possible.  It took the flight home to convince myself not to let this spoil my beautiful memories of the trip.  It was to be the only time Rupert took me with him to Europe.

     In the spring of 1973, I decided to install a shower for my convenience.  Even though it was not truly a shower for the handicapped—one had to step into it—I managed, with a fishing stool straddling the step, to take my own shower after 26 years.  I must admit I did miss the soaking in a hot tub, but I could at least wash whenever I felt like it, another big improvement in my life.  The amazing thing is that by this time, Rupert had so little interest in his wife’s accomplishments that he never observed how I entered the shower.  He was just relieved that he no longer had to lift me into the bathtub.

     My father passed away on his 79th birthday, December 1, 1973.  I think it is classy to be born and die on the same day.  I had spent that last evening with him.  When I left, I knew and hoped the end was near.  I really feel that his death hastened the disintegration of my marriage, because if my father had been alive, Rupert would have acted differently, not wishing to lose my father’s respect and affection.

     During 1972 and 1973, the two years my parents were ill, I was so grateful to my husband for taking such good care of them that I overlooked many things.  Unable to leave them, he did not talk of going to Europe.  In the spring of 1974, however, he announced his intention of returning to Austria.  When I objected, he asked his physician to call and convince me that it was most important for his health that he take several weeks alone at whatever destination he chose.  I remember saying:  “Why does it have to be Europe?”  The doctor did not answer.  A short time later, I discovered that there had been a steady correspondence going on between Madeleine and Rupert via St. Anne’s Hospital.   

     He returned the night before Tizzy’s college graduation.  The next day, I left for Texas for ten days to visit a sister, and then went to Arizona to stay with my son George.  It was my very first trip alone.  Rupert had to be in Adamsville without me for him to appreciate his wife.  Or so I thought.  I had planned this trip while he was away and apprised him of my plan the night before my departure.  Tizzy had agreed to take care of the house for me, and one of Rupert’s assistants was to do the bookkeeping.  I was determined not to return until I heard from him.  Finally, after almost one month, he wrote me a loving letter in which he said that the children needed me, that he needed me and missed me, and that I should return home.  How I cherished that letter.  I must have read it a hundred times. 

     My whole family met me at the airport, and I was so happy to see them.  Before retiring that night, however, I discovered that Rupert’s assistant had not touched the bookkeeping, and that one month of accumulated work waited for me.  I was furious, faced with endless hours of bookkeeping.  When I asked Rupert why, he merely said that his assistant could not understand my method.  This was an untruth as I had showed her how to do it and it was not difficult to grasp.  He just wanted to get even; nothing had changed.  Once again, I was the housekeeper, bookkeeper, and baby-sitter “par extraordinaire” and my husband’s life was back to normal. 

     Later that summer, I wrote him a letter, as verbal communication between us was non-existent.  The letter prompted him to seek the help of a friend, a man who had no training in marriage counseling.  I cannot understand why Rupert thought his advice would be helpful.  The result of our meeting with him was a backhanded apology from Rupert, in which he said that if he had realized that his trip to Europe would upset me, he would not have gone.  No admission of wrongdoing, no words like: “I am sorry, Henri, if I hurt you.”  Two years later, he was on his way back to Europe and I was desolée.

     Unhappy and bored, I had entirely too much time to dwell on the unhealthy condition of my marriage.  It was more and more obvious that Rupert did not care for me.  As the years pass and one becomes older, one’s inherent characteristics become more pronounced:  a nice person becomes nicer, a selfish one becomes more self-involved.  Rupert had become the most self-centered person I had ever met.  Some of my sisters had realized this many years before, but I had been so blinded by love that it had escaped me that his affections had for some time been over.  Now I had no illusions.  What to do was the question.  When it was suggested to Rupert that he find me a part-time job in one of the local hospitals, he positively refused.  Despite his not saying why, I knew that he wanted me at home to prepare his lunch, though he never talked to me as he ate it.

     I really do believe if I had found a part-time job, something to take my mind off my problems, my marriage might have been saved.  By the summer of 1975 our relationship had so deteriorated that I decided to have corrective surgery done on my hands, hoping that an operation might make Rupert pay me some attention.  He was good to his patients, but I was not among them.  Polio had left me with very poor hands; my thumbs did not work well.  It was very difficult for me to close a safety pin or hold a needle or even grasp a glass.  The doctors said that they could improve the situation by using a tendon in the ring finger and attaching it to the thumb.  Both hands were bad, but it was decided to do one hand at a time, doing the worse one first.  The operation proved successful as far as the hand went, but it did not help the marriage.  Rupert kept complaining about the two trips a week to Boston and the extra work he had at home owing to my absence.  I never had the second hand done, and because he never brought me back for a checkup, I ended up with a crooked ring finger.

     Two years had elapsed since Rupert’s last European venture and then what I constantly feared happened.  He told me he was going to Austria.  Immediately, I said I was going with him, but he emphatically stated:  “There will be no ticket for you.”  I warned that if he went again alone our marriage would not survive; however, nothing made an impression.  He consulted with Father Landry, who called me to let me know that after a day of prayer, he had given Rupert his permission and blessing for his intended trip.  After that awful conversation, I remember hanging up the phone saying to myself, “Father Landry, who gave you the right to destroy my marriage.”  During the weeks preceding Rupert’s departure, I begged, I cried, I threatened.  I even removed my wedding ring to express the depth of my despair, but nothing reached him.  He was like a Prussian general with no regard for feelings.

     Several horrible scenes later, and despite advice from a local marriage counselor, Rupert left as planned.  He had made it impossible for me to share his bed.  While he was away, I had a telephone jack installed in the guest room and when he returned after three weeks, I told him that this was now his bedroom.  The end of our marriage was now in sight.  If anyone needed a husband I did, but I had to salvage my self-respect and be treated like a wife, not a housekeeper.  I found more letters to Madeleine—whom he had tried to see in England, though unsuccessfully—and concluded that this man was determined to destroy what he had all for a fantasy.  He proceeded to fire me from my bookkeeping job and locked me out of his office, the very place I had lovingly cleaned for over 25 years. 

     That summer was hell.  I would drive like a mad woman all the way to Providence and disappear for hours, gazing at the ocean, in the hope that he would worry.  But he never showed any signs of concern.  Seeking a separation, I wanted to think things out and eventually meet with him in the lawyer’s office to reassess our life together.  But he was very clever; he had forced me to make the first move.  For the rest of his life, he would state:  “She kicked me out.”  I was never to be forgiven.  Contrary to what his lawyer had told him, the judge did decide in my favor and ordered him to vacate our shared living quarters within two weeks, although allowing him to maintain his office in the Adamsville house.

     Naively, I believed that this was to be a temporary separation, that in a few months Rupert would miss his children and maybe his housekeeper-wife, and that he would come to his senses about how he should behave.  Even then I didn’t realize the immensity of his ego and pride.  I had committed an unforgivable crime; I had humiliated him and the whole town now knew that his marriage was a failure.  The day he left, he vaguely promised a change in his behavior.  All I could say was:  “I am sorry, you are two years too late.”  It probably was a great mistake on my part because he never offered again, but at that moment, I was driven by my need to have him experience how it felt to be locked out of his living quarters as he had locked me out of his office, which was part of my house.

     My hope that we would meet was a dream.  He never spoke to me directly again, except through his lawyers.  One day I parked behind his car so that when he returned, he would be forced to speak to me.  That didn’t work.  I tried to set up a meeting, only to be told he was leaving the next day on vacation, and according to him there was nothing to discuss.  Having his office in my house created an intolerable situation.  I could hear him whispering to his nurse and laughing at me.  What I did not know was that six weeks after the separation, a mutual friend of ours, Jan Warren, a divorcée, returned to New England to renew her former friendships.  In no time, she and Rupert were becoming close, though at the time I knew nothing about it.  On December 1, I was informed by my lawyer that Rupert was suing me for divorce.  I was absolutely dumbfounded.  Never really having contemplated divorce, I could see now that the battle was lost.  As he grew older Rupert needed a wife who could wait on him, and obviously I was not that person.  Jan was more than ready to fill the role and redeem her damaged pride caused by her own failed marriage.  She regarded it as a feather in her cap to become Mrs. von Trapp.

     For four months, my lawyers postponed the court date with various excuses, hoping that Rupert would come to his senses.  Friends and relatives repeatedly tried to reach him, but to no avail.  On April 18, 1977, in a courtroom in Newport, Rhode Island, Rupert was granted his divorce.  I received the house in Adamsville and, because his assets were meager, a pitiful alimony.  I also had custody of the two minor children.  After a very difficult summer spent haggling over various points in the divorce decree, it became final in October.  He was 65 years old, and I had just turned 50.  I will never forget the somber ride home from the courthouse.  I had wanted the house, with its adaptations for my polio and my feeling that it was the only place I could function, but the thought of supporting it was overwhelming.  Five days later, Rupert sent a letter to his ex-wife and to each of his six children informing us all that he had married Jan and was honeymooning at the family home in Stowe. 

Coda: 1977 to the Present

     I needed to find a job.  In September of 1976, right after Rupert had left the house, I began working several hours a week as a volunteer at St. Anne’s Hospital.  This job lasted all of two weeks. Rupert had me fired by the administrator.  He could not stand to cross my path in the corridors, and he feared what I might say to his patients if I should chance to meet them.  I’m probably the only volunteer worker who has ever been fired.  When this happened, I felt that I had reached the lowest point in my life and was ready to end it.  I had the means:  a full bottle of Valium, which I had taken out of Rupert’s medical bag.  This is when a good friend stepped into the picture and saved my life.  She was a remedial reading teacher in the Tiverton School system and approached her principal to ask if I could come to work as her aide, helping children grades one to three.  Employed as a volunteer, I worked for nothing.

     Eventually I realized I needed a paying job if I was to remain in my house in Adamsville.  My alimony would never cover all the expenses.  Through another friend, I was put in touch with the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation of the State of Rhode Island. Thank God for the Disability Act!  The U.S. Navy had to fill its requirement of hiring a handicapped person, so I was given a part-time job at the Newport Navy Base, working in the office of the Commissary Store.  I had taken a business course in high school, and despite the polio I could still type.  Thus began my career in the outside world.  It was a lifesaver, economically and psychologically.  I had to travel 42-miles round trip, but it was a pleasant drive, through the lovely New England countryside listening to classical music.  Over the years, I received many Outstanding Performance awards that came with bonuses.  When asked at an EEO meeting what action of his had been the most satisfying, my first supervisor replied:  “Hiring Henriette von Trapp.”  I was most gratified when he told me.  A few years later, another boss, Lt. Cdr. McCosco, nominated me as the U. S. Navy Handicapped Employee of the Year.  I did not win that award, but I did receive a lovely letter from some Navy Admiral.  The work and my colleagues gave me satisfaction.  I was with people all day instead of alone in my house and the added income permitted me to keep it. 

     Although 65, Rupert felt the need to continue his medical practice, opening an office in Northampton, Massachusetts where he was living with his new wife.  Estranged from the children and me, he requested an annulment to have his marriage blessed by the Church.  He and Jan had been married by a Justice of the Peace, and my very religious husband did not feel comfortable.  I laughed!  If he thought I’d agree to a 30-year marriage with six children being effaced, he was terribly mistaken.  The fact that he lived in the Springfield diocese worried me because it had the reputation of granting the most annulments in the country.  On Good Friday in 1980 the ax fell.  I received a letter from the Tribunal of Springfield that my ex-husband had submitted a request for a church annulment of his 30-year marriage.  Two of my daughters and I had just returned from a church service and on the way home had picked up our mail at the post office.  Both girls were hysterical and promptly called their father.  He stupidly insisted that an annulment would not make them illegitimate.  At one point, I took the phone and said to him:  “You will never get this annulment.  I will fight you to the end.”  The grounds of the divorce had been irreconcilable differences; the grounds for the annulment were my inability to sustain a marriage commitment.  What an insult!  Despite my extreme handicap, I had managed with very little assistance to raise six children and be a good wife for 30 years.  Little did I know that I was in for a bitter ten-year siege.  During the four years the process sat in Springfield, I lived in perpetual dread of any communication I received from them.  My hands would shake so badly that I could barely open the letters, which were terribly nasty and abusive.  It was obvious Rupert had painted an ugly picture of his ex-wife.  Upon the advice of a Monsignor in Fall River, I consistently refused to fill out the extensive questionnaire the tribunal sent me.  The Msg. felt that anything I might say could be used against me.  Finally, the Tribunal, greatly annoyed, appointed a semi-retired priest from Providence to come to Adamsville to “help” me fill out the questionnaire.  After spending several hours with me, he was so impressed with my belief in the validity of my marriage and of my resolve to fight this annulment that he stated:  “You have to go to the Tribunal in Springfield, and I will drive you there myself.”  He actually remained in the car as I encountered my tormentors, who completely changed their attitude.  Six months later, the Tribunal issued their decision denying the annulment.  My relief, though, was short-lived.  Rupert exercised his right to appeal.  The process was now in the hands of the Archdiocese of Boston.  I was soon to discover that Father Landry, the priest who officiated at our wedding, the priest who 30 years later promised Rupert he would help him get an annulment, had influence with the Tribunal.  He gave an outrageous testimony that convinced them to overturn the Springfield decision.  If I wished, I could appeal to Rome.  Consequently, I hired a canon lawyer, an Italian citizen.  Four years and $6,000 later, the Roman Rota decreed that Rupert had no valid grounds for an annulment.  They stated that basically he was the one responsible for the breakup of the marriage, that Father Landry had badly advised him, and that the Archdiocese of Boston had erred grossly in their decision.  After reading the 40 pages of the Roman Rota’s transcript, I truly felt vindicated.  Rupert never did get his ticket to heaven. 

     Finally, 13 years after the divorce, I could put all this horror behind me; I could begin to heal and to forgive, but never to forget.    A series of events, in proximity, seemed to presage the journey’s end.  On December 22, 1980, the Trapp Family Lodge burned to the ground.  It was a bitterly cold night twenty degrees below zero; in two hours all that was left was the chimney.  Mutter escaped in her nightgown, losing all her belongings and memorabilia from around the world.  Rupert decided to retire.  The house in Northampton was put up for sale and he and Jan purchased an attractive one in Stowe.  Not long after, Rupert inherited the property of a maiden aunt who owned a beautiful lakeside house in Zell Am See.  He subsequently sold it for an undisclosed but large amount, buying a new Volvo, adding on to his house, and traveling.  Finally, he was well off.

     His health, however, was deteriorating.  A heavy smoker all his life, he suffered from emphysema.  Although plagued by other ailments as well, shortness of breath undoubtedly contributed to his mild heart attack.  He did, though, live long enough to see all his children marry and to give his last daughter away.  He even tried to dance with her but lasted just a few steps.  Two months later, Rupert celebrated his 80th birthday.  His children organized a lovely party at the Lodge, which I crashed.  It was to be the last time I would see him up and about.  He died four months later, on 22 February 1992, succumbing to the emphysema.  For the sake of my children, I came to his deathbed, but he was already in a coma.  I leaned over and whispered that I forgave him but will never know if he heard me.  Jan was not pleased that I remained for the funeral.  But he was the father of my six children, and I felt I belonged there.  Less than two years later, Jan, seven years younger than Rupert, and a heavy smoker all her life, died from lung cancer.  The Stowe house was sold; my children came into their inheritance; and that chapter of my life was closed.


     My narrative has drawn to a close.  I am now facing what is generally called the “Golden Years.”  For me, I am not sure they will be golden.  If the prediction of the doctors proves true—that eventually polio recurs—in five years, I may have difficulty breathing.  I do notice that my ability to perform daily routines is diminishing.  I would be dishonest to say I am not frightened, but I am also determined.




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