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Death of von Trapp, 99, in Vermont marks end of era

Family’s story resonated in musical

Maria von Trapp was portrayed in the “Sound of Music” movie by Heather Menzies, third from right. Her character was renamed Louisa for the film and made younger.

ARGYLE ENTERPRISES AND 20TH CENTURY FOX

Maria von Trapp was portrayed in the “Sound of Music” movie by Heather Menzies, third from right. Her character was renamed Louisa for the film and made younger.

In the movie that made her family famous, Maria von Trapp was renamed Louisa, a spunky 13-year-old tomboy known for hiding spiders in the beds of governesses she detested.

She was the third-eldest child of Captain Georg von Trapp, and the last surviving sibling of the seven depicted in the beloved 1965 film “The Sound of Music,” which ends with their escape from Nazi-occupied Austria. And with her death last week, at age 99 in Vermont, the beloved musical starring Julie Andrews lost a vital link to the history that inspired it.

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“It’s so meaningful to me, because it is the closing of that era,” said Elisabeth von Trapp of Waitsfield, Vt., a niece of Maria von Trapp. “She outlived them all . . . And she was the center. She exemplified what my family believed in.”

The von Trapps are best known for their Austrian adventures, but the family put down deep roots in New England after settling in Stowe, Vt., in the 1940s, when they converted a sprawling farm into a popular ski lodge. The lodge burned to the ground in 1980 but was rebuilt; it is still run by Johannes von Trapp, Maria’s much younger half-brother born after the family left Austria.

In real life, it was young Maria who suffered a childhood case of scarlet fever that kept her out of school after the death of her mother, prompting her father to hire a governess to teach her at home. The governess was Maria Augusta Kutschera, a candidate for the novitiate at Nonnberg Benedictine Convent, who became the captain’s second wife in 1927.

Maria was the last of the von Trapp siblings from the film.

LEONHARD FOEGER/REUTERS/FILE

Maria was the last of the von Trapp siblings from the film.

The new governess was just a few years older than her pupil. She arrived wearing “a horrible dress,” but with a guitar, the younger Maria von Trapp told the New York Daily News in 1998, and “she had a different way of teaching. We would go for a walk or sit in the garden. We liked her very much.”

In 1936, the governess-turned-baroness started the family musical group, the Trapp Family Singers. The family fled Austria in 1938 — after Captain von Trapp rebuffed the Nazis — but on a train to Italy, not on a hike across the Alps. And young Maria was 24 at the time, not 13, as she is in the movie.

‘She loved meeting people. She had an extraordinary open-heartedness, a graciousness and generosity.’

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The von Trapps toured extensively in America from 1938 to 1956, while establishing their home base in Stowe. The movie “The Sound of Music” was loosely based on a 1949 book written by the elder Maria about the family’s journey.

The movie was a smash, winning five Academy Awards including Best Picture and displacing “Gone with the Wind” as then the highest-grossing film of all time. But the family’s relationship to it was complicated. The movie “was great, but it was an American version of my family’s life,” Johannes von Trapp told The New York Times in 2008. His sister Maria was heartbroken at the way their father was depicted, telling the Daily News, “He was really a father. And he was always with us.”

Her niece Elisabeth von Trapp, herself a singer, songwriter, and composer, said in an interview Sunday that her aunt occasionally acknowledged the weight of the insatiable interest in her past.

“She would say, ‘The world always wants to know about that — let’s just live in the moment, let’s cook, let’s look at what’s around us,’” von Trapp recalled. As her aunt grew older, she grew in her acceptance of her public role. “It wasn’t a burden to her,” Elisabeth von Trapp said. “She loved meeting people. She had an extraordinary open-heartedness, a graciousness and generosity.”

She maintained long relationships with some of the cast members from “The Sound of Music.” On Twitter, the actors who portrayed Maria and her siblings (who tweet collectively as “The SOM 7”) wrote at the news of her death: “Maria von Trapp will be sorely missed by her lovely family and her movie screen family as well. We each hold special memories of her smiling face and joyful spirit . . . [S]o long, farewell.”

Fifty years ago this month, the cast began rehearsals for the film, according to a tweet by one of the actors.

Maria von Trapp never married and spent some 25 years working as a missionary in New Guinea, relatives said. While there, she befriended a homeless young man and brought him to her church; she later adopted the young man, Kikuli Mwanukuzi, and he took care of her in Vermont in her final years. “Her life was driven by one thing — service to God — and to me she was a model of God’s love, because she loved me even when I was unworthy,” he said Sunday.

She was handy — in her 70s, she built a set of wooden shelves for Elisabeth von Trapp, so the younger woman could organize fabrics for a creative project. And she was strikingly beautiful, said her niece, with a traditional Austrian hairstyle of braids coiled around her head like a crown.

“People would see her and say, ‘There she is, there’s Maria!’ ” von Trapp recalled. “She had a poise and an eloquence of spirit. She was one of a kind.”

The interest in her story, at least as told in the Hollywood movie, seems unlikely to fade away. As recently as December, the Regent Theater in Arlington held a sing-along screening of the musical, and the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline featured the movie last year as part of its “Big Screen Classics” series.

Elisabeth von Trapp, whose father, Werner, was renamed Kurt in the movie, said she is not sure why the story’s appeal has endured. But she suspects it has to do with the way her family had to start over after the war, to overcome darkness and forge a new beginning — a necessity people of all eras can relate to. “They sang their hearts out and brought beauty back,” she said, “and that built something real, not just a Hollywood moment.”

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.

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