Her storybook marriage to a baron with a ready-made family, their ascent to musical fame and subsequent escape from the Nazis has made her a legend.
Julie Andrew's depiction of her life in "The Sound of Music" has left a tough act to follow.
The real Maria Von Trapp is now a stern 75-year-old matrirach. She spoke here Saturday as part of a Catholic Family Life Conference.
Von Trapp spoke briefly on the "Four Freedoms," and then plunged into the story of her life.
She said she had a very unhappy childhood. When her mother died, she was left with an elderly aunt; then her cousin and the cousin's husband, who beat her, forbade her from going to church and taught her to ridicule Catholicism.
But as a college student in Vienna, she was brought back to the church by a priest -- whom she first called "Pius Mister."
She decided to join the strictist convent she could find, and when she got there, was asked who had sent her.
"Sent me?" she replied. "why if someone had sent me, I wouldn't have come.
I haven't obeyed anybody yet!"
At the convent, "I was horrid, the worst you can imagine," von Trapp told the crowd of 650 at the Mayflower Hotel. According to her speech and books, she broke china, spoke during periods of silence, ran through the courtyard, slid down banisters, whistled Gregorian chants and climbed on the convent roof.
Two years later, when the Baron George von Trapp, a retired World War I hero, asked the sisters to send him a nun for 10 months to tutor his sick daughter, (contrary to the movie, she wasn't a governess), "The nuns unanimously chose me!" she said.
It was love at first sight for von Trapp and the seven motherless children she encountered. "Later I grew to respect their father," then after their marriage in 1972, "I grew to love him," she said.
In the 10 years the family spent in Austria, the von Trapps perfected classical, folk and baroque songs, and sang regularly at Sunday masses.
They performed one public concert, which brought offers of several contracts. Though the family first turned down the contracts, they later accepted offers for a European concert tour when they needed money to flee Austria and the Nazis.
The von Trapps -- now with nine children -- arrived in America in 1938, she said, with a six-month tour visa. They eventually became American citizens and bought a run-down house "with a beautiful view" in Stowe, Vt., which reminded them of their homeland.
In 1947, George von Trapp died of lung cancer. In 1958, the von Trapp Family Singers gave their farewell performance.
Now Maria von Trapp lives in the von Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, where she runs a gift shop, autographs copies of her five books, and attends daily mass. She sings only to herself now and sees her children infrequently, she said.
The most important advice she said she can offer today's families is, ". . . get out and find out what is the will of God. If they do, mothers would find out they had to stay at home."
And of course, children should sing -- "all kinds of songs," she said in an interview in her hotel room, sitting inches away from a picture of the Virgin Mary and a burning vigil light.
The "children" now range in age from 41 to over 70.
Agathe (16-year-old Liesl in the movie) is single, and teaches kindergarten outside Baltimore. Rupert (Frederich, 14) is a doctor in Massachusetts, Maria (Louisa, 13) is single and a lay missionary in New Guinea, and Werner (Kurt, 11) is a retired farmer living in Waitsfield, Vt.
Hedwig (Brigitta, 10), who taught music in Hawaii, died in the early 70s. Johanna (Marta, 7) is retired and lives in Washington state. The eldest of the original seven, Martina (Greta, 5) died in childbirth in 1951 in Vermont.
The other three children, Rosmarie, Elenore and Johannes, who were not shown in the movie but toured with the family in the United States, live in the Northeast. Johannes now runs the Von Trapp Family Lodge.