The hills are alive with the sound of schmoozing. It’s a rainy weeknight at the Upper East Side’s Mark hotel, where the bar is full of networking menswear acolytes and well-heeled couples enjoying cocktails. On a zebra-print divan, Myles von Trapp Derbyshire, great-grandson of the only famous naval officer Austria has ever produced, is pitching me on the TV drama he’s developing about his family history. It’s called Baroness, a title his mother is still addressed by in the Old Country, even though technically the Austrian nobility hasn’t existed since 1919.
Today there are around 100 living von Trapps, descendants of the ten singing siblings whose childhoods were dramatized in The Sound of Music. Thirty-eight-year-old Myles, clad tonight in an oatmeal Fair Isle sweater with a popped collar underneath, is not one of the von Trapps who own the Trapp Family Lodge, the Vermont property the family eventually settled in after fleeing the Nazis. And he is not one of the von Trapps you would occasionally see performing “Edelweiss” on Oprah or The View in years past. But, as a longtime New Yorker, he is probably the most media-friendly von Trapp. When journalists wondered what the real von Trapps thought of Carrie Underwood playing Maria in NBC’s 2013 live broadcast of the musical, Myles was the one who gave them a disapproving quote.
This occasionally causes issues. Take the word we, which, when Myles uses it, typically refers to just him and his mother. That distinction is often lost in headlines. “The emails I get: ‘You can’t speak on behalf of everyone in the family.’ Are you joking? Of course I can’t,” he says.
The process of developing Baroness has the potential to spark more familial tension, so Myles is treading carefully. “Most people who are born into public families prefer to maintain private lives,” he says. “We have a lot of boisterous personalities in the family, but there are a few people who have made it clear that we have to respect their wishes.”
There will be no singing nuns in Baroness, which Myles is developing with filmmaker Rebecca Eskreis. At the Mark — which he customarily patronizes with his Pomeranian, Fritz, in tow — the pair give me the elevator pitch for the show: “The Hours meets The Crown.” If made, the series will take place in three separate timelines, each following a different generation of the family: Myles’s grandmother Henriette von Trapp, who married a man 16 years her senior and contracted polio at the age of 22; Myles’s mother, Stephanie von Trapp Derbyshire, who escaped an abusive relationship; and Myles himself, whom Eskreis affectionately calls “a character with many layers, some of which I can’t stand.” (“I’m not in denial about that,” Myles says.) The legendary Maria, Henriette’s mother-in-law, will be a supporting character. Her depiction, Myles asserts, will be “a departure from Julie Andrews’s. It’s very well known that she was a tough cookie.”
A skeptic might cast a sideways glance at the idea of a show about characters who are related to people fictionalized in The Sound of Music. But Team Baroness is hoping the story will have a universal appeal as an intergenerational tale of women overcoming obstacles through the decades. It will be funny, Myles says: “The women in my family are extremely dry.” There will also be a sense of scale. “Can you imagine you’re living in this small town and then your family becomes wildly, insanely famous?” Eskreis says.
Besides offering the opportunity to correct the historical record about Captain Georg von Trapp, who was by all accounts kinder than the disciplinarian portrayed by Christopher Plummer, the project functions as a tribute to Henriette, who died in 2013. “Not only was she more of a second mother, she was also one of my best friends,” Myles says. He sees it as a meaty role for a major actress. “You have to love her, and you have to be able to hate her. But at the end of the day, you cry when she dies.”
Even in its gestational phase, the show is testing Myles’s skills in diplomacy. “I get nervous saying the wrong thing because something could be misinterpreted and then it either sets the project back or kills it completely.” He got a glimpse of this after “Page Six” erroneously reported that Baroness would touch on the yearslong legal battle over the family’s lodge, which was detailed in the 1998 Vanity Fair story “The Sound of Money.” For any von Trapps who may be reading this, rest assured: The lawsuit will not be included. “It’s irrelevant history,” Myles says.
Still, it remains a touchy subject. On the record, Myles is willing to say that he has enjoyed visiting the lodge as an adult and that he has a good relationship with his cousin Sam, who now operates the place with his father and “does a fabulous job.”
Myles grew up in a seaside town in Rhode Island where his mother ran a horse farm and his grandmother ruled the local beach club like a benevolent dictator. He says he was raised with a Continental attitude toward his family heritage: “In Denmark, there’s this unwritten rule called Janteloven: Culturally, you’re not allowed to think that you’re better than anyone else — which is interesting for Denmark, considering everyone’s so good looking.” For similar reasons, he adds, “you did not go around flaunting anything. You weren’t allowed to think that you were ‘a von Trapp.’ ” One of his mother’s best friends was a great-granddaughter of Andrew Carnegie. “One Sunday afternoon, we were on my parents’ small motorboat, cruising around with her and her kids. I must’ve been 14 or 15, and I go, ‘Look at us, the von Trapps and the Carnegies out for a cruise.’ Both mothers ripped me a new one for a solid 15 minutes.” For years, he never said anything like that again.
Not until Myles attended NYU in the mid-aughts did he realize just how famous his last name was. “I would be invited to these clubs in Meatpacking, and it’s like, Why? Then immediately it was like, ‘Oh, this is Myles von Trapp.’ Okay, got it. They were treating me like they treat Gillian Hearst.”
Through “mutual friends,” Myles entered New York society: “It feels weird to say, because I really didn’t grow up this way, but I will go to multiple black-tie events in the year.” (He has a day job in corporate finance in the fashion industry.) He is the director of fundraising for Mommy’s Heart, a nonprofit that benefits victims of domestic violence, and has attended the Germanistic Society of America’s Quadrille Ball, where he performed the same stately waltzes his great-grandfather might have a century earlier. Of this, he says, “Once was enough.”
How many times has he seen The Sound of Music? “I’ve seen the beginning twice as many times as I’ve seen the entire movie,” he says. New friends will want to watch it with him, but they usually lose interest midway. “They don’t realize that it’s three and a half hours long.” Once, during a fit of depression in 2016, he caught the movie on TV. “I disassociated myself from being a member of the family,” he says. “I was like, If they can get through that, so can I. And then I’m like, That’s your family, so you can definitely do it.”
It’s the kind of reaction he dreams of Baroness inspiring: “I’m sure there are people in my family who would be fine with us being done. The family would just …”
“Drift off into anonymity,” Eskreis says.
“And The Sound of Music would either play itself out or not,” Myles says. “I don’t know how many people are going to be watching a three-and-a-half-hour musical down the road. But this is a way of taking the same story of hope and making it relevant in today’s society.”