The patron of Helena Modjeska Art and Culture Club in Los Angeles, Helena Modjeska (Modrzejewska) was a Shakespearean actress born in Krakow, Poland, on October 12, 1840 (as Jadwiga Benda); who emigrated to California in 1870s, settled on an estate in Orange County (that she called Arden) and died in Newport Beach, California, on April 8, 1909. The following biographical entry is written by Krystyna Cap for The Polish American Encyclopedia, edited by James Pula and published by McFarland in 2011. Used by permission. For more information about the Encyclopedia see the PDF flyer or visit McFarland Publishing website.
Helena Modjeska in her roles as Ophelia (1867), Juliet, Barbara Radziwillowna (1867), and Queen Jadwiga (1866). Vintage postcards published in Poland. Photographs from Wikimedia Commons.
Although her paternity has been contested by claims that Modjeska was illegitimately fathered by Prince Wladyslaw Sanguszko, Jadwiga Benda (later christened Helena Opid), was born into a family that traveled in artistic circles. Despite their relative poverty, from a young age Modjeska was influenced by her adopted musician father, Michal, and his literary and artistic friends. In 1861 Modjeska married Gustave Sinnmayer Modrzejewski, who had supervised her early education and promoted her fledgling acting career. In the same year she made her first onstage appearance in a one-act comedy named The White Camellia.
After her husband died in 1866, she continued her career in Poland, remarrying in 1868. Her second husband, Count Karol Bozenta Chlapowski, was a well-known Polish patriot and journalist. Throughout the late 1860s and early 1870s, she continued to receive critical acclaim for her various roles on the Warsaw stage. In the years prior to emigration, she and her husband briefly traveled to Krakow, where Chlapowski published a partisan journal and where Helena became active in Polish politics. Upon return to Warsaw, the radical nationalist position held by both Modrzejewska and Chlapowski resulted in increasing harassment by Russian authorities, and led the pair to leave Warsaw for America in 1876. Thus she migrated to California with her son from her first marriage, Ralph (later a well-respected civil engineer; Ralph Modjeski), her husband Count Chlapowski, and a handful of Polish friends and colleagues, including Julian Sypniewski and Henryk Sienkiewicz.
Modrzejewska and her husband purchased a twenty-acre farm in Anaheim, established a ranch there, and with their Polish friends, intended to found a utopian Polish farming colony. When plans failed owing to a lack of agricultural knowledge (and lacking the funds to return home), Modjeska traveled to San Francisco, where she began English language lessons with the intention of returning to the stage. Not long after, with the assistance of several Poles resident in San Francisco, she approached Barton Hill and John McCullough of the California Theater for a role. It was McCullough who suggested that she shorten her name to Modjeska to make it easier for American audiences to pronounce. On August 20, 1877, Modjeska made her American debut in San Francisco in an Ernest Legouve and A. E. Scribe play, Adrienne Lecouvreur. Achieving critical acclaim for her successive roles, including Ophelia and Juliet, she soon began touring American stages in a variety of roles, appearing in Boston, Buffalo, Kansas City, New Orleans, New York, and elsewhere.
In 1878 Modjeska briefly toured theaters in Russian Poland and traveled to England in 1880. Upon her return to America in 1882, she produced and starred in a version of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. In America, Modjeska became famous chiefly for her portrayal of several Shakespearean roles, including Juliet, Desdemona, Rosalind, Queen Anne, and Ophelia. In May 1893, she was invited to speak at an international conference at the Chicago World's Fair, where she delivered a stirring speech on the status of Polish women, uttering several highly patriotic remarks regarding the injustice of Poland's eighteenth-century partitions. In Russia her speech met with the ire of tsarist authorities, who issued an ukase prohibiting her from ever returning to Russian Poland.
Modjeska's home "Arden" in Silverado Canyon, Orange County in 1910 (vintage postcard) and in 2011 with actress Ewa Boryczko as Modjeska and Maja Trochimczyk. The property is now a Historic Home owned by Orange County and partly supported by the Helena Modjeska Foundation.
After spending over 20 years on her beloved estate, Arden, in Silverado Canyon, Orange County, California (see the photographs above), Modjeska died in 1909 at her home on Bay Island in Newport Beach, California; however, Chlapowski buried her remains in Krakow, Poland. One year later, her memoirs were published in America and thereafter translated into Polish. Throughout her career, Modjeska played in over 225 towns and cities throughout the United States and Canada.
In popular culture, Modjeska inspired Susan Sontag's novel, In America (1999), which was awarded the National Book Award. Sontag's novel was based on Modjeska's life after emigration and came under public scrutiny for allegedly having plagiarized passages from Modjeska's own memoir and other biographical sources. A small collection of primary and secondary materials on Modjeska's career in Poland and the United States is housed in the Special Collections and Archives of the University of California, Irvine.
The Modjeska Club has tried to erect a monument to Modjeska since the 1970s. At that time, the Club's member eminent sculptor Stanislaw Szukalski made one design. In the 1990s, Tomasz Misztal was asked to design a monument that was to be placed near Modjeska's last residence in Orange County. Two designs were made. See the photos of the monument designs: Monuments PDF
SOURCES OF INFORMATION
This entry by Krystyna Cap is reprinted from The Polish American Encyclopedia, edited by James Pula, McFarland Publishing, 2011. Used by Permission. More information about the Encyclopedia is here.
Ellen K. Lee, "The Catholic Modjeska," Polish American Studies, Vol. 31, no. 1 (1974), 20-27;
"Helena Modjeska," in Charles H. Shattuck, ed., Shakespeare on the American Stage: From Booth and Barrett to Sothern and Marlowe (London: Associated University Presses, 1987), Vol. 2, 125-36
Arthur P. Coleman and Marion Moore Coleman, Wanderers Twain: Modjeska and Sienkiewicz. A View of California (Cheshire: Cherry Hill Books, 1964)
Marion Moore Coleman, Fair Rosalind: The American Career of Helena Modjeska (Sheshire: Cherry Hill Books, 1969)
Antoni Gronowicz, Modjeska: Her Life and Loves (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1956)
Helena Modjeska, Memories and Impressions of Helena Modjeska: An Autobiography (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1969)
Beth Holmgren, "Virility and Gentility: How Sienkiewicz and Modjeska Redeemed America," The Polish Review, Vol. 46, no. 3 (2001), 283-96
Beth Holmgren, Starring Madame Modjeska: On Tour in Poland and America (Indiana University Press, 2011)