Born in Krakow, Poland, Helena grew up in a household of six talented children, of whom four became actors. She made her amateur acting debut at age 20, and soon thereafter, joined a company of strolling players managed by Gustave Modrzejewski, the man who fathered her two children, Rudolf (later Ralph) and Marylka. (They were wed, but years later Helena discovered that they weren't legally married, as Gustave and his first wife had never divorced.) As Helena Modrzejewska, she made her professional stage debut in 1861, but after the death of her daughter, Helena left Gustave and, with her four-year-old son, returned to Krakow where she joined the resident company of that city's municipal theatre.

Helena was beautiful, talented, and dedicated to her craft, and was soon recognized as an actress of substance. In 1868, she married Karol Bozenta Chlapowski, editor of a liberal nationalist newspaper, Kraj (The Country). In her memoir, Helena described their home as being at the center of Krakow's artistic and literary worlds, frequented by actors, authors, poets, politicians, composers, and artists of every stripe.

Chlapowski was also an actor/director who skillfully managed his wife's career for 40 years. (Ultimately he became known in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries as Count Bozenta. They also anglicized Modzejewska to the more pronounceable Modjeska.)

Under Bozenta's guidance, Helena's career blossomed, and for more than a decade, she was the reigning diva of the Polish National Theatre.

Poland's zero-tolerance for so-called radical views drove many dissidents to America, among them Helena, her husband, and her 15-year-old son, Ralph, who landed in New York in the summer of 1876. They traveled to Southern California and purchased a ranch near Anaheim, where they intended to establish a Polish agricultural colony. The Utopian experiment failed, however, in part because of the drought and depression of 1877, but largely because none of the colonists knew anything about ranching or farming. And they couldn't speak English very well, either.

In need of funds, Madame Modjeska, still with a heavy Polish accent, made her triumphant American stage debut in San Francisco in August 1877. She chose an English version of one of her greatest roles, Ernest LegouvĂ©'s Adrienne Lecouvreur.

Now viewed as an important newcomer, she quickly followed this with performances as Ophelia, Juliet and Camille, before returning to Adrienne Lecouvreur for her New York debut.

Beginning in 1879, Helena spent three years abroad, mostly in England, attempting to improve her English before performing again on the American stage. The following portrait was painted in 1880, while she was away from America.

Though never able to lose her accent entirely, her command of the language was much improved by the time she arrived home in 1882. Her performance as Juliet that year was enthusiastically received.

Modjeska's banner year was 1883, when she (1) became an American citizen; (2) produced A Doll's House, the first Henrik Ibsen play ever staged in America; and (3) published a volume of seven plays "As Performed by Madame Modjeska (Countess Bozenta." I'm privileged to own a copy of this frail, old book which I call Modjeska's Lucky Seven, but which is titled on the spine simply Modjeska's Plays, and on the front cover in gold leaf, Yours sincerely, Helena Modjeska (her signature). Opposite the first page of each play script is a woodcut illustration of Helena as the character she portrays in that play. I share those illustrations with you now, in book order:



Throughout the 1880s and '90s, Modjeska and Bozenta travelled throughout the U.S. and Europe, and occasionally to their native Poland, with their company of actors. Each year, they spent nine months on the road, performing the more than 250 dramatic roles in Helena's repertoire. They not only played the elegant theaters of the world's grandest cities, but the halls and opera houses of rural America, popularizing the works of Shakespeare and other classical playwrights.


And at the end of each 9-month circuit, they would eagerly head for Arden, their beautiful home situated in Orange County's Santiago Canyon, where they would rest and recuperate and plan the next season's schedule of productions. It wasn't until after her death in 1909 that a portion of the canyon was renamed Modjeska Canyon. At the same time, the north peak of Saddleback Mountain was named Modjeska Peak. Arden is now a registered National Historic Landmark.

Helena Modjeska's personality endeared her to everyone she met. She was popular with her neighbors and the citizens of Anaheim, and with theater managers, playwrights, play-goers, fellow actors, and with the press—most certainly with the journalists of The New York Times. It seems that anywhere she opened in the U.S., Times reps were sent to cover it, and she graciously made time for them. She could always entertain them with a funny story about something that happened in a rehearsal or back stage—a humorous anecdote they could run with in their story. Simply put, she was "good press."

In 1897, Helena suffered a slight paralytic stroke, but returned to the stage within a year. On May 2, 1905, she gave a Jubilee Performance in New York City, then toured for two years before ending her acting career. After that, she appeared only occasionally in support of charitable causes. She died April 8, 1909, at age 68, in Newport Beach, California. Her remains are buried in the family plot at Rakowicki Cemetery in Krakow, Poland.
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1 comment:

  1. "Poland's zero-tolerance for so-called radical views"- well it's not true! Modjeska was very patriotic but the times she was living Poland was under occupation of 3 countries. She had problems with Russia, actually.


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