Monday, June 25, 2018

Modjeska Club's Patron - Helena Modrzejewska

Portrait of Helena Modrzejewska by Tadeusz Ajdukiewicz, 1880 (fragment).
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 visit McFarland Publishing website.

Helena Modjeska in her roles as  Barbara Radziwillowna (1867).
Vintage postcard published in Poland. 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.

Modjeska as Juliet

 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.

Modjeska's home "Arden" in Silverado Canyon, Orange County in 1910 (vintage postcard) 

Ewa Boryczko as Modjeska and Maja Trochimczyk in Arden (2011) The property is a Historic Home
owned by Orange County  and partly supported by the Helena Modjeska Foundation.

Modrzejewska and her husband purchased a twenty-acre farm near 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 as Marie Antoinette.

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.

Modjeska as Ophelia

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. 

Map of Arden - Home of Modjeska in Modjeska Canyon, OC.


  • 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)
  • Susan Sontag, In America (Faber and Faber, 2000)


  • Helena Modjeska Art and Culture Club in Los Angeles

  • Helena Modjeska Foundation (Orange County)

  • Helena Modjeska Society (Orange County)

  • Arden - Modjeska Historic House (Orange County)

  • Modjeska Playhouse Theater in Orange County

  • Modjeska Woman Triumphant - Documentary

  • Portrait of Modjeska by Ajdukiewicz, 1880, Sukiennice Gallery, Krakow, Poland.