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Helena Modjeska

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Helena Modjeska

"…her slender, graceful figure, her pensive countenance, her sympathetic voice, her air of soft bewilderment, her exquisite refinement and grace, and her handsome dress." William Winter

"The dominate characteristic of her acting was eagerness and joy… a joy restrained and admired in execution; the great joy of artistry." Otis Skinner


Modjeska, [Modrzejewska] Helena [neé Jadwiga Benda; Jawiga Opid] (1840-1909) Polish actress born on October 12th and raised in Krakow. Her widowed mother, Madame Benda, was a teacher and musician. Helena grew up in a household of six talented children. Four became actors, one a musician and one an architect. She became an actress at an early age in her native city where her half-brother was a popular performer. She made her acting debut at an amateur benefit when she was 20. Helena used the name of the family guardian Michal Opid until she became a provincial player in a strolling company managed by Gustave Sinnmayer Modrzejewski who fathered her two children, Rudolf and Marylka. The relationship last a short four years, but with a slight variation in spelling, it provided her with her stage name and she made her professional stage debut in 1861 as Helena Modrzejewska. After the death of her daughter, Helena left Gustave and returned to Krakow with her 4 year old son and joined the resident company of the Krakow municipal theatre. Here her beauty, talent, and dedication to her art soon led to critical recognition of her genius.

In 1868 married a Polish aristocrat, Karol Bozenta Chlapowski (Count Bozenta in America), under whose management she became an international star. Their marriage was a happy one, lasting until Helena's death for than forty years later. When their radical political views became known she fled with him, her 15 year old son Rudolf, and several other political dissidents to America in 1876. After visits to New York theatres and the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, they ended up settling in southern California. Their Polish agricultural colony in the little pioneer town of Anaheim was a financial failure in the drought and depression of 1877. A need for quick funds forced Madame Modjeska to learn English quickly and return to the stage. She made her sensational American debut, complete with Polish accent, in San Francisco in August of that year in one of her greatest roles, Scribe’s Adrienne Lecouvreur. This appearance marked her as an important newcomer and she quickly followed this with performances as Ophelia, Juliet and Camille. For her New York debut later that same year, she returned to Adrienne Lecouvreur.

For the next thirty years, despite a slight paralytic stroke in 1897, her career was a series of triumphs, and she became one of the most respected and beloved of all American performers. Through most of her career, Modjeska directed her own company. As his wife's personal manager, Count Bozenta accompanied her everywhere. She and her acting company traveled for nine months each year by railroad, steamship, and horse and buggy. Modjeska appeared in eight performances every week, not only in the great theatres of Boston and New York but also in the makeshift halls and so-called opera houses in rural America. Among her 256 dramatic roles, besides those already mentioned were Magda, Frou-Frou, and Mary Stuart. She became one of America’s most distinguished Shakespearean actresses of the 1880s and 1890s and acted twelve of the bard’s ladies including Rosalind, Viola, Lady Macbeth, and Isabella. In 1883 she appeared in Louisville, KY in America’s first production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. After playing opposite Edwin Booth (1889-90) she toured the United States with Otis Skinner, Maurice Barrymore and Joseph Haworth

At the height of her career, Modjeska and her huband established a permanent home in Santiago Canyon, about 60 miles south of Los Angeles. From 1888 until 1906 the couple spent vacations and periods of retirement at their rambling white frame ranch house. Modjeska named the estate Arden, after the forest in Shakespeare's As You Like It. 

Although she never lost her Polish accent, the tall, comely actress was noted for her charm and naturalness and admired for her high artistic ideas and her positive influence on the American theatre of her day. Throughout her career, Modjeska made periodic return voyages to her native Poland where she toured and visited with family and friends. The old city theatre in Krakow is now named in her honor. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Modjeska was a much-loved pioneer resident of Orange County, California. After her death on April 8, 1909 at the age of 69, the north peak of Saddleback Mountain was named Modjeska Peak and the portion of Santiago Canyon in which she and her husband lived is now called Modjeska Canyon. She and Karol Chlapowski were buried in the Rakowicki Cemetery in Krakow. Her memoirs were published in 1910.

(click on photo to enlarge)

Helena Modjeska as Adrienne Lecouvreur-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (104023 bytes)

Helena Modjest reclining (1884) with signature-photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (109568 bytes)

Helena Modjest in unidentified role-photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (66517 bytes)

as Adrienne Lecouvreur Portrait as Adrienne Lecouvreur
Helena Modjeska as Maria Stuart-photo with caption-B&W-Resized.jpg (72885 bytes) Helena Modjeska as Maria Stuart 2-photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (71369 bytes) Helena Modjeska as Maria Stuart-photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (98808 bytes)
as Maria Stuart (1886)
Helena Modjeska as Camille (1878)-Photo 2-B&W-Resized.jpg (97311 bytes) Helena Modjeska as Camille (1878)-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (73281 bytes) Helena Modjeska in Camille (1878)-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (72185 bytes)
as Camille (1878)
Count Bozenta-Modjeska's second husband-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (77854 bytes) Modjeska Poster-Resized.jpg (274413 bytes) Helena Modjeska as Isabella-Photo-B&W_resized.jpg (72812 bytes)
Count Bozenta Poster as Isabella
Helena Modjeska as Juliet (1882)-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (78364 bytes) Helena Modjeska as Ophelia 1871-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (62764 bytes) modjeska_engraving-resized.jpg (102616 bytes)
as Juliet (1882) as Ophelia (1871) as Juliet-engraving
Helena Modjeska headshot-Photo-tinted-Resized.jpg (118817 bytes) Helena Modjeska iwith hand extended-studio photo-tinted-Resized.jpg (129172 bytes) Helena Modjeska in large brimmed hat-studio photo-tinted-Resized.jpg (136173 bytes)
Portrait unidentified character unidentified character
Helena Modjeska as Lady Macbeth-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (93220 bytes) Helena Modjeska as Sappho-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (86792 bytes) Helena Modjeska as Lady Macbeth (1897)-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (89062 bytes)
as Lady Macbeth  as Shappo as Lady Macbeth (1897)
Helena Modjeska_full length shot-B&W-Resized.jpg (73256 bytes) Helena Modjeska reclining in chair with very fancy costume-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (76351 bytes) Helena Modjeska in Twelfth Night-photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (78472 bytes)
as Maria Stuart unidentified character as Viola in Twelfth Night
Modjeska as Rosalind postcard-tinted-Resized.jpg (131729 bytes) Modjeska and Joseph Haworth Poster.Resized.jpg (237085 bytes) Modjeska as Rosalind-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (80554 bytes)
as Rosalind Poster listing Joseph Haworth as leading man as Rosalind
Helena Modjeska sitting in chair-photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (84416 bytes) Helena Modjeska in Les Chouans (1887)-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (116110 bytes) Modjeska in Chouans program-Resized.jpg (227568 bytes)
Portrait in Les Chouans (1887) Les Couchans playbill with William Haworth
Helena Modjeska as Marie Antoinette (1891)-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (72257 bytes) Helena Modjeska as Magda-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (93703 bytes) Helena Modjeska in King John (1889) photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (65974 bytes)
as Marie Antoinette (1891) as Magda in King John (1889)
  Arden, Modjeska's California residence-Photo-B&W.jpg (153983 bytes)  
Arden, Modjeska's California residence
Helena Modjeska in elaborate hat 1871-Photo-B&W-Resized.jpg (70406 bytes) modjeska.garden postcard-tinted-Resized.jpg (167082 bytes) Helena Modjeska (older) sitting in chair-studio photo-tinted-Resized.jpg (146974 bytes)
Portrait (1871) in 'Arden' the garden at her California home Portrait in later years

Joseph Haworth & Helena Modjeska

From 1895 to 1898, Joseph Haworth was leading man to the great Polish actress. They toured across America and back several times, and their New York appearances reestablished Joe as a major Broadway star. Modjeska also paid Haworth the unprecedented honor of producing him as Hamlet, supporting him as Ophelia. Joe said of Madame Modjeska:

"As to several of the great artists with whom I have appeared, I have already mentioned Edwin Booth, who occupied first place in my affection and esteem as both artist and man. Secondly, I would mention Madame Modjeska, whose art was so real as to conceal itself under the garb of absolute naturalness. It was my good fortune to be associated with her in a round of legitimate roles: Macbeth, Hamlet, Benedick, Orlando, and Armand Duval, in Camille, in the title-role of which play Modjeska was, to my mind, the greatest English-speaking exponent. Her performances of Mary Stuart and Magda may have been considered equally good by her admirers, but I still hold to my own opinion regarding her Camille. As to her Shakespearian achievements, her Lady Macbeth has no parallel, either at home or abroad. It was as full of subtle excellencies as a woman."

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