Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Who Was Helena Modjeska? Lecture at Laguna Art Museum, March 28, 2019 (Vol.10, No. 2)

.. A short answer to the question "Who Was Helena Modjeska?" is that Helena Modjeska was Helena Modrzejewska,  a Shakespearean actress born in Krakow, Poland, on October 12, 1840 (as Jadwiga Benda, baptized as Jadwiga Helena Opid); who emigrated to California in 1876, settled on an estate in Santiago Canyon, Orange County (that she called Arden) and died in Newport Beach, California, on April 8, 1909 after an illustrious acting career spanning two continents and consisting of over 4,000 performances.

Modjeska's illustration of an escape by a balloon bird from her tale.

A longer answer, illustrated with 80 slides of her photographs, costumes, letters, memorabilia, and gardens at Arden, is given in my lecture as Modjeska Club President, entitled "Who was Helena Modjeska?" This lecture accompanied a unique exhibition of Modjeska's 1896 handwritten bilingual morality tale written and illustrated for her grandson Felix Modjeski (son of Ralph Modjeski the famous engineer). The Lecture took place on Thursday, 28 March 2019 at 6 pm. at Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr, Laguna Beach, CA 92651; tel. (949) 494-8971. https://lagunaartmuseum.org/events/who-was-helena-modjeska/

As it turns out Modjeska was not only actress, writer, illustrator, but also theater director, producer, costume designer, costume maker, star-maker (Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Wladyslaw Benda), artist and artists' muse (writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, painters, poets Richard Watson Gilder and John Steven McGroarty), interior designer, icon of style, businesswoman, and marketer.

Then, she also was farmer, landowner, gardener and the boss of one of the most famous gardeners of the 29th century, Theodore Payne (of Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants). She was even a rosarian!

Of course, she was a devoted daughter, sister, mother, favorite great aunt and grandma... and a legend during her lifetime and after her death... A lot of roles for 68 years of life!

Let us start the review of the multitude of roles she played in her life, not only on the stage, from that of a POET'S MUSE - here is a poem "Modjeska" by 19th-century American poet Celia Thaxter (1835-1894), and depicting the actress while she listens to a Chopin recital at the home of journalist Eugene Field in Boston:


Deft hands called Chopin's music from the keys.
Silent, she sat, her slender figure's poise
Flower-like and  fine and full of lofty ease;
She heard her Poland's most consummate voice
From power to pathos falter, sink and change;
The music of her land, the wondrous high,
Utmost expression of its genius strange, -
Incarnate sadness breathed in melody.
Silent and thrilled she sat, her lovely face
Flushing and paling like a delicate rose
Shaken by summer winds from its repose
Softly this way and that, with tender grace
Now touched by sun, now into shadow turned, -
While bright with kindred fire her eyes burned.


Jadwiga Helena Misel (b. 12 Oct. 1840 in Kraków). Mother – Józefa Benda (1803-1887), baptized as Jadwiga Opid with the last name of her godfather Michał Opid; father – unknown. Some speculated that she was  illegitimately fathered by Prince Eustachy Sanguszko, and later people looked for similarities between his daughter Helena and Modjeska. She remained in close contact with her half-brothers Benda – actors Józef and Feliks, and the Opid family: Adolf+Kazimiera, their children Ludwik and Maria, and granddaughters Felicia and Helena, that she treated as her own.

Helena and Gustaw Zimajer Modrzejewski, 1861

Around 1860 she started a relationship with Gustave Sinnmayer (Zimajer) Modrzejewski (1825-1901) a much older theater director, actor and manager of a troupe touring provincial Galicia. This was not a formal marriage but they presented it as such. In 1861, Modjeska had a son with Sinnmayer, Rudolf (1861-1940) (later known as Ralph Modjeski), who became a civil engineer in the United States, and a daughter Maria (Marylka) who died as a baby.   After their separation in 1865, Sinnmayer kidnapped Rudolf who stayed with his father for several years; only after winning him back, could Modjeska leave Poland. 


Sinnmayer used the name "Modrzejewski" on stage and thus, Helena's Polish stage name was born, "Modrzejewska" with the feminine ending "a" instead of "i" used for men. Sinnmayer supervised her early education and promoted her fledgling acting career. In 1861 she made her first onstage appearance in a one-act comedy named The White Camellia. The Modrzejewskis toured provincial towns in Galicia under Austrian rule – more lenient towards Polish culture than Prussians and Russians. Nowym Sącz, Przemyśl, Rzeszow, Brzeżany.  In 1862-1863 she was engaged to perform in Lwow theater, in Juliusz Slowacki romantic drama Balladyna. She also played Barbara Radziwiłłówna in a tragedy by Alojzy Feliński; Ludwika in Intryga i miłośc (Intrigue and Love) by Friedrich Schiller, Amelia in Mazepa by Juliusz Słowacki; and Maria Stuart in Maria Stuart by Juliusz Słowacki.

“To get out of myself, to forget all about Helena Modjeska, to throw my whole soul into the assumed character, … to be moved by its emotions, thrilled by its passions, …—in one word, to identify myself with it and reincarnate another soul and body, this became my idea.”
—Helena Modjeska, from her "Memories and Impressions" (1910)


In 1865 left Zimajer and moved to Krakow, joined the troupe directed by Stanislaw Kozmian – learned the principles of team performance without the star- caste system. First role: Sara in the drama Salomon by Wacław Szymanowski. Other roles: Anna Oświęcimówna by Mikołaj Bołoz Antoniewicz (1865); Princess Eboli in Don Carlos (1866) and Amalia in Robbers by Schiller (1866)
Portia in the Merchant of Venice, first role in  Shakespeare (1866); Ophelia in Hamlet [C] and Dona Sol in Hernani by  Victor Hugo (1867); Adrianna Lecouvreur by Eugene Scribe and Ernest Legouve (May 1867).

Adrianna Lecouvreur in Poland

From a review in Kurier Warszawski: "She came across as the kind of actress who is hard to find even on the stages of great capital cities, an artist who, through work and enlightened management, could join the first ranks of her profession. Mother nature has been generous with her. She has given her all an artist needs: a beautiful appearance, figure and voice, and most importantly, the gift of artistic perspicacity, which makes an actor instinctively feel what a role needs." (1867)


Poster of Modjeska's roles by Regulski, 1860s.

Since the fall 1868 a star at the Warszaw Government Theaters (under Russian control), played in Warsaw to 1876, for eight years, appearing in 95 performances, starting from Adrianna Lecouvreur.  
Had definite impact on the repertoire and made it more serious. Increased the number of Shakespeare and Slowacki plays: Hamlet in 1871 (Ophelia), Mazepa in 1872 , Othello in 1873 (Desdemona), and   Much Ado About Nothing in 1876 (Beatrice).  Other roles: Aniela in Maiden’s Vows by Aleksander Fredro, Severyna in a play by Alexander Dumas son 1872, and guest performances in Krakow and Lwow.


On September 12, 1868, Modjeska married a Polish nobleman, Karol Bożenta Chłapowski. Known in America as "Count Bozenta," he was not a count but a nobleman. His family belonged to the untitled landed gentry. Later, in the United States, they adopted the name "Count and Countess Bozenta" to gain publicity. "Bozenta" was easier to say than "Chłapowski." Chłapowski was the editor of a liberal nationalist newspaper, Kraj (The Country), owned by Prince Adam Sapieha and  Mr. Sammelson.  Modjeska wrote that their home "became the center of the artistic and literary world [of Kraków]." Poets, authors, politicians, artists, composers and other actors frequented their salon.


In her "Memoirs and Impressions" Modjeska thus described the decision to emigrate: “My husband's only desire was to take me away from my surroundings and give me perfect rest from my work ... Our friends used to talk about the new country, the new life, new scenery, and the possibility of settling down somewhere in the land of freedom, away from the daily vexations to which each Pole was exposed in Russian or Prussian Poland. […] My husband, seeing the eagerness of the young men, conceived the idea of forming a colony in California on the model of the Brook Farm. The project was received with acclamation.”

Other colonists: Julian Sypniewski with family, Łucjan Paprowski, and Henryk Sienkiewicz (winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1905). Stanisław Witkiewicz (father of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz) and Adam Chmielowski (the future St. Albert) were also to come with Modjeska's group, but they changed their plans.


Shack at Arden, from Theodore Payne's book, 1962

Purchased a ranch near Anaheim, CA, because most of émigrés spoke German.  Planted olives, oranges, kept bees, had some cattle. Modjeska and Chlapowski worked physically on tending the ranch, others not so much.  Bad weather caused various losses. Sold the ranch to purchase “Arden” in Santiago Canyon from Henry Pleasants, who earlier sold them a portion of that land. The men lived in a shack initially (Chlapowski, Paprowski, and Ralph Modjeski). 


Her costumes were one of her stage "weapons" that made her a star. Some designed to her specifications and made in Paris, some made by herself, she embroidered many decorations... Examples include costumes for Juliet, Cleopatra, Magda, Dalila, Maria Stuart and many others. 

Modjeska as Juliet with detail from a modern reproduction of her costume.


After several months of intensive English studies with Jo Tuholsky (she started English lessons in Poland), she auditioned in front of the theater director  and was engaged for the first cycle of appearances in her flagship role as Adrianna Lecouvreur. Stage debut at The California Theatre in the title      role of Adrianna Lecouvreur. After the first night she sent a cable to her husband: “Victory. Modjeska."  Henryk Sienkiewicz reported in "Gazeta Polska" as follows “Everybody was in a frenzy... Nobody left their seats after the show was over, which is unheard of in America. Contrary to local custom, the actress was called back eleven times... America was taken by storm.” 


  • First tour 1878 – 5 months, 17 cities
  • Second tour  1878/9 – 35 weeks, 240 shows, 50 cities, first one by train – her own car “Poland”
  • Third tour 1882/3 – 38 weeks, 20+ cities (“farewell”)
  • Fourth tour 1883/4 – 40 weeks, second “farewell” with Chlapowski as manager, hired Stinson
  • Fifth tour 1885/6 – 80 cities, 245 shows
  • TOTAL: 26 tours to 1907, with Sargent, Stinson and then “Helena Modjeska Company

Cleopatra. Modjeska Opid Family Papers at the Huntington Library
  • 18 roles and 15 of them in English, 11 in both languages.
  • Of all 4,300 performances she gave, 2,250 were in Shakespeare
  • Of all 3,800 American performances, over 2,000 in Shakespeare
  • Lady Macbeth – 520
  • Rosalind – 440
  • Beatrice –  200
  • Julia, Viola, Portia – 160 times each
  • Ophelia and Cleopatra – 100 times


Tours since 1879 to 1903 as a guest performer: Kraków, Lwów, Warsaw, as well as Poznań, Tarnów, Łódź, Lublin and Stanislawów. Polish interpretations of Shakespearean roles (Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Ophelia in Hamlet and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing), and later performances as Rosalind in As You Like It, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Viola in Twelfth-Night, Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra and Imogen in Cymbeline. In other plays she was Margaret Gauthier in Alexandre Dumas fils' Camille, Octave Feuillet's Dalila and Victorien Sardou's Odette; Nora, Magda and Silvia Settala in plays by Henrik Ibsen, Hermann Sudermann and Gabriele d'Annunzio. Continued to appear in Polish dramas, by Juliusz Slowacki and Stanisław Wyspiański Warszawianka (Varsovienne) and Protesilas and Laodamia.


While her career blossomed after the fall of the January Uprising (1863-4), Modjeska performed Polish repertoire wherever she could, starting from Slowacki's plays, and including those by Stanislaw Wyspianski and less known writers.  In the 1870s, some of her Warsaw performances were turned into patriotic manifestations by audiences, including students, still thinking of independence for the country that so recently fought for over a year against the Russian and Prussian occupiers.

Often expressed patriotic sentiments in interviews and sometimes on the stage, as during the tour of Ireland, where she compared the fate of Ireland under the British rule to the fate of Poland ruled by Russia.

In 1893 at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, she made a 45-minutes speech about women in Poland, including in her speech not only an overview of famous Polish women, from  the 17th century onwards, but also very strong patriotic and anti-Russian accents. She complained about the powers that "endeavor to obliterate from the annals of humanity the history of Poland, to restrict if not entirely prohibit the use of our language, to hinder the development of every progress; be it economic, intellectual or social." And named this hostile power the Russian government


As Camille in a play adapted from Dumas

In 1880 – first series of guest performances in England. Well received, except Juliet and Ophelia (considered too old). Much as she wanted to conquer Shakespeare's birthplace with Shakespearean roles, she was preferred in French melodramatic repertoire, Adrianna Lecouvreur, Camille, etc. 
Return guest performances in England in 1881, 1882 and 1885. 

After performances in Boston, American poet  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote to her:
 "I have seen many actresses play Camille, but you, my dear, are far superior to all of them.“


A United States citizen in 1883; she continued acting to1907 (age 67) to support husband and extended family.  She went on twenty-six tours with her companies – hiring co-stars, support cast, and booking appearances along railroad routes, first produced by Sargent, Stinson, then “Helena Modjeska Company”.  Modjeska directed and produced performances, including her beloved Cleopatra that was extremely costly to produce and move around (costumes, number of cast)
Liked idealized “symbolic” approach to acting, not “realistic” with lots of stage decorations and details.  She felt that a “magnetic” emotional impact on audiences was the most important and team work, of the whole troupe, not just being a lone star. 


Among her protegees were Ignacy Jan Paderewski, pianist composer, Wladyslaw Benda, artist (and her nephew), and pianist prodigy Jozef Hoffman. 

In 1884, helped define Paderewski's stage image as a mysterious and mystical red-headed archangel. Introduced him to British artists, Edward Burne Jones (drawing above) and Laurence Alma Tadema who perpetuated the Paderewski Archangel myth. In the U.S., Modjeska introduced him to American men and women of letters, including Henry Gilder and his wife. 

Modjeska sponsored the education and first steps in America of Wladyslaw Benda, her nephew, who became a painter and illustrator with an extensive American career. 


One of Modjeska's stage costumes from contemporary plays
 (perhaps Adrianna Lecouvreur, note the blond hair)


First donor, 1,200 zloty from performances of Ibsen’s Nora at the Old Theater in Krakow.   Her partner, author of bylaws and curator was dr Tytus Chałubiński. The Board of Directors: Modrzejewska, Róża hr. Krasińska, Franciszek Neužil, Leopold Czubernat, father Józef Stolarczyk
Now called Krajowa Szkoła Koronkarska – opened 1 May 1883 and still active. 


BOTANIST - Drawing plants from nature, examples Opuntia "Berbery fig" cactus and California Buckwheat.


ROSARIAN. Favorite antique roses: Papa Gontier, Catherine Mermet, Madame Caroline Testout, Marie Van Houtte, Maman Cochet, Payl Neyron, Magna Charta, Ulrich Brunner, Prince Camille de Rohan, General Jacqueminot (previous page), Captain Christy, American Beauty, Reve d’or, Lamarque, Beauty of Glazenwood, Reine Marie Henrietta, White Banksia. 


From England, spent first two years in the U.S. working at Arden (1893-5), hiked, went to old silver mine, killed rattlesnakes, and enjoyed horseriding. he was responsible for decorative gardens and commercial projects, such as honey production. Payne became interested in native plants, started collecting seeds. he later owned a seed and nursery business in LA, established Santa Ana and Descanso Gardens native gardens. In 1960 retired and established Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants.

Arden during Modjeska's lifetime and in 2011.


Sold Arden in 1906 and moved to Bay Island in Newport Beach. Benefit organized by Paderewski, star-studded benefit performance, New York, 1905.
Memoirs, written in English, published in 1910 “Memories and Impressions.” Polish translation, “Wspomnienia i wrażenia”, in 1957. Heavily edited by her husband.
Despite official “retirement” continued making appearances at special events in Los Angeles where the Opid family of her “step-father” lived with two grand-nieces, Felcia and Helcia.


She was celebrated in life and death, by poetic tributes, biographies, newspaper profiles, interviews.

To Modjeska

By Richard Watson Gilder (1844-1909)

Here are four sisters known to mortals well,
Whose names are Joy and Sorrow, Death, and Love:
This last it was who did my footsteps move
To where the other deep-eyed sisters dwell.
To-night, or ere yon painted curtain fell,
These, one by one, before my eyes did rove
Through the brave mimic world that Shakspere wove.
Lady! thy art, thy passion were the spell
That held me, and still holds; for thou dost show,
With those most high each in his sovereign art,--
Shakspere supreme, Beethoven and Angelo,--
Great art and passion are one. Thine too the part
To prove that still for him the laurels grow
Who reaches through the mind to pluck the heart.

Gilder was an American writer and editor of The Century Magazine, and Member of American Academy of Arts and Letters. He published many volumes of poetry including "How Paderewski Plays..."  Modjeska introduced Paderewski to Gilder, thus starting another helpful artistic friendship.

Another notable American poet wrote an eulogy for her funeral, published in Los Angeles in 1909.


 by John Steven McGroarty (1862-1944)

The curtain falls, and hushed the sighing
    Of violet strings; the crowds depart.
The Queen is dead, her white hands lying
    At peace upon her quiet heart.

She hears no more the shout and clamor
    Of mimic armies, hurrying fast
To shield her throne in war's wild glamor;
    Their swords are rust, their splendor past.

The play is done, told is the story
     Of life and strife, or love and trust.
Scattered the hosts, and gone their glory,
     Their trumpets still, their banners dust.

She was the Queen, that laughed at danger.
    Who, far from the native hills had flown
To bind the heart-stings of the stranger
     In alien lands, around her own.

Bright was the throne her feet ascended -
     Her soul was fair, and fair her face;
Nor yet, though now her reign be ended
     Another comes to take her place.

No more the salvos madly leaping
     To greet her ears in triumphs wan-
The Queen, her last long sleep is sleeping:
     The lights are out, the plays is done.


While that might be true, the posthumous fame continues. The morality tale is an interesting example of Polish-American bilingual creative writing. The viewers of the pages filled with monsters and horrors often commented - how horrid... what sick imagination, or what an awful person... In our times, positive pedagogy is the goal, and the scary tales of the past belong to the past and the movies. But in Modjeska's time there were plenty of examples of perfectly horrible, cruel stories, filled with death and torture, that were meant to straighten up the wayward youth and keep them on the straight and narrow. 

Let's start from the story. On a faraway planet, two small boys Titi and Nunu do not get along and commit an accidental murder of a Butterfly, by tearing it apart while fighting for it. As punishment they turn a weird purple color and get lost with their wagon and their favorite six-legged blue dog called Klembolo.  Their adventures soon take them beyond the threshold of the unknown and they go from trial to trial, from one danger to next, gradually shedding their Vices and acquiring Virtues, and finally, when their transformation is complete, their skin regains a normal color and they return home, saved by angels in a bird -balloon, that takes them back to where they have a Christmas tree, and sleep safely in their own beds under the wide-spread wings of a watchful Guardian Angel. 

The adventures feature an attack by nighttime snakes and weird monsters dispelled by strong light emited by the eyes of Klembolo, another attack by huge octopus-like monster from the lake that follows them and waits to eat them at the bottom of the tree they climbed; a save by a two headed giant who, alas, takes the boys home where they are tortured and almost killed by his huge and stupid daughter. When they are locked up in a dark box without a way out, they reach the Nadir of the story, the moment of Death and Resurrection, and finally act together to escape from the giant's home and run back where they belong. The return way also includes help from angels, flight in a balloon and answered prayers. The dangers also include being profusely bitten by enormous mosquitoes, and watching cannibals who are eating a small boy for dinner...

As pedagogy, not a very useful way of learning Moral Lessons: Four Cardinal Virtues (Fortitude and Justice, Prudence and Moderation); Love your brother; Be kind to everyone; Do not harm living creatures; Repent and you’ll be forgiven.  The approach is "be good or you’ll be punished" and the 
Life Lessons  also include things every child should know: Your dog is your best friend; Stay away from strangers; Pray and you’ll be heard; Angels will protect you. 

Let's look at the context. From the fables by Aesop and Jean de La Fontaine, fear of punishment is the key approach in teaching the right path. In the ancient tales, animal personifications show Vice punished  and Virtue rewarded: donkey, lion, dog, monkey go through their special trials. Later on we have the cruelty of horrible punishments and threat of death in tales by the Grimms Brothers – Hansel and Gretel,     Snow White, Red Riding Hood. The pious Johann Christian Andersen  brings his crop of cruelty – Red Shoes (that never stop dancing and kill their owner), Little Match Girl (who dies of cold at night), Little Mermaid (threatened by the ugly sea monster, dies alone at the end). 

In the 19th century German children's literature we have Heinrich Hoffmann  with his horrible Der Struwwelpeter, where Little Suck a’Thumb  has his fingers chopped off with enormous scissors. In English children's literature, even Peter Rabbit (1902) who is naughty is constantly running from death, as gardener Mr. MacGregor tries to kill the pest. But if you read Squirrel Nutkin or Samuel Whiskers, you'll know how creepy her imagination really was. Beatrix Potter (1866-1933) was a gardener and a morality poet, but the undercurrent of death, deception, danger is very strong in her tales. 

Of course there were some positive tales, but few and far between: Alice in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll, with illustrations John Tenniel (1872) is an adventure of the mind, a lesson in topology, time travel, and various mathematical concepts, as well as a satirical depictions of structured society with rules that lead to endless tea parties with the Mad Hatter, and children's poems make no sense. "Off with her head" screams the Queen constantly, yet her soldiers are just a deck of cards, harmless like a flurry of leaves... 

We have to wait to the 1920s for the arrival of Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne (1926), and The House at Pooh Corner (1928), with the first appearance of Edward the Bear in a book of poems When we were very young (1924) . Milne created a remarkable world in his Hundred-Mile Forest, a world of friends, without enemies, where adventures caused by Vice end without cruelty and the punishment is simply funny - as when Winnie eats too much honey and gets stuck in Rabbit's hole for a week of slimming down.  These are stories of universal compassion where nobody is condemned, everyone understood in their silliness and faults. 

If we look beyond Western European tradition, we find the ancient Jataka Tales (Buddhist) with lessons of kindness, and lots of great Native American stories, also without the mandatory punishment for the evil ones. 

There is another context for Modjeska's tale, that of the "Hero's Journey" - an ancient myth that permeates all cultures of the world.  In this myth, the Hero embarks on a quest, goes through trials and tribulations, wins the prize of self-revelation, and returns home transformed. Also known as “monomyth” this archetypal story-line was described by Carl Jung and studied by Joseph Cambell; found in many cultures around the world, it is an essential aspect of the human experience. 


  • Theodore Payne, Life on the Modjeska Ranch in the Gay Nineties  Los Angeles: Kruckenberg Press, 1962.
  • Maja Trochimczyk, "An Archangel at the Piano: Paderewski and his Female Audiences" (Polish American Studies, 2011)
  • Wikipedia - Hero's Journey illustration

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