Before Hollywood… a story about Polish actress in the U.S.A.
A visitor to the Polish Retirement Home Szarotka in Los Angeles is immediately touched by the feeling of history and patriotism. The main room is filled with portraits of Marshal Piłsudski and John Paul the Second, Polish and American flags are proudly displayed. On Sundays and holidays the room becomes a popular café, where chef, Edward Hofman, serves his famous pączki and ciasto drożdżowe, Polish style donuts and yeast-cake. Recently the menu was supplemented by favorite JPII sweets, “papieskie kremówki”, puff pastry filled with vanilla pastry cream, and Polish white cheese, “twaróg”, made in California of course, but practically undistinguishable from the real thing back home. Relishing on these delicacies curious visitor will notice an old memorial plaque on a wall commemorating a day in 1929. The date says the 8th of May. What happened almost 90 years ago that motivated Polonia in Los Angeles to memorize it by making this plaque? The sign says it was the 50th anniversary of an arrival to California by Polish actress, Helena Modrzejewska. The plaque was made 20 years after the great actress death.
Helena Modrzejewska (known in the U.S.A as Modjeska) was born in Kraków, on October 12, 1840. Her birth name was Jadwiga Benda, but later was baptized as Helena Opid. Michał Opid, Helena’s godfather, was a music teacher employed by the family. Helena’s mother, Józefa Benda, was the widow of a prosperous Kraków merchant, Szymon Benda. Adding to this caliginosity is Helena’s first marriage to her former guardian, Gustaw Zimajer. Gustaw was an actor and the director of a theater troupe. The date of their wedding is uncertain. Together the couple had two children, son Rudolf, and daughter Maryla, who died in infancy. Gustaw Zimajer used the stage name “Gustaw Modrzejewski.” It was the feminine version of this name that Helena adopted when she made her stage debut in 1861 as Helena Modrzejewska. Later, she changed her name to Modjeska, which was easier for her English-speaking audiences to pronounce.
In her early acting career, Modrzejewska played at Bochnia, Nowy Sącz, Przemyśl, Rzeszów and Lwów, where she played “Skierka” in Juliusz Słowacki’s Balladyna. In 1868 she began appearing in Warsaw, where she consolidated her status as a theater star. An incident illustrates the conditions under which the Poles were living in Russian occupied Poland. At one of Modrzejewska’s Warsaw performances, secondary-school pupils presented her with a bouquet of flowers with a ribbon in the red-and-white Polish national colors. The pupils were accused by the Russian authorities of conducting a demonstration, expelled from school and banned from admission to any other school. One of the pupils, Ignacy Neufeld, subsequently shot himself; Modrzejewska attended his funeral.
On September 12, 1868, Modrzejewska married a Polish nobleman, Karol Bożenta Chłapowski later known in America as “Count Bozenta”. Their home became the center of the artistic and literary world. In July 1876, after more than a decade as the reigning queen of the Polish national theater, for personal and political reasons, Modrzejewska and her husband decided to emigrate to the United States.
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.
Once in America, Modjeska and her husband purchased a ranch near Anaheim, California, forming a Polish colony of intellectuals. Among Polish friends who accompanied them there was Henryk Sienkiewicz, Nobel Prize winner in 1905. Sienkiewicz wrote his Charcoal Sketches (Szkice węglem) there. The colonists knew very little about farming and the experiment failed.
Modrzejewska returned to the stage, and on August 20, 1877, debuted at the California Theatre in San Francisco in an English version of Ernest Legouvé’s Adrienne Lecouvreur and also made her New York debut. Then she then spent three years abroad (1879–82), mainly in London, working on her English, before returning to the stage in America where she achieved great success.
During her career she played nine Shakespearean heroines, Marguerite Gautier in Camille, and Schiller’s Maria Stuart. In 1883, the year she obtained American citizenship, she produced Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in Louisville, Kentucky, the first Ibsen play staged in the United States. In the 1880s and 1890s she had a reputation as the leading female interpreter of Shakespeare on the American stage.
On May 19, 1893, at the World’s Congress of Representative Women held at the Chicago World’s Fair, Helena Modrzejewska graciously substituted for absent Polish delegates in a panel discussion “about the position of women in modern life.” She had already delivered her scheduled lecture on “Woman in the True Drama” a few days prior, yet it was this impromptu performance that stirred the public and articulated, in the words of one chronicler, “her most significant statement about Poland”. Modjeska’s “heartfelt” speech celebrated Polish Women–particularly Polish gentry women–as family providers of biblical mettle, willing warriors “against the Turks or the Tartars,” and equal partners in enlightened marriages… She concluded with a salvo eastward: “Our enemies are making a great mistake if they think that they can kill patriotism. As long as there is one Polish woman left alive, Poland will not die, and the more they persecute us the better it is for us now“. As a consequence of this speech Tsarist authorities in Russian Poland forbade her return engagements at the all-important Warsaw Imperial Theater. She described it in her own words:
In 1893 I was invited by the Committee of the World’s Fair Auxiliary Women’s Congress, in Chicago, to take part in the theatrical section of the Congress and to say something about “Woman on the Stage”…. It may be remembered that one of the features of the Congress was a series of national women’s delegations, each of them describing the position of women in their country. Among others, there was expected a delegation of ladies from Russian Poland, but none of them came to Chicago. Apparently they were afraid of the possible conflict with the government, and they limited their activity to sending a few statistical notes–ah! Most poor, bashful notes!
In the face of this obstacle, wishing by all means to have a representative of our nationality, Mrs. May Wright Sewall, the Chairman of the Executive Board, appealed to me, requesting most urgently that I appear as the proxy of the Polish delegates and speak on their behalf. Mrs. Sewall, who for years has been my friend, put such pressure on me that I finally consented….
The auditorium was packed, and I had some difficulty in reaching the platform. The beginning of my speech was an excuse for the absence of my countrywomen from the Congress … Warmed up by the subject, and trying to arouse the sympathy of the brilliant audience for our cause, I was probably not careful enough in the choice of my expressions, but I said such words as my heart prompted me at the moment. (Memories and Impressions of Helena Modjeska 512-13)
For the next thirty years, 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. Modrzejewska 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. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Modjeska was a much-loved pioneer resident of Orange County, California.
Within twenty-five-year period, Modrzejewska interspersed five trips to Europe. In 1884-1885 she toured England, Ireland and Poland. Her 1890-1891 season constituted a “triumphal tour” of occupied Poland as well as several wonderful weeks performing in Prague, and during her 1894-1895 season she performed in Lwów, Kraków and Poznań, but the Russian authority forbade her the Warsaw stage. During 1891-1892 trip she mostly rested in Kraków. Her final trip to Poland came during her 1902-1903 season; Modrzejewska toured Lwów and Poznań (under Austrian and Prussian occupations) and engaged with the “Young Poland” movement in Kraków.
On May 2, 1905, she gave a jubilee performance in New York City. Then she toured for two years and ended her acting career, afterward appearing only in support of charitable causes.
Helena Modrzejewska died at Newport Beach, California on April 9, 1909, aged 69. After her death 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. Her remains were sent to Kraków and buried in the family plot at the Rakowiecki Cemetery. The old city theatre in Krakow is now named in her honor. Her autobiography, Memories and Impressions of Helena Modjeska, was published in 1910. A Polish version ran that same year in Kraków. The last Polish edition of the book appeared in 1957. Helena Modrzejewska’s son Ralph Modjeski (Rudolf Modrzejewski) gained fame as a designer of bridges. Statue of Modjeska is located outside the Pearson Park Amphitheater in Anaheim, California.
Note: Polonia Institute is dedicated to preserve the history of Polonia. If you are interested in helping please contact us.
Coming next: the story of the biggest painting in the world…