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Helena Modjeska

stage actress

Helena Modjeska

Helena Opid was born in Krakow, Poland, on October 12, 1840, the daughter of Michael Opid and Jozefa Benda. She was one of six children, and every one of them became famous in their own right (four became actors, one a musician, and the other an architect).

Helena made her stage debut at the age of 20, in an amateur benefit. She made her professional debut in 1861, as a provincial player in a strolling company managed by Gustav Sinnmayer Modrzejewska. Although she and Gustav never married, she took his name as her stage name, and he fathered her two children, Rudolf and Marylka. The couple stayed together until the death of Marylka in 1865, after which Helena left and returned to Krakow, where she joined the resident company of the municipal theater.

In 1868, Helena married Karol Bozenta Chlapowski, a Polish aristocrat. The newlyweds moved to Warsaw, where Helena spent the next seven years as the leading Polish actress at the Imperial Theatre.

By 1876 life for Poles under Russian domination had become difficult, and Helena, her husband and son, and a few friends decided to emigrate to America. After visiting New York City, New York, and other east coast sites, they sailed down the Atlantic coast to the Isthmus of Panama, which they crossed by rail, and then up the Pacific coast in a wooden paddlewheel steamer to San Francisco, California. The group eventually settled in Anaheim, California, and established a small agricultural community. Drought and other difficulties all but ruined the venture, however, and Helena decided to go to San Francisco and relearn all of her previous roles in English so she could return to the stage. After eight months of intensive study and work she made her American stage debut in San Francisco, in Scribe's play Adrienne Lecourvreur. The triumphant debut was followed by a two-year tour of America, which itself was capped by an equally triumphant tour of London in the spring of 1880. Despite maintaining a noticeable Polish accent, Helena was the most distinguished Shakespearean actress in America throughout the 1880's and 1890's.

Both Helena and her husband became American citizens, and, in 1888, they established a permanent home in Santiago Canyon, about sixty miles south of Los Angeles. Here Karol established a working ranch with horses, cattle and poultry, planted olive groves and citrus orchards, and managed a large apiary. Helena named the place "Arden," after the forest setting in the Shakespeare play As You Like It. The couple lived at Arden until selling it in 1906 and moving to Bay Island in Newport Beach.

Although their political views prevented them from visiting Russian-controlled areas of Poland, Helena and her husband visited Poland as often as possible. In 1883 they established a lace-making school for girls in Zakopane, which still operates today. And, the old city theatre in Krakow was ultimately named in her honor.

Helena Modjeska made her last appearance on stage playing Lady Macbeth at a Los Angeles benefit for Sicilian earthquake victims. She died a few weeks after the performance, on April 8, 1909. She and Karol (who died in 1914) are buried side-by-side in Rakowicki Cemetery in Krakow.

After Helena Modjeska's death, the north peak of Saddleback Mountain was renamed Modjeska Peak in her honor, and the portion of Santiago Canyon in which "Arden" was located is now called Modjeska Canyon. Her autobiography, Memories and Impressions of Helena Modjeska, was published in 1910.

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This page was last updated on 10/12/2018.