Helena Modjeska loved Orange County as much as she loved the Shakespeare roles that made her famous. ‘I have acted Lady Macbeth and Portia now for many years. The lines have a charm that’s like my California home. I never wish to forget or cease to be fond of either.’
She brought Shakespeare to an unrefined territory at a time when culture was just beginning to emerge from the confines of society ladies’ parlors. Early settlers turned out for her benefit performances at the Santa Ana Library, local Catholic churches and the opening of French’s Opera House in Santa Ana in 1890, but Polish immigrant Helena Modjeska was better known here as a warm, gracious neighbor than as the famed actress she had become.
A tall, graceful, commanding figure with strong, patrician features; dark, often dreamy, eyes, and auburn hair, she was, in the 1880s, the leading Shakespearean actress in the United States--a feat she managed without ever losing her Polish accent.
Between tours across the United States and abroad, she lived in a remote Orange County canyon on an estate she called Arden because it “looked more like fantastic stage scenery than a real thing” and reminded her of the Forest of Arden in William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”
MODJESKA WAS 36 WHEN, in 1876, she stepped down from her position as Poland’s leading actress to come to America with a small group of artists and intellectuals who had hopes of becoming successful farmers in a boom town called Anaheim.
Ellen K. Lee, a South Laguna historian who has studied Modjeska for more than 20 years, says the actress was on the brink of a nervous breakdown brought on by fellow actors in the Imperial Theatre of Warsaw who resented her rapid rise to the top.
The attacks against her focused on a past that contradicted her strong Roman Catholic beliefs. When Modjeska was a teen-ager in Krakow, she found a mentor in a family friend who had theatrical connections. Gustave Sinnmayer Modrzejewski, a man twice Modjeska’s age who had a wife and child in another city, introduced the bright and beautiful young woman to Shakespeare and other classics of the stage. He also gave her two children, a son Ralph, and a daughter Marylka, who died at the age of 2.
Modrzejewski put together a small acting company for Modjeska, and when they began touring the Carpathian mountain villages in 1861, she took his name for propriety’s sake. She would continue to use it in an Anglicized form for the rest of her life.
The acting troupe was well-received, but, Lee says, Modrzejewski so dominated Modjeska’s life that she felt a captive. She finally left him and in 1865 returned to Krakow with her son. She found a place in the local theatrical company and quickly advanced, daring to bring classic Polish works to the stage at a time when Russian rulers were trying to stamp out Polish culture.
During a performance in the summer of 1866, she was drawn to a wiry, mustached journalist in the audience--the man who would become her husband and manage her career for the next 43 years. Karol (Charles) Bozenta Chlapowski, the son of a nobleman, was to be known in the United States as Count Bozenta because Chlapowski was too difficult to pronounce. Modjeska would call him “Charlie.”
“He had quite a bit to give her,” says Lee, who has tracked down Modjeska’s roots during two visits to Poland. “She was self-educated and very anxious to prove herself. She wanted to know literature, history, music, drama, architecture. He was a very intellectual type who loved to talk about the world of ideas. I think she was attracted as much as anything to his fine mind, his education and the fact that he understood the theater.”
With her new husband acting as her manager, Modjeska went on to Warsaw, putting her past behind her and quickly winning a lifetime contract in the prestigious Imperial Theatre. But soon, other actors began to show their resentment, mining Modjeska’s Bohemian days with Modrzejewski for juicy gossip.
“Modjeska was deeply religious, a woman of refinement,” Lee says. “Her past was suddenly coming up like a ghost. I think she wanted out. And in spite of her gentleness, she always had a tremendous ambition.”
A new life in America would give Modjeska a chance not only to escape the stresses of life in Poland but also to pursue her ambition to perform Shakespeare’s characters in his language.
In her memoirs, “Memories and Impressions of Helena Modjeska,” she revealed the naivete with which she looked forward to her new life in California: “Oh, but to cook under the sapphire-blue sky in the land of freedom! What joy! . . . To bleach linen at the brook like the maidens of Homer’s ‘Iliad’! After the day of toil, to play guitar and sing by moonlight . . . And listening to our songs would be charming Indian maidens, our neighbors, making wreaths of luxuriant wildflowers for us! In exchange we should give them trinkets for their handsome brown necks and wrists! And oh, we should be so far away from everyday gossip and malice, nearer to God, and better.”
THE MOVE TO DUSTY, unrefined, rural Anaheim was a disaster for Modjeska and the Polish friends who had joined her in search of a better life.
Besides Modjeska, Bozenta and 15-year-old Ralph, the group included Henry Sienkiewicz, a journalist who would later write the epic novel “Quo Vadis” and win the 1905 Nobel Prize for Literature; Lucian Paprocki, an amateur caricaturist; Jules Sypniewski, a nobleman, and his wife and two children, and Modjeska’s maid, Anusia.
Sienkiewicz and Sypniewski had come to America ahead of the others to find a place to settle. They felt comfortable in Anaheim because they could speak the language of the German immigrants who already were making a good living harvesting grapes for wine.
Modjeska and her fellow colonists came equipped with boxes of books, paintings and fine clothes instead of tools for farming. Modjeska was dismayed by her first glimpse of Anaheim: “We found the rented house rather small; two bedrooms, a dining room, a so-called parlor, with a square piano and a sofa. The commonplaceness of it all was painfully discouraging, and the front yard, with its cypresses, shaggy grass, and flowers scattered at random, looked like a poorly kept small graveyard. The only redeeming point was the view of the mountains of the Sierra Madre to the north, and of the Santa Ana Range to the east.”
But Modjeska was not one to give up easily--or to play the prima donna. She threw herself into her new role as housekeeper and cook with the same enthusiasm she had devoted to her stage roles. The non-actors in her farming troupe went out to the fields eagerly the first day “anticipating great joy from the touch with Mother Earth,” according to Modjeska.
But the romantic ideal of living close to nature quickly clashed with the harsh reality of manual labor, and they soon began to find excuses to stay home: urgent letters that had to be written, a touch of rheumatism, a sore back.
At first, they thought they had made a mistake in their choice of a farm, so they purchased another nearby. But, Modjeska wrote: “We came to the conclusion that our farming was not successful. We had chickens, but our fine dogs made regular meals of the eggs. We had a vineyard which yielded beautiful Muscat grapes, but there was nobody to buy them. And often people would come fill their wagons with them without more ado. They said that such was the custom of the country. We were too courteous to contradict them and smilingly consented to be robbed . . .”
The farming venture in Anaheim lasted less than six months and cost Bozenta $15,000. After the colonists admitted failure, Modjeska, eager to return to the stage, went to San Francisco and found a tutor to teach her English. Bozenta stayed behind to sell the farm. Ralph, who spoke some English, went with his mother. (He later went to Paris, where he studied from 1878 to 1885. He eventually settled in Chicago and became an engineer, helping design and build more than 50 major bridges throughout the country.) The rest of the colonists returned to Poland, where Sienkiewicz wrote several short stories based on his adventures in California.
THEATER MANAGERS IN San Francisco at first thought Modjeska was just a stage-struck Polish countess. She was turned away when she sought an audition after studying English for six months. But she finally was given a chance at the California Theater in San Francisco. She made her debut--with her name Anglicized from Modrzejewska to Modjeska--on Aug. 20, 1877, in the title role of “Adrienne Lecouvreur,” the same role that had made her an instant star in Warsaw. Theatrical agent Harry Sargent liked what he saw and arranged a New York engagement and a tour in the East.
Thus was launched a career that would take Modjeska to London and back to Poland, place her in Sarah Bernhardt’s league and put her on the stage with the finest actors of her time, including Maurice Barrymore, Edwin Booth and Otis Skinner.
Among her most famous roles would be Camille and Mary Stuart and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, Rosalind, Juliet, Beatrice, Viola and Portia. And among her admirers would be poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with whom she shared a brief correspondence, and novelist Willa Cather, who captured Modjeska’s grace in a scene of “My Mortal Enemy.”
Bozenta seemed content to devote his life to his wife’s career. “He adored her,” Lee says. “Their personalities seemed to fit perfectly. The count was excitable, talkative. Modjeska was more quiet, more subdued.”
When they were on tour, they usually traveled by train with a company assembled by Modjeska. She gave eight performances a week, working through many illnesses brought on by often cramped, drafty, unsanitary accommodations.
Mostly, she remained in good spirits, relaxing in her dressing room by smoking cigarettes while playing game after game of solitaire. Her temper flared in New York, however, when a property man planted a live canary on the set of Camille’s boudoir in what he hoped would be a pleasant surprise for Modjeska. According to Otis Skinner’s 1923 memoirs, “Footlights and Spotlights,” the loquacious canary was such a distraction that, in the middle of a scene, Modjeska tore the cage from its hook and hurled it into the wings. Later, she made a public apology.
Skinner, who toured with Modjeska for three years, had great admiration for her acting: “The dominant characteristics of her acting were eagerness and joy--particularly joy . . . It was joy always striking a different note, a joy restrained and admirable in execution; the great joy of artistry.”
THERE WERE TWO great sorrows in Modjeska’s life. One was the loss of her daughter, Marylka, a tragedy that Ellen Lee believes inspired Modjeska to greater depths as an actress. The other was being banned from Poland in 1895 after she made a speech in Chicago criticizing the Russians for oppressing the Polish people. She found solace in her Forest of Arden in the Santiago Canyon, which reminded her of the Polish countryside.
After Modjeska resumed her acting career in San Francisco in 1877, she and Bozenta went on tour, coming back to Southern California only for visits during the next 10 years. But in 1887, Bozenta bought a homestead in Santiago Canyon that he and Modjeska had fallen in love with during their farming days.
They hired eminent New York architect Stanford White to design a rambling bungalow-style house. It was completed in 1888, and for the next 18 years they spent their quiet time between tours on the ranch, where such theater friends as Skinner and Barrymore and pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski were among their guests.
Arden wasn’t merely a peaceful retreat but also a working ranch that grew from 400 to 1,341 acres as Bozenta acquired land to grow olive trees and barley and raise cattle. Modjeska loved to walk in the rose garden, sit under the oak trees and chat with friends and go for afternoon horseback rides.
In the evening, Modjeska and Bozenta often entertained guests with music, cards and Polish dances. After a visit to Arden, Maud Durbin, who was to become Skinner’s wife, wrote in her diary: “In these two months I have seen her (Modjeska) gardening, acting, painting, playing the piano, sewing and now cooking. She is an artist in everything, but I believe most of all in her great warm heart!”
Perhaps the one area in which Modjeska’s artistry didn’t work to her benefit was in financial matters. Says Lee: “During her career, she earned a great deal of money, but she and her husband were both very generous to all kinds of worthy causes--in Poland and in this country. They never saved, never looked ahead, and periodically in her life, she was very hard up.”
One of those periods was in 1904, when theaters were going through hard times and Modjeska found herself unable to book a tour. Bozenta, who never managed to make the ranch a financial success, could do little to help. But their friends and admirers responded quickly to their need for funds to sustain them through Modjeska’s theatrical dry spell.
Paderewski, who remembered Modjeska’s efforts to help him launch his career, and theatrical manager Daniel Frohman in 1905 staged a testimonial for Modjeska at the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Among those whose names appeared on the invitation to Modjeska were Grover Cleveland, S.L. Clemens, Andrew Carnegie and Henry James. Modjeska was among those who performed, and after the event, a check for $10,000 was presented to her. With Frohman’s help, she obtained a contract for a two-year theatrical tour to be completed in 1907.
Still, the Arden estate had become too much of a burden. In 1906, the ranch was sold. Modjeska spent her last days in a two-bedroom cottage at 3 Bay Island in Newport Beach that has since been torn down. At one time, there was a sign over the front door that read “Modjeska’s Little Arden.”
MODJESKA HAD JUST finished her memoirs when drama critic William Winter visited her at her Newport Beach cottage. In “The Wallet of Time,” Winter reflects: “The close of Modjeska’s life, contrasted with the brilliance of her career, was pathetic and forlorn . . . The great actress greeted me with gentle kindness, and presently, as though my coming had reminded her of other days and scenes, she looked about the small narrow room in which we were. ‘Ah, it ees small,’ she said, ‘very small, this place of ours. But, what of that? It ees large enough for two old people to sit in--and wait.’ ”
She may have been waiting for death, but she still wasn’t able to resist one last call to the stage. Just a few months before she died, Modjeska appeared at a benefit in Los Angeles arranged by William Randolph Hearst for victims of the devastating 1908 earthquake in Sicily.
The Los Angeles Examiner wrote: “The voice of Modjeska, a voice which has thrilled the world and holds its spell as of yore, was heard again and for the last time on stage. In the sleepwalking act of Macbeth, her utterance had the pathos of death in it . . . Time has not diminished her power, and it was the Lady Macbeth that theatergoers in the capitals of the world heard a score of years ago.”
Modjeska died at her home on April 8, 1909, of Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment, and complications related to heart disease. She was 68. Thousands turned out to mourn her death at funeral services in Anaheim, Los Angeles and, finally, Krakow, Poland, where Sienkiewicz gave a tribute. Bozenta and Ralph Modjeski took her body to Poland. Bozenta never returned to America. He died in 1914 and was buried in Krakow alongside Modjeska.
The Arden home, now listed as a national and state historic site, has been purchased by the county, which plans to restore the estate as part of a historic park.
“The house, Arden, had a fame that outlived her,” Lee says. “Her fame as an actress is almost forgotten here. But her fame as a pioneer woman has hung on in Orange County.”
Perhaps that’s because Modjeska loved Orange County as much as she loved the Shakespeare roles that made her famous. Late in her life, she told a reporter: “I have acted Lady Macbeth and Portia now for many years, but there is hardly a performance that I do not find new beauties in the plays. The lines have a charm that’s like . . . my California home, Arden. I never wish to forget or cease to be fond of either, and it seems that each year brings me closer to both.”
Gustave Sinnmayer Modrzejewski.