Forget the stars of “The O.C.” Orange County had international celebrity cache from the moment it became the O.C. on March 11, 1889.
It came in the form of Madame Helena Modrzejewska, a.k.a. Modjeska. And unlike the fictional homes of Ryan, Melissa and Seth, people can actually tour the Modjeska House, meticulously restored near a 5,481-foot peak named for the world-renowned 19th-century Shakespearean actress.
The Arden Modjeska Historic Home and Garden is on 14.4 acres amid mature oaks and sycamores that Modjeska found reminiscent of the forest of Arden in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”
“The whole picture looked more like fantastic stage scenery,” she wrote of her backwoods home, where she and her husband, Count Charles Bozenta Chlapowksi, escaped after her U.S. stage tours. “It was really a very peaceful retreat, far from the turmoil of the world.”
Born in Krakow, Poland, in 1844, Modjeska was a wild child for her day, making Bozenta her second husband after marrying her manager and bearing two children by him. Mr. Bozenta, as he preferred to be called, was an intellectual who yearned to farm. The couple immigrated to the United States in 1876 with journalist Henryk Sienkiewicz, intent on starting a utopian farming cooperative in Anaheim.
The venture went bust in 10 weeks, but there was a silver lining. It forced Modjeska, then 32 and already a famous actress in Poland, to learn English and join the American stage to earn a living. Sienkiewicz also rebounded nicely: He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1905 for “Quo Vadis.”
Modjeska came upon the natural wonders of Santiago Canyon -- a three-hour horse-and-buggy ride from the El Toro train station -- courtesy of Joseph Edward Pleasants, a beekeeper who hunted with the count.
They met in the summer of 1883, when Modjeska and her husband, who were living in San Francisco to accommodate her career, returned to Orange County for a vacation. They camped for three weeks on Pleasants’ homestead, and returned for two more summers.
Enamored of the lush retreat, they bought the 1,340-acre ranch and Pleasants’ home in 1888.
The house became a magnet for vacationing arts and literary luminaries, including pianist Ignace Paderewski, a close friend of Modjeska’s. Its heart was the living room and library, with tall windows and a 16-foot cove ceiling that set off a large stone fireplace.
“She had connections and friends and activities, and she was very much a part of Orange County,” county archivist Phil Brigandi said of Modjeska, who appeared locally at the Grand Opera House in Santa Ana.
Modjeska retired from the stage in 1907 and eventually moved to Bay Island, in Newport Bay, where she died two years later.
She was mourned as one of America’s leading ladies. In her 30 years on the U.S. stage, she had starred with Maurice Barrymore, Otis Skinner and Edwin Booth, brother of assassin John Wilkes Booth. She had mastered 12 Shakespearean roles, as well as the lead in the first U.S. production of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” in 1883.
The lore of the Modjeska House continued to grow after her death. It had several owners before being turned into a resort in 1913. Three years later, Don H. Porter bought it and formed the Modjeska Ranch Co. to sell building lots in the canyon.
An Austrian couple, the Schweigers, bought the house in 1918 and turned it into the Modjeska Inn and Restaurant, which they sold in 1922.
In 1923, banker Charles Walker bought the property -- now dwindled to about 16 acres -- for a family vacation home, which it remained for 63 years. The family added an exotic zoo to the grounds, with monkeys, deer, peacocks, ostriches, an alligator and a bear.
In 1986, the county bought Modjeska’s property for $1 million -- about half its appraised value -- and spent $500,000 more to restore the house.
Today, house is open for tours four times a month. Visitors can admire the gabled, double-porch home designed by renowned architect Stanford White, gaze at 70-foot palm trees that were only shoulder-high in 1890, and peer into what some historians believe was the first swimming pool in Orange County -- kidney-shaped, no less.
In her autobiography, Modjeska spoke lovingly of her canyon and the couple’s time there. “All our improvements,” she wrote, “had for their main object not to spoil what nature had provided.”