Friday, October 31, 2008

Today I Am An Honorary Pole!

I have enjoyed Donna Pointkowski's, What's Past Is Prologue, Polish History Challenge as well as the wonderful series of articles she has written for Polish-American Heritage Month. While I don't believe I have any Polish ancestors, Donna has fashioned this challenge to make it extremely easy for everyone to participate.

Even though I'm only an honorary Pole, I wanted to have some connection to the article I would write for the Challenge. I once lived in Southern California and often visited Modjeska Canyon. Modjeska Canyon was home to and named for a very famous Polish tragedienne, Madame Helena Modjeska. I decided to research her life and I found it so interesting. In fact I was so taken by her story it was very difficult to put down my research and write this article.

She died almost one hundred years ago; an integral part of the theater in this country, England, and Europe. She was revered and yet today we know so little about her; most of us never having heard of her at all. One hundred years from today will our descendants say Angelina who? Madame Modjeska was as famous as Angelina and I'm sure you said "who?" when you read the name of the subject of this article.

I can not do Modjeska's life justice in this short article. She is the subject of books. I will give you a flavor of who she was and some of the interesting facts I uncovered about her. As a Polish patriot she deserves a place in Polish-American Heritage Month.

1844 - 1909

Madame Helena Modjeska

Helena was born at Cracow, the ancient Polish capital, Oct. 12, 1844, one of ten children living at home. She came from an artistic family, many members of which were actors and musicians. Her father, Michael Opido, was a mountaineer and a musician of some renown.

When Helena was seven her father died of consumption, he was forty-three. He had contracted a severe cold while searching for his drowned brother's body. Opido found the body, but returned home with a high fever and pneumonia. A few months later he died in the mountains, to which he was transported at his urgent request.

Helena's maternal grandfather, an engineer, was killed trying to save miners entombed in a burning mine just a few weeks before her mother, Josephine, was born. Her grandmother remarried and left Josephine with her grandmother who was subsequently killed by lightening. Josephine was raised by family friends.

At nineteen Josephine married a wealthy man thirty years her senior who died leaving her with many sons and many debts. Josephine met and married Helen's father Michael. It was said they were a true love match.

From this beginning it is easy to understand why Helena was an actress who excelled at tragedies, her early life and history were filled with tragedies.

At an early age her imagination was fired by the performances of classic and romantic plays at the Municipal Theater, and she developed an invincible desire to go on the stage. This desire was strengthened by finding a copy of "Hamlet" in a Polish translation. The copy belonged to the Cracow Theater, and, not being able to purchase it from the authorities, this fifteen year old girl copied the whole play and carried it with her as a rare treasure wherever she went, studying the scenes.

Helena made her debut on the stage in 1881 at Bochnia, Austrian Poland, under the auspices of her half-brother, Felix Benda, a popular actor. In 1860 she married G. Z. Modrzejewski and became known to the theater-going public as Madame Helena Modjeska, and adaptation of her husband's name. Following her debut on the stage she joined a traveling company, and became a popular favorite in her native Poland. In 1862 she played a three-month engagement at the government theater, Lemberg; then managed a theater in Czernowitz, and in 1865 became the leading lady of the Cracow theater.

She played many and various parts, finally rising to the position of "first actress" at the Imperial Theater of Warsaw, the capital of Russian Poland. She remained there for a eight years, acting nearly all the heroine roles in the plays of Shakespeare, Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, Comeille, Racine, Moliere, and the Polish native dramatists.

Her husband, Modrzejewski, died and she was married a second time, in September 1868, to Charles Bozenta Chlapowski. Chlapowski was a leading Polish journalist from a wealthy family, who had frequently irritated the Austrian government by writing and publishing patriotic articles.

In 1876 the worry from the constant interference of the Russian censors, failing health, and professional jealousy led them to emigrate to the United States. They settled on a ranch near Los Angeles, Cal., with hopes of founding a Polish colony.

Knowing little of farming they soon lost most of the money they had accumulated. Helena decided to return to the stage. The major block to her taking the stage in America was the fact she spoke no English. She made the acquaintance of a woman in San Francisco who taught her the lines to two plays in English so she could perform while she learned to speak the language. John McCullough, then manager of the California Theater in San Francisco, gave her an opportunity to appear there in July, 1877. The reception was enthusiastic and her engagement in San Francisco proved a complete success.

At its close H. J. Sargent became her manager, and appearing under his direction in "Adrienne" at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York, receiving a welcome in the metropolis which equaled that already accorded her in San Francisco. After a lengthy engagement she began an extended tour, traveling for three seasons throughout the United States. From there she traveled to London. Returning to the United States she made her second appearance in New York city at Booth's Theater, Dec. 11, 1882, where she was seen for the first time as Rosalind, in "As You Like It."

On Feb. 11, 1884, at the Star Theatre, New York, she produced "Najezda," a play written for her by Maurice Barrymore; and after another profitable London engagement she was seen at the Union Square Theater, New York, in "Les Chouans," Dec. 13, 1886. Following this success she traveled for three seasons. During 1889 and 1890 seasons she appeared as a joint star with Edwin Booth.

She was extremely popular with the rich and famous. The following is a portion of a New York Times article documenting her arrival in New York City, September 19, 1882:

Mme. Modjeska, the actress, arrived in this City yesterday on the steam-ship Arizona of the Guion Line. The steamer arrived off Quarantine soon after 11 A.M., and was met by a tug having on board a number of friends of the acress. On arriving alongside the steamship, the tug displayed an enormous white flag with a deep red border bearing the name “Modjeska” in the centre in blue.

The actress was accompanied by her husband, the Count Bozenta Chiapowski and two maids. She was a good deal fatigued from her voyage, which was a stormy one, the steamer having been delayed several hours by rough weather.

On reaching the City Mme. Modjeska was driven to the Clarendon Hotel, and telegrams announcing the safe arrival of the party were immediately sent to London, Warsaw, and Crakow.

Soon after reaching the hotel Mme. Modjeska was called upon by Oscar Wilde and Mora, the artist. A number of persons who presented their cards in the evening were unable to see her, as she had retired thoroughly fatigued after her trip.

In 1903 Helena denounced the Russian Government at a gathering at the World’s Fair in Chicago. What she said in Chicago was reported to St. Petersburg. Two years later when she went to Warsaw (Russian Poland) she was not allowed to appear on the stage and she was ordered to leave the city within twenty-four hours. A few weeks after this there was a decree from the government forbidding her to enter any part of the Russian dominions.

In 1905 Modjeska made a farewell tour in German and Austrian Poland appearing on stage at Cracow, Lemberg, and Posen in seventeen different plays. She returned to New York where she appeared in a benefit performance for herself after which she returned to California.

When she became ill in 1909 the New York Times carried daily updates of her condition. She died April 8, 1909, in Orange County California, of Bright’s disease complicated by a heart condition. Funeral services where held for her at St. Viblan’s Cathedral in Los Angeles. The body was taken to Calvary Cemetery prior to being shipped to New York for funeral services there. Funeral services were held for the actress at St. Stanislaus’s Polish Catholic Church, 107 Seventh Street, New York City on July 1, 1909.

Count Chlapowski took the remains of Helena Modjeka onboard the Kaiserin Auguste Victoria bound for Poland. The Count settled all his affairs in California where they had made their home and did not return.

July 17, 1909 she was buried in Poland after lying in state at the Church of The Holy Cross in Cracow. High honors were paid the famous actress and a huge concourse of people attended her last rights. Many Polish societies in the United States sent wreaths while the cities of Cracow and Lemberg, all the National theaters, and hundreds of her fans sent floral tributes.


Modjeska, Helena. Memories and Impressions of Helena Modjeska: An Autobiography. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1910.

Collins, Mabel. The Story of Helena Modjeska, (Madame Chlapowska). London: W. H. Allen, 1885.

Strang, Lewis. Famous Actresses of the Day in America. Boston: L.C. Page & Co., 1899.

Hornblow, Arthur. A History of the Theatre in America from Its Beginnings to the Present Time: From Its Beginnings to the Present Time. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1919.

Winter, Nevin Otto. Poland of Today and Yesterday: A Review of Its History, Past and Present, and of the Causes which Resulted in Its Partition, Together with a Survey of Its Social, Political, and Economic Conditions Today. Boston: L. C. Page & Company, 1913.



Blogger Donna said...


Thanks! She truly had a fascinating life! And I also never heard of thanks so much for sharing her story.


November 1, 2008 at 7:13 AM  
Blogger Jasia said...

Bravo fM! Bravo! Fabulous article! You are an honorary Pole forever!

I really enjoyed learning about Madame Modjeska. I was aware that she was a famous actress. I'd come across her name a number of times before. But I never took the time to learn about her life. Thank you for teaching this ole Pole something new about her heritage!

November 1, 2008 at 7:52 AM  
Blogger Lidian said...

You know how much I love this kind of post! Looks absolutely terrific. Am starring it so I can come back to it when not in NaNoWriMo panic...

November 1, 2008 at 9:36 AM  
Anonymous Jeanne J said...

Just read this article. Great information, thank you! Helena Modjeska is my Great-great Aunt on my Father's side, a connection I only recently discovered. I see my own Grandmother's face in the pictures of Helena. Thank you again!

Jeanne J.

March 26, 2010 at 9:35 PM  

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