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.