Modjeska, Helena (1840–1909)

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Modjeska, Helena (1840–1909)

Polish-born actress and fervent Polish patriot who gained fame as a major interpreter of Shakespearean plays for 19th-century American audiences. Name variations: Modrejewska or Modrzejewski; Countess Bozenta or Countess Chlapowski. Pronunciation: Hell-LAY-nuh Mow-JESS-kuh. Born Jadwiga Opid on October 12, 1840, in Cracow, Poland; died on April 9, 1909, on Bay Island (Modjeska Island), California; daughter of Michael Opid (a music teacher) and Jozefa Benda Opid; educated at St. Joseph Convent school; married Gustav Sinnmayer who later called himself Gustav Modrzejewski; married Count Bozenta Chlapowski, on September 12, 1868; children: (first marriage) one son, Rudolph (b. 1861); daughter, Marylka (1862–1865).

Made her professional debut in Poland (1861); established acting company with husband (1862); began performing at Cracow theater (1865); performed at Warsaw Imperial Theater (1868); arrived in U.S. and settled with Chlapowski in area of Anaheim, California (1876); made her U.S. debut in San Francisco (1877); made her debuts in New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. (1877); performed in London and Paris (1878); attended 50th jubilee in Poland for writings of novelist Jozef Kraszewski (1879); became U.S. citizen (1883); made professional tour of Poland and England (1884–85); was guest speaker at Chicago World's Fair (1893); banned from further appearances in Russian-occupied Poland (1894); played benefit in New York's Metropolitan Opera House (1905).

Most famous performances were in Adrienne Lecouvreur, As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, and Camille.

"I value most highly … the privilege I shared with several illustrious countrymen of mine in proving to the outside world that our unfortunate and much-maligned nation, Poland, is always alive, and cannot be relegated to oblivion," Polish-born actress Helena Modjeska wrote in her autobiography. Fiercely patriotic, she sought to use her career to advance the cause of Polish independence from foreign rule. When she appeared on the stage in her native country, crowds cheered not only her performances but also her status as a symbol of Polish nationalism. Eventually, Russian authorities refused to let her appear on stage in the section of Poland they controlled. One consequence was that most of her career unfolded in the United States, although she also performed in many European capitals. Of the three major international stage actresses of the late 19th century—Modjeska, the Italian actress Eleonora Duse , and the French actress Sarah Bernhardt —only Modjeska devoted most of her career to performing in America. Historically, she is less well known, however, than either Bernhardt or Duse. When she is remembered, it is as a major popularizer of Shakespearean plays for 19th-century American audiences. Yet she considered the United States to be only her base of operation; to the end, she thought of Poland as her true home.

The ninth of ten children, Helena Modjeska was initially given the first name of the 14th-century Polish-Hungarian queen, Jadwiga . Helena's mother Jozefa Benda Opid was the widow of Simon Benda, a well-to-do merchant. Modjeska was born in 1840 after her mother married Michael Opid, a music teacher at a school in her native city of Cracow. Although at least one biographer insisted that Modjeska's father was a Polish prince, Wladyslaw Sanguszko, Modjeska regarded Opid as her father. He gave her the name "Helena" because her head was small and well-formed, but he usually called her by the Polish diminutive form, "Helicia." Although he died at age 43 (when Modjeska was five), she retained strong memories of him, recalling that he loved to play music for the family—"music was his passion," she wrote—and tell stories to the children in the family. He frequently read to Modjeska from the Odyssey and Iliad of Homer. In her words, he had a "warm, unsophisticated heart, a most vivid imagination, and a great love of music." Modjeska remembered her mother as a person of "great energy, and great activity," very quick and outspoken. In contrast to the quiet Opid, she made "rash judgments" and "often regretted hasty words."

The Poland in which Modjeska grew to adulthood technically did not exist. During the late 1700s, Poland had been swallowed up and partitioned by three of its neighbors—Russia, Prussia, and Austria. It would continue under the domination of foreign powers until 1919. While she lived in Poland, Modjeska spent most of her time in sections under Russian or Austrian (German-speaking) control. She recalled that her family "never liked to speak Russian or German, such was the resentment that we cherished in our heart toward these nations."

One of Modjeska's vivid childhood memories was seeing the excitement in her neighborhood during the Polish revolt against foreign rule between the years 1848 and 1850. She remembered seeing many of their neighbors building barricades by hauling chairs, beds, and tables into the streets. She also recalled hearing shouts for swords or pistols. Her most vivid memory was of huddling with her mother in the basement of their home while the sound of Russian cannon thundered nearby.

Modjeska's only formal education was at the St. Joseph Convent school in Cracow, which she entered in 1850. When Opid died, his holdings included a large amount of real estate, but many of the buildings he owned were destroyed in the great Cracow fire of 1850 and in the Polish revolts of 1848–50. Nevertheless, the family remained prosperous enough that Modjeska's mother decided to send both Modjeska and her sister Josephine to the convent school, which they were escorted to and from by the family maid.

At St. Joseph, Modjeska studied Polish history, grammar, math, Greek and Roman history, and music. By age 14, she had developed a special admiration for Polish poets such as Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Slowacki, but she showed disdain for anything connected with Germany or the German language. When the Austrian school inspector visited the school, the sisters took care to make sure that Helena was not asked to answer any "German questions."

Modjeska, a self-described "rebellious" child who liked to develop her own interests, later wrote: "I cannot be grateful enough to my dear mother for never encouraging my inclination to the stage." Two of her half-brothers, Joseph and Felix Benda, were interested in the stage, however, and eventually took up theatrical careers. When her brothers staged amateur theatricals at home, they also played the female roles; Modjeska was not allowed to join in. After the brothers grew to adulthood, the younger Modjeska organized her own family theatricals.

When Modjeska was 12, a Pole with a German name, Gustav Sinnmayer, began to live with her family. Sinnmayer opened her eyes to the classics and to the world outside Cracow, introducing her to the German writers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann C.G. von Schiller. He took her to see a Schiller play, explaining the plot as the action unfolded onstage. As a result, she reported that she "thought better of the Germans" and began, the next morning, to read Schiller's plays, with the help of a German dictionary. "By the time I came to [the play] Mary Stuart, I understood German quite well," she reported. She also discovered the plays of William Shakespeare, particularly Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, and Two Gentlemen from Verona.

After she graduated from the St. Joseph school at the age of 14, Modjeska continued to

educate herself by reading, both alone and in family groups, from the writings of Polish poets, as well as from the English writers Charles Dickens and Walter Scott, and the French playwright Alexander Dumas père. She also tried her hand at playwriting, creating, at age 14, a play about the Greek struggle for independence from Turkey.

Some writers think that Modjeska's mother had sent her daughter to the convent school with the specific goal of preparing her to be the bride of Sinnmayer, who was 20 years older. Accounts of her life are vague regarding her marriage to Sinnmayer. One writer insists that Sinnmayer preferred a quick and quiet wedding when Modjeska became pregnant, but that Modjeska's mother would have none of it, instead inviting more than 60 relatives to the wedding. (In her autobiography, Modjeska told of Sinnmayer's proposal of marriage to her, but she did not mention details of a wedding, nor did she provide a wedding date.) As a gesture to his bride, Sinnmayer gave himself a Polish last name (Modrzejewski), telling her that she would not have to carry a German name. When she began appearing on stage—her first public performances, at age 16, were in plays such as Camille—she gave herself a simplified version of his adopted name—"Modjeska."

Their son Rudolph Modrzejewski—later a prominent bridge designer and builder in the United States—was born "prematurely." In the resulting scandal, the couple decided to leave Cracow and take up residence in Bochnia, a provincial town famous for its salt mines, which they chose because Sinnmayer owned land there.

Sinnmayer arranged for her to appear in plays at the local theater, as well as at a theater in Rumania. By 1862, their company had grown to 32 members. Because the group often played in the German-controlled section of Poland, the company allied itself with a German theater company, and the two theatrical troupes alternated theater dates.

To get out of myself, to forget all about Helena Modjeska, to throw my whole soul into the assumed character, … to be moved by its emotions, thrilled by its passions, …—in one word, to identify myself with it and reincarnate another soul and body, this became my idea.

—Helena Modjeska

Modjeska's performances included serious plays by the French writer Victor Hugo and plays by Polish writers, including the comedy Sluby Panienskie (A Maiden's Vow) by Aleksander Fredro, whom she described as "our Polish Molière." Deciding that beauty alone was no guarantee of success on the stage, Modjeska began to spend several hours a day working on improving the quality of her voice, partly to add deeper tones—"trying to get my voice one shade lower every time."

A daughter, Marylka, was born in 1862, only two hours after Modjeska had appeared in an exhausting five-act play. After Marylka died in 1865, Sinnmayer disappeared from Modjeska's life, but exactly what happened is blurred. In her memoirs, Modjeska insisted that Sinnmayer abandoned her after the death of their daughter and that she never saw him again. One writer insisted that Sinnmayer died under "mysterious circumstances" in a salt mine, although it was unclear whether from suicide or from a fatal injury incurred in a fight.

Proclaiming the "disappearance" of Sinnmayer to be "God's will," Modjeska announced that she would continue to appear on the stage in order to support herself and her son. In 1865, she accepted an offer of a contract with a theater in Cracow. While there, she noticed in the audience a man with a "memorable face and a slightly sarcastic smile," and she asked a fellow actor who the "intelligent-looking young man" was. She was told that he was Count Bozenta Chlapowski, a member of a prominent Polish noble family who had gained fame for serving the armies of the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (seen by Poles as a possible "liberator" from foreign rule). They spent increasing amounts of time together. "He admired my Polish," said Modjeska, "while I admired his French." He read to her from the French writer Alphonse de Lamartine; she read to him from the works of Polish poets.

Their marriage, on September 12, 1868, was viewed as unconventional by Polish high society. She admitted that marriages of actresses into aristocratic families were rare events in Poland "where there still exists a great many old prejudices and notions." Their home became a gathering place for Polish writers and artists, but she was criticized for continuing her career; wives of nobles were expected to devote their time to family social matters. Although Modjeska attributed the criticism to jealousy by other actors, she was hurt when another theatrical company parodied the newly married couple. Yet the marriage did have career advantages: during the same year as her marriage, she was invited to appear in the Warsaw Imperial Theater.

Although she had been preparing to appear in German plays, in 1874 she abandoned that idea and began to learn English. One reason for the change was her fascination with Shakespeare. Another was her husband's increasing interest in establishing a Polish agricultural "colony" in the United States. Their friend Henryk Sienkiewicz, the author of Quo Vadis, was writing to them from the U.S., telling of the large number of Polish emigres that he had encountered. Another friend, the Shakespearean actor Maurice Neville, was praising the freedom he had found in the United States, adding that it was a country "hungering for culture."

The couple set out for America in 1876, spending a brief time in New York City before traveling on. They eventually reached the Pacific coast via a land crossing of the Isthmus of Panama. Modjeska's first impressions of New York City and the U.S. were not positive. She did not like New York, with its "millions of buses, iron railways, and such a mass of signboards … that

sometimes you couldn't tell the true color of the building…. And besides, the city is pretty dirty." She also thought that in America, "Men are appraised according to how much money they make. If the answer is, 'He's worth half a million,' no one asks where the half-million came from. On the other hand, if the answer is, 'He is a … scholar … but has no money,' nobody pays any attention to the poor devil."

After landing at Los Angeles in 1876, the couple traveled to the Anaheim area, where their new colony, named "Arden," was established. The small number of men in the colony—who, for a time, included Sienkiewicz—worked in the fields, while Modjeska was the colony's cook. Both Modjeska and her husband were enchanted with the view of the Santa Ana mountains nearby, but they were not so happy with the "hot and sultry" Santa Ana winds. Inconsistent rain doomed the project; when crops began failing, and her husband lost some $20,000 in land speculation, Modjeska decided to learn English well enough that she could perform in the United States. Even though she would eventually perfect her command of the language, she was still speaking less-than-perfect English when she made her American debut at San Francisco in August 1877, playing the title role, in English, in Adrienne Lecouvreur.

Although Modjeska and her husband took out U.S. citizenships during the 1880s, only toward the end of her life did she come to regard the United States as a permanent residence. Much of her career, she lived in hotels, both in the U.S. and Europe. She returned to perform in Poland a number of times, with notable trips in 1882 and 1884–85. While she gave a number of performances in Poland during these visits, the trips were also opportunities to participate in memorable events, such as the 50th-anniversary jubilee of the publishing career of the Polish novelist Jozef Kraszewski in 1879. She became known for her generosity in participating in benefits in Polish theaters, and she was willing to do the same in America when Polish-American groups asked for her help.

On one occasion, performing in Poland cost her 10,000 rubles, a fine she had to pay because she had not taken a formal leave of absence when she went to the United States. Modjeska was convinced that the fine was a vindictive measure, instigated by the Russian authorities in Poland who were alarmed by the kind of reception Polish audiences gave her. In fact, her appearances on the stage in Russian-controlled Poland often became the occasion for patriotic demonstrations by her audiences. After one performance, men in the cheering crowd lifted her onto their shoulders and carried her down the center aisle of the theater. Russian governing officials, who were determined that such a scene would never be repeated, occupied all of the best seats at one of her subsequent performances, shutting out Poles who had already bought tickets.

When Modjeska spoke publicly about foreign occupation of Poland, she was especially critical of Russian authorities. She told American reporters: "The political condition of the Poles under Russia grows worse every day…. [T]he current tsar of Russia is a stupid blockhead…. [H]e thinks he can russify everything…. He has crushed the Poles, [and] now he is trying to drive the Jews out of Poland." When a group of Polish-American women asked her to speak on the topic of "The Organized Development of the Polish Women" at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, she arrived dressed in the national colors of red and white. She gave a matter-of-fact talk, using many statistics. Before she finished, however, she referred to a broken drinking glass lying on the podium and added, "Like this glass now shattered, let the empire of the Russian tyrants be broken."

When a new tsar assumed the Russian throne in 1894, many Poles hoped that his government would adopt liberalizing policies. In this hopeful atmosphere, the Warsaw Imperial Theater invited Modjeska to appear on its stage. When Modjeska and her husband arrived in Warsaw, however, they were forced to meet with the Warsaw police chief, told that they were never to set foot on Russian soil again, and escorted back to their train by police. Still nurturing unhappy memories from her childhood of what life was like in the Austrian-occupied section of Poland, Modjeska decided not to perform there either. By 1902, she changed her mind; so, it appears, did Russian authorities. Invited to help raise money for a Cracow theater, she traveled to Europe in that year and performed in parts of both Russia and Austrian-occupied Poland.

The years between 1877 and 1905 were years of constant touring, as Modjeska traveled with her husband across the United States, playing in the larger cities such as Boston, Cleveland, New York, or St. Louis, as well as in smaller ones such as Quincy, Illinois. Following her San Francisco debut, she performed in New York City. She had to borrow train fare to go, but she found that she enjoyed the city, and especially Central Park, more than she had expected.

New York reviews were strongly favorable. Her Adrienne Lecouvreur, a play by the French dramatist Augustin Scribe, was a continued success; Camille, which she performed next in New York City, was a triumph. In subsequent tours of both American cities and European capitals such as London, Paris, and Vienna, Modjeska played an astonishing range of roles, more than 200 in all. Performing in either English or Polish, she showed great skill in both comedy and tragedy, exhibiting an acting style that was widely praised for its naturalness. She gained a reputation for creating "warm, breathing characters" on the stage. Critics particularly mentioned her "large, dark, liquid eyes" and the "expressive low tones" of her voice.

Modjeska was disappointed that she could not make American audiences respond to Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, which had become a hit in Poland. Instead, she came to be known in the States mostly for her Shakespearean roles, particularly her performances as Rosalind in As You Like It and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. It was often said that she did more to popularize Shakespeare in 19th-century America than any other theatrical figure. "Of all the English writers," she noted, "it was Shakespeare with whose works I felt most at home." Her Juliet was praised by one reviewer for its unique combination of "controlled passion and frenzied desperation."

Unlike other European actresses who appeared in America, Modjeska was at ease in talking with reporters. She understood the need to accommodate the constant demand for "publicity" in the U.S., and she allowed press releases to list her age as six years less than it actually was. With a reputation for being both generous and unpretentious, Modjeska usually did not ask to be addressed by the title of "Countess." American newspaper reports, however, often referred to her as "Countess Bozenta" or "Countess Chlapowski."

As her fame grew, her audiences increasingly included the famous and the socially prominent. When she played in Boston, the attendees included Oliver Wendell Holmes as well as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who, at more than 70 years of age, told her: "I have seen many actresses play Camille, but you, my dear, are far superior to all of them." In Washington, she met General William Sherman and Carl Schurz and was invited to call on first lady Frances Folsom Cleveland at the White House; in St. Louis, she was introduced to Eugene Field. In London, the prince of Wales came to see her perform "several times," she reported.

Modjeska showed no jealousy when, as early as the 1880s, two other European actresses began appearing in the United States—Bernhardt and Duse. After seeing Duse perform, Modjeska found her acting "extraordinary," although she believed that Duse's style was more "naturalistic and philosophical" than her own. Her opinion of Bernhardt was more qualified. When Bernhardt came to see Modjeska on stage, she arrived, carrying a large bouquet of flowers, during the middle of the second act. Seemingly oblivious to the distraction she had caused in the audience, she visited backstage after the performance to congratulate Modjeska. Modjeska thought that the congratulations sounded less than sincere. But Modjeska's increasing age, and the emergence of Duse and Bernhardt, seemed to have a negative effect on her career. Although bookings became less frequent, Modjeska refused to appear in vaudeville, as many of her friends suggested. In fact, she turned down an offer of $60,000 a year to appear on one vaudeville circuit.

In 1903, she settled in Arden as her permanent home, but, missing the excitement of the stage, she did not remain there long. In 1905, she considered retiring because of lack of bookings before accepting an invitation to appear that year in a charity benefit at the New York Metropolitan Opera house. She withdrew from acting temporarily in 1906, after she suffered a bad fall in the home of friends in Los Angeles. In 1908, she was coaxed out of retirement to participate in a benefit for victims of the Messina earthquake. It was her last public appearance. The next month, she and her husband sold their holdings in Arden and moved to a large house on Bay Island (also named Modjeska Island), California.

When Modjeska died at her home on Bay Island on April 8, 1909, her death became an international event, reported as widely in Europe as in the United States. Funeral services, held in both in Los Angeles and in Poland, were attended by the pianist Ignace Paderewski and the writer Sienkiewicz, among others. Although over 80 years later, she is little known, she left a distinctive kind of legacy: a number of American geographical sites were named after her, including a waterfall in Nevada, and a town near Los Angeles. In Louisville, Kentucky, a local candy maker was so impressed with one of her performances that he named a candy after her.

As these honors demonstrated, Modjeska's legacy lay in the extent to which she stimulated the growth of the theater in the United States in the late 19th century. Her appearances were highly anticipated events, in both major American cities and small towns. For some members of her audience, it was their first glimpse of a Shakespeare comedy or tragedy. It was even said that she could keep an American audience enraptured by reciting the alphabet—which she sometimes did in Polish. During her 40-year career, her large American audiences believed that they could appreciate the Modjeska "magic," even if they could not always understand the language she was speaking.


Coleman, Arthur. Wanderers Twain: Modjeska and Sienkiewicz. Cheshire, CT: Cherry Hill Books, 1964.

Coleman, Marion Moore. Fair Rosalind: The American Career of Helena Modjeska. Cheshire, CT: Cherry Hill Books, 1969.

Gronowicz, Antoni. Modjeska: Her Life and Loves. NY: Thomas Yoseloff, 1956.

Modjeska, Helena. Memories and Impressions of Helena Modjeska: An Autobiography. New York and London: Benjamin Blom, 1910.

suggested reading:

Kosberg, Martin. The Polish Colony of California, 1876–1914. San Francisco: R and R Research Associates, 1971.

Payne, Theodore. Life on the Modjeska Ranch in the Gay 90s. Los Angeles: n.p., 1962.

Sontag, Susan. In America. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000 (novel loosely based on Modjeska's life).


Significant collections of the papers and correspondence of Modjeska are in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California; the theater collection of Houghton Library, Harvard University; and (for her scrapbook) the theater collection of the New York City Public Library.

Niles Holt , Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois