Helena Modrzejewska, a Famous Polish Shakespearean Actress

Helena Modrzejewska, Modrzejewska also spelled Modjeska, original name Helena Opid, (born Oct. 12, 1840, Kraków, Pol.—died April 9, 1909, Bay Island, Newport Beach, near Los Angeles), Polish-American actress whose repertoire included 260 Shakespearean and contemporary roles, some in both Polish and English.

The daughter of a musician, she married an actor, Gustav Modrzejewski, and they joined a company of strolling players. In 1868 she married Count Bozenta Chlapowski, a politician and critic, and began to act at Warsaw, where she remained for a number of years. 

In 1876 she went with her husband to California, where they settled on a ranch. This enterprise was a failure, and Modrzejewska returned to the stage. She appeared in San Francisco in 1877, in an English version of Adrienne Lecouvreur, in which she was very successful despite her poor English. She continued to act principally in the United States but was also seen from time to time in London, where in 1881 she fulfilled her ambition to play Shakespeare on an English stage, and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Her autobiographical Memories and Impressions of Helena Modrzejewska was published in 1910.

Helena Modrzejewska Acting Career 

Helena Modrzejewska made her first public appearance in Lviv in 1862. She earned a contract with the Lviv theater after performing in three different parts, and her first role there was Skierka in Sowacki’s drama Balladyna. She could not, however, bet on landing significant roles in the traditional repertoire because she was a young and inexperienced performer. 

As a result, Modrzejewska departed Lviv in the early months of 1863 for the stages of Stanislavov (now Ivano-Frankivsk) and Chernivtsi. There, she performed the lead part of Barbara Radziwiówna in Alojzy Felinski’s tragedy, as well as that of Louisa in Intrigue and Love by Friedrich Schiller, Amelia in Mazepa by Juliusz Sowacki, and Mary Stuart in Maria Stuart by Sowacki. 

In July 1867, Modrzejewska gave her last performance in front of a Polish audience and left for America. She was accompanied by her husband, Karol Chłapowski, whom she had married in Kraków in 1868. She settled first in Anaheim, where she ran a farm. But the business failed, and the following year she simplified her name to Modrzejewska and moved to San Francisco.

After taking an intensive English course, she made her stage debut at The California Theatre in the title role of Adrianna Lecouvreur. It was a tremendous success, and in a cable to her husband she wrote simply. By 1868 Modrzejewska’s fame had reached Warsaw, and on October 4th she made her first appearance in front of audiences in the capital in the role of Adrianna Lecouvreur. During her last stay in Poland, from 31 October 1902 to 28 April 1903, she appeared on the stage in Lwów, Poznań, and her native Kraków.

On 2 May 1905, she gave a jubilee performance in New York City. Then she toured for two years and ended her acting career, afterward only appearing sporadically in support of charitable causes.

Helena Modrzejewska Family

Modrzejewska was the illegitimate child of Józefa Bendowa (née Misel), widow of a wealthy trader, and an unidentified father. Although she called her mother’s friend, Michał Opid, her father, the rumor at the time was that she was actually the daughter of Duke Eustachy Sanguszko. Her half brothers, Feliks and Jozef, were actors. ‘Modrzejewska’ is a pseudonym which she adopted in the early days of her acting career. Modrzejewska was first sent to study at a boarding school for girls, and then later to a school run by the Presentation Sisters. 

Modrzejewska’s parentage is unclear. Her mother was Józefa (Misel) Benda, the widow of a prosperous Kraków merchant, Szymon Benda.In her autobiography, Modrzejewska claimed that her father was a musician named Michael Opid. The Benda family did employ a music teacher named Michal Opid, who later stood as Helena’s godfather, however Opid did not father Józefa Benda’s two youngest children. There is evidence to suggest that Helena and her older brother Adolf were the results of an affair between Józefa and Prince Władysław Hieronim Sanguszko, a wealthy and influential Polish nobleman. 

Helena Modrzejewska Married Life 

Helena Modrzejewska’s husband Gustave was an actor and the director of a second-rate provincial theater troupe.The date of Modrzejewska’s marriage to Gustave is uncertain. She discovered many years later that they had not been legally married, because he was still married to his first wife when they wed. Together the couple had two children, a son Rudolf (later renamed Ralph Modjeski), and a daughter Marylka, who died in infancy.

Gustaw Zimajer used the stage name “Gustaw Modrzejewski. It was the feminine form of this name that Modrzejewska adopted when she made her stage debut in 1861 as Helena Modrzejewska.Later, when acting abroad, she simplified her name to “Modrzejewska”, which was easier for English-speaking audiences to pronounce. 

The second marriage of the famous Helena Modrzejewska was conducted with Count Karol Bozenta Chlapowski. She married him in the year 1868. It was the same year when she got divorced from her previous husband. Although we know that she married the famous Count, there are no further details about their relationship life and whether this relationship succeeded or not.

At the time of their marriage, Chłapowski was employed as the editor of a liberal nationalist newspaper, Kraj (The Country), which was owned by Adam Sapieha and Mr. Sammelson. Modrzejewska wrote that their home “became the center of the artistic and literary world of Kraków. Poets, authors, politicians, artists, composers and other actors frequented Modrzejewska’s salon.

Helena Modrzejewska, The Brightest Theatre Star

Helena Modrzejewska was not particularly interested in financial gain; she used her wealth for charity, patriotic purposes, and sometimes simply supporting her relatives. When she heard the young Ignacy Paderewski play, she also financed his education in Vienna. She was godmother of the famous American actress Ethel Barrymore. 

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Modrzejewska became the most popular actress in the world – people dressed like her, wore hats like Modjeska, and restaurant dishes were named after her. To this day, you can find numerous items signed with her name – cards, tableware, perfumes, stationery. A mountain and a waterfall in the United States were also named in her honor.

Helena Modrzejewska died in California on 8 April 1909 after a career lasting almost half a century. Funeral ceremonies took place in the United States, but in accordance with her will, she was buried in the Rakowicki Cemetery in her hometown of Krakow.

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