Helena Modjeska: Pride of the Poles

The great Polish-American actress Helena Modjeska (Jadwiga Benda,1840-1909) was born on this day. Born in Krakow, there is murkiness in Modjeska’s early background, especially with regard to paternity. Her true father may have been the wealthy merchant Szymon Benda (her mother’s husband). Or she may have been the result of an affair between her mother and Helena’s Godfather, the family’s music teacher Michael Opid, or with the nobleman Prince Wladyslaw Sanguszko. When young she married actor and provincial theatre manager Gustaw Zimajer, who used the stage name Gustaw Modrzejewski. Helena used the feminine version of the surname in her own stage name when she made her theatrical debut in 1861, Helena Modrzejewska, which she simplified to “Modjeska” when she later moved west. Modjeska was a hit with regional audiences in Poland. In 1865 she left Modrzejewski and made Krakow her base, rapidly making a reputation as Poland’s; greatest actress. In 1868 she married wealthy landowner Karol Bożenta Chłapowski, who later went by “Count Bozenta” (though he wasn’t a count) when they emigrated to the United States in 1876.

The pair bought a ranch near Anaheim California and attempted to start a utopian community/Polish colony there. Henryk Sienkiewicz, author of Quo Vadis?, was one of its denizens. The venture rapidly failed though, and Modjeska returned to the stage, taking America; by storm, just as she had Poland. She became; known as one of America’s greatest Shakespearean actresses, as well as a prominent interpreter of Ibsen. Modjeska toured all over the United States and today many landmarks; still bear her name, such; as the Modjeska Theatre in Milwaukee, and numerous geographical features in California.