Helena Modjeska

“Whether it is the beautiful that brings to our hearts the love of truth and justice, or whether it is the truth that teaches us how to find the beautiful in nature and how to love it, in either case art does a noble work.”

Helena Modjeska, Polish-American actress, 1840-1909

Helena Modjeska was Poland’s greatest actress, and one of the most interesting and talented of her generation. She was a much-loved pioneer resident of Orange County, California from 1888 until her death in Newport Beach in 1909. The north peak of Saddleback Mountain is named Modjeska Peak and the portion of Santiago Canyon in which she and her husband lived is now called Modjeska Canyon. Modjeska played 260 roles over her career, 95 of them Shakespeare.  

The illegitimate daughter of a widowed musician, Modjeska’s father was never determined, however he was rumoured to have been a Duke. After attending a boarding school for girls, she married an actor, Gustav Modrzejewski, and they joined a company of strolling players. Following his death, Modjeska married Count Bozenta Chlapowski, a politician and critic, and began to act in Warsaw where she became a true star. Starring as Ophelia, she brought Hamlet to Poland for the first time in 50 years.  

Intelligent and graceful, calm and poised, her acting technique was in contrast to the more melodramatic style of the times. Her technique was further augmented by her magnetic personality, which held audiences in rapt attention, and her versatile repertoire spanned comedy, drama, and tragedy. 

Modjeska moved to the United States accompanied by her husband, settling on a ranch in Anaheim, CA. The ranch business failed due to drought and they relocated to San Francisco. After learning English, Modjeska made her stage debut at The California Theatre in the title role of Adrianna Lecouvreur. She received a standing ovation and was called back to the stage 11 times, according to the Polish press. Modjeska became a U.S. citizen in 1883 and went on twenty-six tours with the theatre company, travelling for nine months at a time by railroad, steamship and carriage. By now a living legend the world over, she toured in London and New York in such notable roles as Lady MacBeth. Her home and garden in Santiago Creek is a National Historic Landmark.


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