Helena Modjeska: California’s Stage Star

By Gerald MaaNovember 4, 2017

Helena Modjeska: California’s Stage Star
WHEN HELENA MODJESKA died in 1909 at her tiny bayside house in what was then a backwater town, Newport Beach, California, two nations mourned. There were four funerals in all, and all of them were public. When the train bearing her body pulled into Los Angeles, at least 4,000 onlookers gathered to watch her being transported to the first of her several processions. Her funeral tour took her to Chicago, where another throng of locals bid her farewell at the train station, and ended in New York, where there was an ever larger crowd to commemorate her life during an elaborate ceremony at St. Stanislaus Church. These preceded the largest funeral of all, which took place in in the city of Kraków, which was then under Austrian rule. (In the late 18th century, Poland had been partitioned by Austria, Prussia, and Russia.) Among the massive crowd in attendance were elite members of the local and American governments; aristocrats; and the most august members of Polish arts and letters, including her dear friends the Nobel Laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz and the internationally renowned pianist and composer Ignacy Paderewski. She had long been recognized as a key spokesperson for an independent Poland and lionized as the matron of modern Polish arts and letters.

The populace gathered to watch her because they had grown accustomed to it. Modjeska was one of the United States’s most recognizable stage stars. She was the preeminent Shakespearean actress of the late 19th century and arguably the first female celebrity in American culture. Right as she emerged into the American limelight, in the late 1870s, cameras had become cheap and accessible enough to be utilized for mass publicity. Modjeska was one of the first cultural workers whose face and body were plastered, printed, and circulated everywhere in anticipation of herself. Moreover, the theater business exploited recent developments in rail transport to bring theater — and its stars, like Modjeska — to innumerable playhouses from coast to coast. In 1896, the Theatrical Syndicate monopolized the business by revolutionizing theater production. Instead of producing shows in discrete performances, the Syndicate coordinated tours that would transport star actors and actresses to local companies, each of which had its own stock players. The corporation streamlined costs; remote towns like Davenport, Iowa, and Bangor, Maine, would get an occasional star-studded night. The Theatrical Syndicate’s exploitative strategy resulted in a grueling schedule, especially for the banner star. A typical workweek on the road had Modjeska performing five nights, each in a new town, and often doubling up with matinees. Add in time for train travel and rehearsal. Subjected to this schedule, the strong-willed Modjeska made demands of her own: she was the first person ever to travel in a private coach for work.

Modjeska commanded the respect of critics and other cultural figures. Henry James personally requested her to star in one of his dramas. A young Oscar Wilde was so enthralled upon meeting her that he agreed to translate one of her poems, which, as one critic opines, was all the more eloquent for Wilde not knowing a bit of Polish. In a private letter, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow implored her “to count me always among your best friends; always among your devoted admirers.” The formidable American architect Stanford White agreed to design Modjeska’s southern California ranch house, sight unseen, and built Arden, one of Orange County’s two National Historic Landmarks, which you can still visit today. She also has a hagiographic cameo in Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy, as the apotheosis of an old world too noble for the American scene:

By far the handsomest and most distinguished of that company was a woman no longer young, but beautiful in age, Helena Modjeska. She looked a woman of another race and another period, no less queenly than when I had seen her in Chicago as Marie Stuart, and as Katharine in Henry VIII. […] How well I remember those long, beautifully modelled hands, with so much humanity in them. They were worldly, indeed, but fashioned for a nobler worldliness than ours; hands to hold a scepter, or a chalice — or, by courtesy, a sword.

This passage speaks to the aristocratic, cosmopolitan aura that surrounded Modjeska and was the source for much of her American fame. But it is her life before working for the stage that illuminates most clearly the theatrical underpinnings of our national ethos. Modjeska was hardly the first foreigner with a successful stage career in the United States. The Italian Adelaide Ristori and the Czech Fanny Janauschek had been box office successes before Modjeska started her American tours. But Modjeska’s backstory differed from theirs. At the time she left Poland, she had a legitimate claim to being the matron of Polish arts and letters. Not only had Modjeska risen to be the dominant figure of the Polish stage, she and her husband, Karol Bożenta Chłapowski, had also been hosting a weekly salon in Warsaw that served as the meeting place for at least two generations of Polish artists and intellectuals. The gathering spoke of literature and art, but almost always in conjunction with politics. Warsaw was under Russian rule, but Modjeska, Chłapowski, and their guests were all committed to an independent Poland. This is how the United States crept into the picture. Modjeska knew that Warsaw was a venue too small for international recognition. Moreover, she wearied of the bureaucratic harassment that she persistently suffered, working for a public theater in a Russian-controlled city. The United States appealed to Modjeska and Chłapowski for its openness, its wilderness, its promise of a new life.

The lure was too much. Chłapowski, Modjeska, and six other artists and intellectuals finally decided, in 1876, to move to California to start a utopic commune in the land of plenty. They moved to Anaheim, in part to be among German immigrants, since they knew German but not English. At first the Polish homesteaders gloried in their new surroundings, but the thrill did not last long; not a single member of the group had experience of farming or knowledge of husbandry. They had a cow, but had to buy milk and butter, because no one knew how to milk the beast. Crop after crop failed. Their new American life was financially unsustainable, and the commune broke apart.

It was the failure of the utopic dream that pushed Modjeska onto the American stage. She traveled to San Francisco, still knowing no English, in search of income to support her and her husband’s life. Even after attaining a grasp of the language, the unknown actress with a thick accent was not taken seriously. But when the stage manager of the California Theatre acquiesced to a try-out, Modjeska impressed him so much that he offered her a long run as the headline star on the spot. The manager anticipated that the woman’s name, not her accent, would prove to be an obstacle to packing the house. Modrzejewska, her real Polish surname, was too much of a mouthful for the American crowd. The manager sized the name down to Modjeska. Chłapowski too, who agreed with a publicist’s suggestion that he should go by his middle name, Bożenta, because his surname was too unwieldy. (Corroborating evidence can be found on the plaque at Arden that commemorates his death; it misspells his name as “Chalpowski.”) He even consented to appending “Count” to his new surname to signal his noble status, although he didn’t actually hold that title. Thus “Count Bozenta.” The aristocratic, cosmopolitan sheen that Cather so relished and found unworthy of this land was a fiction.

Modjeska’s life exemplifies the spirit of self-invention that success in the theater, in immigration, and in American society seem to require. Indeed, her success is distinctly American. At the height of her fame she decided to give London a try, in hopes of authenticating her Shakespearean chops. There were successes, but all of them relatively minor and fleeting. London was not especially hospitable, and its critics complained of her accent. The freedom that Modjeska and Chłapowski sought out in the United States was, it appears, not entirely mythic. Only there could the actress rise to the heights she soon reached. Modjeska’s first Shakespearean role stateside is remarkable for being bilingual. At the end of her first week at the California Theatre, she was given the role Ophelia with a mere two day’s notice, which strained even her prodigious abilities to learn languages and memorize parts. She pulled it off, and made the inspired choice to keep Ophelia’s madness scene in Polish. Sienkiewicz’s report back to Poland described this as a strategic nationalist gesture, but it was likely born of necessity, since Modjeska had been learning English for only a month at the time. Either way, it must have been a shock, albeit a delightful one, to the Polish contingent that flocked to see their then-national star in their newly adopted town. It was surely no less a shock to the non-Polish American audience, for a different reason, but they too responded with delight, witnessing something new and exotic. This was the first and last of her bilingual performances, but throughout her American career, her foreignness would only add to her mystique and lend greater authority to her performances.

In Modjeska we see a homology between theater and the Californian ideals that drew her to the state — a congruence that predates Hollywood. There is a utopic undercurrent coursing beneath her story, a desire to reinvent oneself, to evolve, to move ever forward. This promise is central to the lure of the proscenium, of celebrity culture, and of the American dream. Though often elusive, in the case of Helena Modjeska — immigrant, homesteader, and theatrical star — it is a promise fulfilled.


Gerald Maa is an editor-in-chief of the Asian American Literary Review. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is currently a PhD student at the University of California, Irvine, studying British Romanticism.

LARB Contributor

Gerald Maa is an editor-in-chief of the Asian American Literary Review. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is currently a PhD student at the University of California, Irvine, studying British Romanticism.


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