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Prominent Poles

Helena Modjeska (Helena Modrzejewska) – Polish-American actress

Portrait of Helena Modjeska, actress

Born:  October 12, 1840, Cracow, Austro-Hungarian partition of Poland (presently Poland)

Died:  April 8, 1909, Newport Beach, California, USA

Early days. Her father was Michal Opid, a high school teacher and musician. Her mother: Jozefa Benda.
Stage beginning.Her love life.In 1861 Helena Opid (Modrzejewska) began working in a theater company led by the actors Konstanty Lobojko and Gustaw Simmayer (Zimajer) who became her lover . For public relations reasons, Lobojko invented (supposedly) the name “Modrzejewski” and was introducing them as a married couple “Modrzejewscy”. They had two children: Rudolf (who later became the famous bridge builder – Ralph Modjeski) and Maryla.
Vienna and Cracow. Marriage.In 1865 Modrzejewska went with Zimajer to Vienna, but she left him soon thereafter and went to Cracow where she played for four years in the theater. While on a tour in Poznan she met a local nobleman, Karol Chlapowski, whom she married in Cracow in 1868. Thank to this marriage she met people from social and intellectual elite. Modrzejewska befriended well known people: dr. Tytus Chalubinski, Stanislaw Witkiewicz, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Adam Chmielowski, Józef Chelmonski, Ignacy Jan Paderewski and others. From 1869 to 1876 she performed in Warsaw Government Theaters and was considered to be the greatest Polish actress.
Departure for USA.Successful tours. In 1876 she left with her husband to Anaheim, California. In 1877, after a successful debut in the California Theater, she acted in many other US theaters (New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington and in many others) and she changed her pseudo from “Modrzejewska” to “Modjeska”. She toured Great Britain in 1880, 1881, and 1885, and where she was very well received. In the US she traveled with her own group in her own railroad car. All together Modjeska made 206 such tours. In 1883 she became US citizen.
Connections with Poland.Starting in 1879 she often visited occupied Poland acting in Cracow, Lwow, Poznan, Lodz, Tarnow, Lublin, Stanislawow and Warsaw. In Zakopane she funded in 1883 a lace school still active. In 1905, on the Ignacy Paderewski initiative, she was publicly honored in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Modjeska ended her acting career in 1907. She died in 1909 and was buried, according to her wishes, on the Rakowicki Cemetery in Cracow. Modjeska appeared in plays by: Slowacki, Schiller, Dumas, Ibsen and others and in particular in many Shakespeare’s plays. She played her roles both in English and in Polish.

Translated and abbreviated from: Teatr Stary
where the following sources have been used
J. Szczublewski, 1959, Helena Modrzejewska na scenie krakowskiej 1865-1869
T. Terlecki, 1962, Pani Helena
Slownik biograficzny teatru polskiego, 1973, v.1
with the permission of Anna Litak, Director of the Museum of the “Stary Teatr “ in Cracow

Other sources:
Biography by Lee

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