184 – 1909 A.D.
Helena Modjeska, a Polish actress, who after 1876 resided in the United States. Born in Cracow, daughter of Michael Opido, a musician, she was married in 1860 to a manager named Modrezejewski, from the contraction of whose mane comes that by which she is known.
Three years after her husband’s death in 1865, she married Count Bozenta Chlapowski, a Polish politician and critic, and the same year began an engagement at the Imperial Theatre in Warsaw, where she enacted the leading roles for some time. In 1876 political difficulties and ill health led her to go with her husband and others to California, where they established a Polish colony near Los Angeles, but this plan proving unsuccessful, she decided to return to the stage.
After studying English for only a few months, she made her first appearance in San Francisco in 1877 as Adrienne Lecouvreur, and immediately established herself as a tragic actress of the first rank.
During the following years she played in New York and London, and was everywhere acclaimed as a notable impersonator of Shakespearian characters, among them Ophelia, Rosalind, Viola, Imogen, Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth; but she also excelled as Mary Stuart, Camille, Magda and more modern parts, her great natural gifts gaining her a foremost rank upon the American stage, despite the fact that she never used English with ease. In May, 1905, she was given a farewell benefit in New York City at the Metropolitan Opera House, after which she retired to her home in Southern California.
In her autobiography, Memories and Impressions of Helena Modjeska (New York, 1910), she says:
“When I was young, I yearned for fame, but later on all other considerations paled against the enthusiasm of the work itself. I fell in love with my art. To get out myself, to forget all about Helen Modjeska, to throw my whole soul into the assumed character, to lead its life, to be moved by its emotions, thrilled by its passions, to suffer or rejoice – in one word, to identify myself with it and reincarnate another soul and body, this became my ideal, the goal of all my aspirations, and at the same time the enchantment and attraction o my work. I was very often misjudged and misunderstood, oftener yet appreciated by my merits – and yet none of the comments upon my value made me deviate from my aim, which was always the grasping for my ideal, as far as it could be attained, which at the end proved a struggle for the impossible.
“In the keynote of my conceptions was always founded on human sympathy, and I persistently tried to find a redeeming side to the weaknesses and errors of my heroines, whilst, on the other hand, I endeavored in the execution never to lose sight of the aesthetic objects of art. Another advantage I reaped, which zi value most highly, was the privilege I shared with several illustrious countrymen of mine in proving to the outside world that our unfortunate and much-maligned nation, Poland, is always alive, and cannot be relegated to oblivion, as its civilization and art are undeniable tokens of its vitality.”
Reference: Famous Women; An Outline of Feminine Achievement Through the Ages With Life Stories of Five Hundred Noted Women By Joseph Adelman. Copyright, 1926 by Ellis M. Lonow Company.