Actress in Arden

By Fish, Peter | Sunset, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Actress in Arden


Fish, Peter, Sunset


* The journey to Arden begins in contemporary Orange County, California--that affluent kingdom of gated communities and view homesites. But as the highway climbs into the Santa Ana Mountains, the world grows less tame. In a side canyon, you cross and recross a trickling creek, and the air fills with the scent of bay laurel. Out of nowhere the great house appears, rambling, white, half-hidden behind oaks.

"How did a Polish actress even find this place?" asked another visitor the morning I arrived.

Long ago an actress did. Her name was Helena Modjeska, and she was born in Krakow in 1840. By age 30 she had joined a troupe of itinerant players, married a Polish aristocrat with ardent democratic leanings, and become the leading actress of the Warsaw stage. A full life, one might say, but it was only the first act.

"Those privileged to know Modjeska never forgot her," says Orange County historian Ellen Lee, who has spent a good bit of her life tracing Modjeska's. Restless in Poland, Modjeska and her Count Bozenta shared a dream of emigrating to America: he to found an agricultural colony, she to act. That was what brought them to Orange County in 1876.

When you visit the Modjeska estate today, one of the first things you hear is the story of the couple's early months in California--a heroic story, in its way, but also comic. The Polish emigres who accompanied them were undoubtedly cultured-one, Henryk Sienkiewicz, went on to win a Nobel Prize in literature-- but farmers they were not. "The most alarming feature of this bucolic fancy," Modjeska would recall in an autobiography, "was the rapid disappearance of cash and the absence of even a shadow of income."

It was Modjeska's dream that blossomed. She traveled north to San Francisco, learned English, and began auditioning. Through talent, beauty, and phenomenal hard work, she became a star of the 19th-century American theater.

"It was the golden era of the American stage," Lee says. "Before the movies. Before television. People of all classes really did go to the theater." Crisscrossing the continent by railroad, Modjeska played opposite Edwin Booth and Maurice Barrymore, acted in New York and Chicago but also in Leadville, Colorado, and Virginia City, Nevada. She was Camille and Ophelia, and she was Nora in the American premiere of Ibsen's A Doll's House. …

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