Helena Modrzejewska (Modjeska) Biography

Helena Modrzejewska was born on 12 October 1840 in the Free City of Cracow and died on 8 April 1909 in Newport Beach, California, United States.

She is known professionally as Helena Modjeska, a Polish actress who specialized in Shakespearean and tragic roles. She was successful first on the Polish stage.  

After emigrating to the United States, she also succeeded on stage in America and in London. And also a successful writer, she authors books like Memories and Impressions of Helena Modjeska: An Autobiography, Letters to Emilia: Record of a Friendship

Helena Modrzejewska was a legendary Polish actress who was known for her tragic roles and specialized in Shakespearean. As she was popularly called, Helena Modjeska was a successful actress in her home soil, Poland, before emigrating to the United States of America even though her command of English was poor.

Helena didn’t only succeed on the Polish stage. She also carved her name on a ceramic wall on stage in the US and UK.

Modrzejewska was the child of Józefa Bendowa (née Misel), a wealthy trader without a child. Her [Modrzejewska] father is not documented until now, and she was referred to as an illegitimate child of the widow.

Even though Helena addressed Bendowa as her mother’s friend, Michal Opid, her father, rumoured that her father was “Duke Eustachy Sanguszko.” Helena Modrzejewska’s half brothers, Feliks and Jozef, were actors.

Meanwhile, her real name is Helena Modjeska, while she adopted Helena Modrzejewska as her stage name. So, she’s known for both names, but professionally, she’s called Helena Modjeska.Helena Modrzejewska

Helena Modrzejewska Early Life

Helena Modrzejewska [Helena Modjeska] was born on the 12th of October 1840 in Kraków, Poland. As recorded at birth, Helena’s name was “Jadwiga Benda”. But, she later changed her name to “Helena Opid” after baptism when she was baptized under her godfather’s surname, Michal Opid.

There is a cloud revolving around her father, but her mother was “Józefa (Misel) Benda”, who was a wealthy widow, Kraków merchant, Szymon Benda. However, Helena claimed that Michael Opid, a musician, was her father.

However, the Benda family employed a music expert, Michal Opid, who Helena claimed to be her father but was not the father of her two siblings, Józefa Benda’s children.

If the evidence surrounding the birth of Helena and Adolf, her brother, Helena and Adolf could be from the same father, Prince Wladyslaw Heironim Sanguszko, who was a wealthy and influential Polish man at that time.

Helena’s mother, Józefa, also had other children, Helena’s half-brother and a sister, Josephine, from Józefa’s first marriage.

Modjeska was neither raised by her mother nor her father. It was in the known that Teresa, her great-aunt, raised Helena and Josephine.

Helena Modrzejewska Husband

Helena Modrzejewska’s husband, Gustave Sinnmayer, is an actor and a director. He directed a “second-rate provincial theatre troupe, and he was recorded to be her former guardian.

However, when Helena got wedded wasn’t certain and later discovered that she wasn’t married to Gustava legally because he was yet to dissolve his marriage with his first wife when they got married.

They had two children, a son, Rudolf and Marylka, a daughter. Rudolf’s name was later changed to Ralph Modjeski.

Modjeska debuted her stage acting in 1861 and used the stage name Helena Modrzejewska while Gustaw Zimajer adopted the feminine form of Modjeska, Gustaw Modrzejewska.

This stage name makes a name for Modjeska on the Polish stage. However, on relocation to the United States, she stuck to Modjeska because of her English audience.Helena Modrzejewska

Helena Modrzejewska Career

Helena Modrzejewska started her stage acting career in Polish before emigrating to the United States. During her eary career, she played roles in Bochnia, Nowy Sącz, Przemyśl, Rzeszów and Brzeżany.

Modrzejewska played her first romantic drama as “Skierka” in 1862 in “Juiusz Slowacki’s Balladyna”, in Lwów. And in 1863, a year after she first appeared on the Lwów stage, she appeared in Stanisławów and Czerniowce, where Słowacki offered both roles.

However, in 1865, Helena couldn’t secure a contract with Viennese theatres due to her poor command of the German Language. Later in 1865, Helena left Zimajer and returned to Kraków with her son, Rudolf.

And in 1868, Modjeska started appearing on the Warsaw stage after accepting a four-years theatrical contract. She spent 8 years in Kraków and was regarded as one of the actresses who rose to stardom.

On the 20th of August 1877, Helena Modrzejewska made her debut at the California Theatre in San Francisco as Modjeska in the English version of Ernest Legouvé’s Adrienne Lecouvreur. She was later signed for a tour on the east coast by the theatrical agent, Harry J. Sargent.

In an attempt to improve her English and land more English roles on stage, she spent three years on London soil and returned to the stage in America in 1882.

Helena achieved great success in the UK despite her poor command of the English Language. While climbing the ladder to success, she played nine Shakespearean heroines, Marguerite Gautier in Camille and Schiller’s Maria Stuart. And 1883, she was given her American citizenship card.

She went ahead to produce Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in Louisville, Kentucky, which was the first Ibsen play staged in the US. And she was recognized as the leading female interpreter of Shakespeare on the American stage in the 1880s and 1890s.

Helena Modjeska was invited as a speaker in a women’s conference at the “Chicago World’s Fair” in 1893, where she staged the situation of Polish women in the Russian and Prussian-ruled parts. After the conference, she was banned from travelling to the Russian territory. In 1897, she had a stroke, recovered after a short period and return to acting.

Helena was rewarded with a jubilee performance in New York City on the 2nd of May 1905 and ended her acting career in 1907 after she toured for two years.

Helena Modrzejewska Modjeska [Ukraine Career]

Modjeska appeared for the first time before the Lviv, Ukraine, in 1862, where she earned the Lviv theatre contract following the three roles she played, including her role as Skierka in Slowacki’s drama Balladyna.

She moved one from Lviv in 1863 and went to stage on Stanislavov stage [Ivano-Frankivsk] and Chernivtsi.” She played the “Titular role” of Barbara Radziwiłłówna in Alojzy Felinski’s tragedy.

She also cast “Louisa” role in “Friedrich Schiller’s Intrigue and Love.” In Juliusz Słowacki’s Mazepa, she cast Amelia, and in Słowacki’s Maria Stuart, she cast Mary Stuart.

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Helena lives in America.

After emigrating to America, Modrzejewska and her husband bought a ranch not far from Anaheim, California, United States.

A few of their friends, like Julian Sypniewski, Łucjan Paprowski, and Henryk Sienkiewicz, accompanied Helena and her husband to their new ranch in California.

Her friend, Sienkiewicz, wrote his Charcoal Sketches and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1905. A few others came, but their plans were intact.

Modrzejewska’s Most Important Role

Modrzejewska played several roles on stage during her early career and after she became famous. However, before she died, her most notable roles included the following.

  • Anna Oswiecimowna in Mikołaj Boloz Antoniewicz (1865)
  • Princess Eboli in Don Carlos (1866)
  • Amalia in Schiller’s The Robbers (1866)
  • Her first Shakespearian role as Portia in The Merchant of Venice (1866).
  • Ophelia in Hamlet
  • Doñe Sol in Victor Hugo’s Hernani

Modrzejewska’s roles in Eugene Scribe and Ernest Legouve’s Adrianna Lecouvreur were major breakthroughs in her career.

Helena Modrzejewska Death


Helena Modrzejewska died on the 8th of April 1909 at 68, 12 years after she had a stroke and was partially paralyzed. Helena died of Bright’s disease, which affected her kidney.

After her death, her remains were sent back to her home town, Kraków, and she was buried at the Rakowicki Cemetery, Poland.

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