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  • michellebennington

Madam Helena Modjeska

After writing about the famous Kentucky candy, Modjeskas, I became curious about the woman who inspired the caramel-covered marshmallow treat: Madam Helena Modjeska.

The actress was born in Krakow, Poland, on October 12, 1840. She had a younger sister, Josephine, an older brother, Adolf, and several half-brothers. If Helena’s mother had had a Facebook page, under relationship, she’d write “It’s complicated.” And it seems that her mother wasn’t around much since Helena and her sister were raised primarily by their great-aunt Teresa.

Her mother, Jozefa was the widow of a prosperous merchant. Helena claimed that her father was a musician name Michael Opid. However, it’s more likely that Opid was a music teacher employed by the family (which is how the rich were educated back in the day). He did become her godfather, but wasn’t her father. Rather, it seems Helena and her older brother, Adolf, were the products of their mother’s affair with a Polish nobleman, Prince Wladyslaw Sanguszko.

It seems Helena adopted her mother’s penchant for complicated relationships. At some point she married her former guardian, Gustave Sinnmayer. He was an actor and the director of a provincial theater troupe. When they married is uncertain, but they divorced in 1865 when she was around the age of 25. However, she discovered many years latter that her first marriage was illegal because Gustave was still married to his first wife. Their relationship produced two children--a son and daughter, though the daughter died in infancy.

At the age of 21 in 1861, she began acting and changed her surname from Modrzejewski to Modjeska to simplify her name for the stage. In 1865 she tried to get a contract in Viennese theaters, but was unsuccessful since she couldn’t speak German well enough. Later that year, she left Gustave and returned to Krakow with her son Rudolf where she accepted a four-year theatrical contract.

In 1868 she began appearing in Warsaw theaters and stayed for eight years and rose to fame. Later in 1868, she married an untitled landed Polish nobleman, Karol Bożenta Chłapowski, commonly known in America as "Count Bozenta," though he was not a count. In the United States he adopted the stage name "Count Bozenta" for publicity because "Bozenta" was easier than “Chlapowki” for English-speaking audiences to pronounce.

In 1876, though she was wildly popular in Poland, she emigrated to the United States for personal and political reasons. They purchased a ranch near Anaheim, California. Several of their intellectual and artistic friends followed them from Poland to the U.S. where they all intended to live on a cowboy-like existence on a ranch in the hills of California. However, since none of them knew anything about ranching or farming, and they knew very little English, they abandoned their communal project, going their separate ways. Helena then returned to the stage and soon began touring the east coast in 1878. Afterward, she toured overseas from 1879-1882 before returning to the States. In spite of her accent and imperfect English, she achieved great popularity.

Helena became an American citizen in 188, the same year she produced and starred in Henrik Ibsen's “A Doll's House” in Louisville, Kentucky. It was the first Ibsen play staged in the United States.

In 1893, she was banned from tsarist Russia for speaking openly about the Russian oppression of Poland. Several years later, in 1897, she suffered a stroke which resulted in partial paralysis. However, she soon recovered and returned to the stage until her retirement in 1907. Afterward, she appeared only occasionally in support of charitable causes. She died two years later in 1909 at the age of 68 in Newport Beach, California from Bright’s disease--a chronic kidney disease.

It sounds like she had a full, interesting life and was wildly popular. It’s a testament to her fame and the powerful impression she must’ve cast from stage that an immigrant confectioner from Alsace France would want to memorialize her, and perhaps immortalize her, with a delightful candy now known around the world 112 years after her death.


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