MEMORY OF FAMED ACTRESS LIVES ON AT
Reprinted from the Los Angeles Times
In between the peaks bordering Modjeska Canyon stands a five-gabled white house on a narrow stretch of flatland along
Santiago Creek. No one lives there now, its twin outdoor fountains empty, its wishing well, once brightly covered with
Gold of Ophir climbing roses, now closed. But as you stand among the live oaks on the grounds, its many paths lined with
rocks extracted from the creek bed, it’s so easy to picture Helena Modjeska as grand lady of the manor here 100 years
She called the estate “Arden” because it reminded her
so much of Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden in his “As
You Like It.” Rosalind, the comedy’s lead, was a role
she’d played many times around the world.
The place has hardly changed since Modjeska’s written
description of her first arrival in Santiago Canyon
(renamed for her), before she asked famed architect
Stanford White to create her gabled home: “The
grounds were closed by a swift creek, and a precipitous
mountain, called Flores Peak. All around, like a living
dark green frame, oaks and oaks, some of stupendous
dimensions. In the distance, mossy rocks and
mountains. The whole picture looked more like
fantastic stage scenery.”
Helena Modjeska is revered in Poland still today as its greatest actress. She moved to
America in 1876, then went on to become this country’s most acclaimed stage star of her
time. Though her life was devoted to the theater, for 18 years her rest and preparation
for the next play came at Arden.
The ranch home saw several owners after Modjeska and her husband, Count Karol
Bozenta Chlapowski, left there in 1906. It was purchased by the county 10 years ago for
$1 million. In the last few years, thanks to the devoted efforts of volunteers from the
Helena Modjeska Foundation, a limited number of tours of the house and grounds have
been held each month.
Arden is one of only two national historic landmarks in Orange County (the other is the
Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda). It may be this county’s most
coveted 14 acres of property, for Arden brings to life the last period before industrial
development transformed Southern California.
Following my recent visit to Arden, where I was led by dedicated docents Ellen Lee and Bette Lindsey, I hurried to the
library to read Modjeska’s autobiography, “Memories and Impressions.” Once you take the tour, you’ll want to do the
same. The book is a must for anyone interested in Orange County’s history.
Most of its pages are devoted to Modjeska’s stage careers in Poland and America. But she also writes lovingly of her
home along Santiago Creek: “All our improvements had for their main object not to spoil what nature had provided. . . .
it was really a very peaceful retreat, far from the turmoil of the world.”
After her death in Newport Beach in 1909, her husband asked two friends to move a huge boulder from the creek to the
front lawn at Arden, where she read her scripts in the shade of a favorite large oak. The boulder bears a plaque inscribed
with her name. The count wanted the memorial for fear that people might forget she had once lived there. He
underestimated our passion for our heroes.
In Pearson Park, off Harbor Boulevard in Anaheim, there’s a
magnificent statue at its entrance. It’s of Helena Modjeska, in one of
her sweeping gowns, playing Mary Queen of Scots. The statue was
dedicated in 1935 with this accompanying plaque: “Famous actress,
Polish patriot, pioneer resident.”
Anaheim has its rightful claim to the actress. It was in Anaheim where
Modjeska and the count first lived, to start a farm colony with other
Polish settlers. It was their failure at farming that led her to return to
the stage and begin the stardom in America she had already
accomplished in Poland.
Krystyna Stamper of Corona Del Mar is a native of Poland, where she says Helena Modjeska is still known not just as a
great name of the stage, but for her devotion to that country’s causes. Like Modjeska, Stamper knows a great deal about
political upheaval in Poland. In 1944, at age 16, Stamper was held for seven months as a prisoner of war for participating
in the Warsaw uprising against the Nazis.
After moving to the U.S., Stamper says, she made her way to Modjeska
Canyon with her children–sometime in the 1960s–because to her Arden was
a part of their own history. She was disappointed they could not get through
the gate. (It was still a private home then, owned by the Charles Walker
After the county bought the estate, Stamper knew she was destined to get
involved with the Helena Modjeska Foundation, to help preserve Arden for
others to enjoy. “It’s so marvelous to be a part of this,” she says.
A few weeks ago a group of Poles asked for a tour. Stamper was surprised
to see among them Jadwiga Narebska, a good friend who’d also been sent
to the prison camp after the Warsaw uprising. The two women hadn’t seen
each other in years.
“I gave the whole tour speaking Polish,” Stamper says. “It was very
emotional for all of us.”
Modjeska was not the only historic figure to live at Arden. Talk about hiring
skills: Theodore Payne was her gardener. He went on to become our most
famous student of native California flora. The internationally known Sun
Valley foundation bearing his name is dedicated to preservation of
The docents showed me the building a few feet north of the Modjeska home, where the count stored his wine and tobacco
on the ground level, and Payne lived in the room above. Payne himself has written with affection about his years at Arden,
and his devotion to Modjeska.
Modjeska writes that she decided to publish her memoirs because “I cannot help thinking that this work, though deficient
in many points, may be of interest to some people, or be of use to others.” How fortunate for Orange County that she did.
But one passage in Modjeska’s book stood out to me: That she felt blessed that her career, and those of other Polish
artists, helped prove “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.”
As I read those words, I couldn’t help but think of Krystyna Stamper and her tour of Arden with her fellow Poles. Is it
any wonder why they love Helena so.