Polish Immigrant Created a Utopian Vision During the 1800’s in Orange County and became a famed Shakespearean Actress
Off the Interstate 5 with its shopping malls on either side, the El Toro exit leads to colorful mountains. The road is broad like the great expansive West and when you turn into Modjeska Canyon Road, everything seems to bear the name of Helena Modjeska (1840-1909), including the Modjeska Fire Station and Modjeska Park.
The ranches around this area, with neighboring houses side-by-side, are nothing like the 1,340 acre stretch of land that Modjeska purchased in 1898, leaving her with no neighbors within sight. For that, she hosted many visitors, including the famous musician Paderewski and the Nobel Prize winner for literature, Henryk Sienkiewicz. The guest house next to the main building still remains as well as a house where they had a shop.
Stanford White designed the main house for Modjeska in 1888, the same architect who designed the Washington Square Arch in Manhattan. He also created a library where Modjeska kept her piano; she was an accomplished pianist herself. Stanford never saw Arden, only designed the house. She chose this residence about 11 miles from Anaheim because it reminded her of the environs in Shakespeare’s play As You Like It. She named the property Arden, from the play.
The ranch started off as Helena and her husband’s vision of an agricultural commune. Anaheim at the time was predominantly a German settlement. Modjeska came with her son and her second husband, Count Bozenta. In Modjeska’s own words describing the project, she said: “I pictured to myself a life of toil under the blue skies of California, among the hills, riding horseback with a gun on my shoulder. I imagined all except what was really in store for me.”
Indeed, the project of an agricultural commune failed within six months. Count Bozenta attempted to cultivate bees, but they died. He then planted orange trees, but they withered.
As any good artist or pioneer knows, failure is the seed upon which success grows. Helena needed money and while not speaking a lick of English, she left Arden and traveled to San Francisco to audition for acting stints in order to support the family. Very quickly her talents were recognized, catapulting her into being known as one of the greatest Shakespearean actresses.
We have no recordings of Mojeska’s voice, no movie reels of her performances, only scant black and white photos of her costumes. In the late 1800’s, these things didn’t exist and neither did planes or limousines. Instead, Modjeska traveled by train and then by her own personal pullman where her team brought along all the costumes and props. Modjeska, in this way, traversed the entire span of the United States a total of twenty-six times during one decade, stopping in city and town theaters throughout the country to perform.
With the money Modjeska earned on the stage, she was able to afford some of her dearest things, which above all included building up Arden. Her husband spent most of his time managing Modjeska’s career and traveled with her, but he never gave up the dream of becoming an agricultural man. He wrote copious letters to his wife whenever he remained behind with her son in Arden, saying how their illustrious little one-room palace where they slept had the roof blow off one night due to the Santa Ana winds. Bozenta wanted to create an olive grove, and even created a dam nearby for irrigation, but his trees all died.
For Bozenta, however, all was not lost. America had unshackled him from the partitions of Poland and ushered in Poland’s “Great Emigration” that espoused leaving the country in order to freely practice their own Polish culture.
Modjeska’s gardener also described the communal living at Arden. Theodore Payne said that on the occasion of the joint twenty-third birthday’s of Payne and Johnny Hare (one of the ranch hands) Modjeska and Bozenta hosted a barbecue for eighty people during which impromptu dancing took place. “No where else could this happen. Hospitality and freedom. No social lines or barriers and everyone happy and contented.”
Modjeska also became the first environmentalist in this region when she hired Payne to be the gardener of the grounds. Arden had an abundance of oak trees as well as a big spruce by the fountain outside, snakes, the California lion (or Puma) and more. Payne was a twenty-one year old Scottsman when he got the job. He worked on the property for full room and board as well as thirty-five dollars per month. He also became a California plant enthusiast. He cultivated roses for Modjeska, but he was also interested in California wildflowers. He wrote: “The rapidity with which the wild flowers are decreasing is most damning. If we do not begin to preserve them, the time will come when they will become extinct and live only in history.” Payne became not only a gardener, but also a writer, writing memories of his time at Arden. He went on to own a ranch nearby.
Modjeska continued her acting career well into her sixties. Then in 1908, she and her husband left Arden and purchased a beach cottage on Bay Island in Newport Beach.
Upon her death in California, her remains were sent to Krakow, where the actress is considered an important figure for Polish history.
The Arden House is by appointment only and costs five dollars to get in. Docent tours take you to the wishing well in front of the house, the Bozenta pool, the spruce tree by the fountain, and inside the house where trinkets collected by managers include a bust of Chopin, Modjeska’s piano, her bedroom, Count Bozenta’s bedroom and a kitchen the way it might have looked in her time. You must sign up first and the National Park Service will send you the directions, which are somewhat of an open secret.
Address: 25151 Serrano Rd, Lake Forest, CA 92630
Book Recommendation: Memories and Impressions by Helena Modjeska.
Everything Modjeska: Much in this area commemorates Modjeska and her legacy. The Arden House, of course. Right next to it is the Modjeska Park and the Modjeska Fire Station. The road leading to her house is called Modjeska Canyon Road. The north Peak of Saddleback Mountain is named Modjeska Peak. Go to Anaheim and you’ll find another Modjeska Park. Also, if you travel all the way to Krakow, Poland (well worth the trip) you’ll find the theater dedicated to her in the center of town and her tomb in the Krakow cemetery.