Helena Modrzejewska

* 12.10.1840 (Krakow) 08.04.1909 (Bay Island, California) Poland
Fields of activity: theatre
Author: Elżbieta Brandeburg, Ewa Roślik, Małgorzata Druri

Helena Modrzejewska(BildOK)

»A hundred times better suffer and live than sleep! From Hamlet's To be, or not to be, I say: To be, to be, to be! Gather all the powers of the soul to go still further – and still higher! «

Why I consider this woman to be an important person?

A Polish woman from a country that did not exist on the maps was recognized as the best Shakespearean actress of the world. She was a patriot, she has never lost the contact with the homeland. Apart from the beautiful appearance she had the gift of artistic acumen.
She was a brave woman, ahead of her times. She has become an icon of fashion and style. She gained a large group of followers.
Memories of her life she put in diaries titled “Memories and impressions”.
She earned a fortune, but also devoted a lot of money to charity and to support young artists.


She was born on October 12, 1840 in Krakow as Jadwiga Helena Misel.

Her education started in girl’s school, then in convent school lead by nuns. The nickname “Modrzejewska” she took at the beginning of her career stage. Zimajer Gustav, her life partner and the father of her children, supported her in the initial stages of her career. The relationship with him has enabled her debut on provincial stages.

 She performed in Bochnia, New Sacz, Rzeszow and Przemysl. She soon appeared in cities such as Krakow, Lvov and Warsaw.

In the years 1862-1865 her repertoire was dominated by classical plays written by F. Schiller and J. Słowacki.

When she made her debut at the Government Theatre in Warsaw in 1868, she already was a mature actress. The role of Adrianna Lecouvreur gave her a celebrity status. From now she had the possibility to choose her repertoire.

She dreamed of playing in “Hamlet” by W. Shakespeare. Premiere of this play took place in 1871, and since then Shakespeare had a special place in the repertoire of the actress.

Modrzejewska achieved a huge success in Warsaw, she gained the position of the leading Polish actress. She decided, however, to leave the local scene and together with friends and her husband Karol Chłapowski, emigrated to America. Initially she tried to lead a farm, but after the failure of this project, she returned to the theatre. She studied English intensively and simplified her nickname to “Modjeska”. This allowed a new audience to pronounce of her name.
She made her debut on the stage of California Theatre and in 1877 she set off on the first American tour. She played in New York, Philadelphia and Boston. At the same time she still perfected her acting skills – she trained her not too strong voice, took care of the physical condition and realized her dreams.

 In 1880, she moved to England to play Shakespeare in his native language. She performed there in the years 1881-1885, with success. However, she returned to America, where she hired a train wagon to get to the largest number of viewers. Soon she found followers among American actors.

She made an impression by her lavish way of living – she sometimes stayed in the most expensive hotels, organized great parties, purchased dresses from Paris.  She was a star. She did not forget, however, about Poland. She returned for performances, she supported the Polish artists and provided for her family.

In numerous interviews she spoke about the difficult situation of the country which was not on the map.

In 1893 she was invited to the World Congress of Women in Chicago. She spoke very sharply against the Russian invaders, who did not allow a group of Polish women attend the meeting. This anti-Russian speech meant that she has received a lifetime ban on performances in the Russian annexation and never could appear in Warsaw.

She died at the Bay Island in East Newport, in California on April 8, 1909. Her funeral was held in Los Angeles.

 In the summer of 1909 her body was transported to Krakow and in accordance with her ​​wishes, was buried beside the grave of her mother, at the Rakowicki Cemetery.

Authors: Elżbieta Brandeburg, Ewa Roślik, Małgorzata Druri


  • Józef Szczublewski: Żywot Modrzejewskiej, PIW, Warszawa, 1975.
Picture source: