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Modjeska, Helenalocked

(12 October 1840–08 April 1909)
  • Felicia Hardison Londré


Modjeska, Helena (12 October 1840–08 April 1909), actress, was born in Cracow, Poland, the daughter of Jozefa Misel, whose husband, Szymon Benda, a businessman, died ten years before Modjeska was born. Although Modjeska’s paternity is not certain, she was called Helena (originally Jadwiga) Opid, after the music teacher Michael Opid, who lived in the Benda home until his death (c. 1847). She was given private lessons in music from the age of four and attended a local convent school until she was fourteen. The Cracow fire of 1850 left the family destitute until they were befriended by Gustav Sinnmayer, a wealthy Austrian who came to live with them. Under his guidance, Helena spent her evenings avidly studying German and dramatic literature. In theatrical circles Sinnmayer used the name Modrzejewski; thus it was as Helena Modrzejewska that she made her theatrical debut in July 1861 at a charity event in the salt-mining town of Bochnia, where Sinnmayer and she had gone to live when it was learned that she was pregnant. They had a son, Rudolph, on 27 January 1861; it is not known whether they ever married. A daughter, Marylka, was born the following year but died at the age of three....

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