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Helena Modrzejewska (1840–1909) was a remarkable actress, a great legend of the Polish theatre and a star of two continents. She was famous for her beauty, talent and generosity. Not only was she an extraordinary artist, but also an ardent patriot and philanthropist.
Modrzejewska was born in Kraków; gossip had it that her father was Duke Eustachy Sanguszko. She made her debut thanks to the recommendation of actor Gustaw Zimajer, who enabled her to make a debut appearance in 1861 in Bochnia. He was soon to become the father of her children (their daughter died tragically in childhood, and their son Rudolf – also known as Ralf Modjeski – became an acclaimed American bridge constructor). After four years of acting in provincial theatres, Modrzejewska ran away from Zimajer, and from 1865 was a successful actress in the Kraków theatre. In 1868-1876 she performed in Warsaw, where she quickly rose to stardom. Together with her husband, Count Karol Chłapowski, she moved to America. As Helena Modjeska, she acted in many American theatres, giving triumphant artistic tours. However, she did not forget her home country and travelled every year to give guest performances – usually to Lvov and her native Kraków, where she became engaged in raising money for the construction of a new theatre (currently the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre). Later on, she performed on this stage on many occasions, enthralling the audience with her famous roles, e.g. the Shakespearean Lady Macbeth, Maria in Warszawianka by Wyspiański, Maria Stuart by Słowacki according to Schiller and The Lady of the Camellias by Dumas. Modrzejewska gave her last performances in Poland in Kraków in 1903. She died at her mansion in California and was buried at the Rakowicki Cemetery in Kraków.