A Visit to the Forest of Arden, 1896
Madam Modjeska’s Home.
At six o’clock Friday morning (March 27th) a part of ten, consisting of Mr. and Mrs. A.H. Clark, Mrs. Tiffany and sister, Mrs. Tannehill, Mrs. Fuller and daughter Estelle, and Mrs. Williams, who rode in Parker’s three-seater, while Misses Flossie Spencer, Estelle Dufford and Clark went in a single carriage. The[y] arrived at the beautiful mountain home at half past ten, after enjoying a cool and most delightful drive.
The three girls had wandered off and had commenced to read a very interesting story, when they heard “dinner, dinner!” and soon all were enjoying a fine cold lunch. Mr. John Hyar, foreman of the place, helped to get rid of some of the dainties.
They then walked in the direction of the lovely home, and found the sign, “No strangers allowed here,” on the large entrance gate, but as Mr. Clark was no stranger, we were soon wandering along the shady paths lined on either side by large, green velvety lawns. The drives are very broad, and are very much shaded by the foliage of the immense old oak trees.
The house is not very large but is tastefully furnished. The floors are covered with matting, and most of the windows are draped with lace curtains. The library is the principal and largest room of the house. An immense rock fireplace takes up almost one side of the room. The other sides are completely lined with shelves of books. In a small recess stands the piano which is square, and further over in the room is a small organ. An ancient mahogany table stands in the centre of the room. It is supported on four large hand-carved lions. It is over four hundred years old, and one that Madam Modjeska brought from her native land, Poland. The color is so dark that it looks almost black. A bookcase, of the same material and also brought by her from Poland, stands in a large and airy dining room.
The library has many large paintings in it. One is the picture representing “Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow,” another of the “Return of the Peasants,” and still another, a life size picture of the Madame. On top of one of the bookcases stands the large mountain lion that most people will remember reading about in The News. Most of the draperies of the room are of Japanese design and many Japanese screens stand in the corners of the room. The furniture is all of willow.
The back of the house is a summer-house of which the floor is cemented.
The grounds are all set out, in olive and orange trees mostly. At about three o’clock the party started on its return journey home, and after gathering many wild flowers arrived at the beautiful little town of Orange at six o’clock. [s] G.C.
– Orange News, April 8, 1896
Helena Modjeska was Orange County’s first international celebrity.
Now, normally I wouldn’t spend a lot of time writing about someone just because they’re a celebrity who happens to live in Orange County. But Madame Modjeska did much more than just live here – she was a big part of the cultural and social life of the county in the early days, and her story is truly unique.
Madame Modjeska was born in Poland in 1840. She came from a family of actors and musicians. She was considered the shy one, but she was determined to go on the stage, and she built a great career for herself.
But in the 1860s and ‘70s, Poland was already under Russian domination, and they controlled – and censored – the theatre.
So Modjeska, and her husband, Count Bozenta, and a group of their artistic friends decided to come to America to find freedom.
They decided to move Anaheim, because they’d heard of the German colony there – and the richness of the soil.
You see, Modjeska was going to retire from the stage, and she and her friends were going to be farmers. They arrived here in 1876 – just in time for a drought – and they quickly learned that they weren’t farmers. They were actors, authors, musicians, artists. After just three months, Modjeska moved to San Francisco, learned English, and in 1877 went back on the stage, touring the United States and Europe.
Modjeska became a huge star. She didn’t play that sort of melodramatic style we think of from the 19th century. She was subtle, more natural. She made her name playing Shakespearean heroines, and was considered right up there with Sarah Bernhardt, and the Barrymores.
(You’d be surprised how often people today say Modjeska was a great operatic star. I guess they just figure anyone with that much class and culture had to sing opera.)
Now in those days, even big stars had to tour the small towns. You couldn’t just perform in New York and San Francisco. And so Modjeska cris-crossed the country by train for weeks on end.
But even as her fame grew, she still remembered Orange County. And one of her few pleasant memories were the visits she and her husband had made into the Santa Ana Mountains, where they’d made friends with Judge J.E. Pleasants, one of the first American settlers in the mountains. He had a homestead up near the top of Santiago Canyon.
So in the 1880s, Madame Modjeska and Count Bozenta began spending their vacations in the Santa Ana Mountains, sometimes living with Judge Pleasants and his wife. Modjeska fell so much in love with the area that she convinced Judge Pleasants to sell his ranch to her. She kept buying more land, and eventually she owned over 1,300 acres.
Now, you may have noticed I said Judge Pleasants lived in Santiago Canyon, and that’s true. But once Madame Modjeska moved in, it didn’t take folks long to start calling that upper end of the canyon Modjeska Canyon. Eventually they even named the north half of Old Saddleback as Modjeska Peak.
Pleasants had just a little cottage in the canyon. But in 1888, Modjeska built an addition that’s probably three times as big as the original house. But Judge Pleasants’ place is still there, on the east end of the house.
Modjeska called her home the Forest of Arden – one of the settings in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” It was her vacation home, and later her retirement home when she stopped touring.
But even in her later years, she would still perform here in Orange County – especially for benefits. And she was friends with many of the local singers, actors, artists, and authors. And, of course, her celebrity friends from her acting days would also come to see her at Arden.
Helena Modjeska was, by all accounts, a truly remarkable woman. Very talented, but very unassuming. Along with her acting, she was a singer and a musician, she designed and sewed elaborate costumes, she was a writer – her memoirs are really quite engaging – and an artist. In fact she wrote and illustrated a story for her grandchildren, whom she loved dearly, that I can only describe as almost a science fiction adventure story full of all sorts of amazing creatures and inventions.
She lived at Arden until 1906, then was briefly in Tustin before moving to a new home on Bay Island in Newport Harbor. She spent her last few years there, dying in 1909. She’s buried in Poland, where she is still considered a national hero.
Her Modjeska Canyon property passed through several hands. For a while, they even tried to make a tourist resort out of the place. But eventually the home and grounds were purchased by the Walker family of Long Beach, who owned them for more than 60 years.
In 1986, when they were finally ready to sell, we were very fortunate that the county stepped in, and agreed to purchase the property as a county park. The house has been restored, and is now a National Historic Landmark. If you’ve never been there, I’d heartily recommend it. You will see almost immediately why Madame Modjeska loved this place so much.