Fourth grade. Early 1970s. Encouraged by his Polish-German mother, the young Bibliofella made the serious mistake of announcing his proud heritage at elementary school, just as so-called “Polack jokes” arrived to poison the zeitgeist, no doubt some sick temporary psycho-social transference move by non-Polish white people from hating more obviously vulnerable minorities. That particular behavior was being officially discouraged even as anti-busing reactionaries did their thing and everybody looked forward to Howard Jarvis, the odious Prop 13, Ronald Reagan and destroying public education.
My late mom was a World war II refugee from first German, then Russian-occupied Poland. Reoccupation, if you count the previous decades of Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Prussian oppression. And believe me, the Poles do. The Nazis issued her mixed-ethnic family an Aryan-sounding surname and shot her playmates.The Soviet Russians gave Poland more hell, none of which Mom really wanted to talk about. So, between the verbal bullying and the maternal neurosis, young Master Bib worked up plenty of adolescent confusion, anger and self-hatred re all things Polish, not to mention an impossible aversion to cabbage.
Fast-forward to redemption in the happy irony of living today next door to the home
Madame Mo was big, friends. How big? A hundred years later you can still buy a “Modjeska” caramel-marshmallow candy. So inspired by her 1883 performance as Rosalind was the Bauer's Candy Company of Louisville that they created a “Kentucky Modjeska,” which now sounds like a racehorse or porn star handle. (I wonder what confection today's sexy and talent stars merit. I like to imagine savoring a chewy Winslet or a creamy Jolie or, yes, even a rich, dark Clooney. Yum.)
The candies, the long dresses, everybody standing around with canes and parasols on Arden's stage-like front porch waiting, they imagined, for “Indian maidens” to come down from the hills to hear poetry recitals reminds us that things are never what they seem. In fact, as detailed in the book I am about to recommend (I promise!), Madame struggled hard to get to the top of her thespianic game, free up the Poles, start a commune with fellow bohemians on a ranch in Anaheim. They tried growing crops and raising livestock, but everybody sat around smoking, drinking coffee and talking liberation politics instead of tilling the fields and milking the ungulates. Built on Madame's flimsy romantic fantasy of a golden land, it failed. Or maybe the Indians didn't like the poems.
Broke, the acclaimed actress hit the road again, on a world tour doing more Shakespeare and Ibsen, raising money for Polish charities and being adored by people with a sweet tooth. Her eccentric husband, Count Bozenta, a nice enough guy who liked making the same mistakes over and over again, bought them their own place next to the river and my future home, but soon gave up on olive trees and goats and just stuck to quietly making his Helena happy. He did.
There's more, including her humble beginnings, stage career, famous son and quiet death in Newport Beach. Memorialized, celebrated, commoditized, whatever, Modjeska today has somehow still disappeared from public consciousness (despite the big mountain), popping up in Susan Sontag's novel In America (see OC Bookly, week 1) and whenever there's a fire or mudslide out here and some dumb-ass TV reporter calls where we live Majestic (sic) Canyon.
Now that I've detoured this week's literary trip through my own autobiography and yet still helpfully reviewed the basics, let's finally get to Starring Madame Modjeska: On Tour in Poland and America by Beth Holmgren, shall we? Holmgren is a professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke, and her contribution to Modjeskiana arrived as a holiday gift from the county ranger who is my neighbor, friend and actually works at Arden, which you can visit if you make reservations.
Starring is not only Madame's story as an actress but of Polonia, the theater and Old Orange County, too. Probably you'll go right to the valuable chapters on her life at the failed commune and in the tiny mansion under the oaks and sycamores, and dig the photographs. Helena and the Count threw a lot of parties there. She rested up, walked the tree-lined paths while memorizing her lines, and hosted old friends, like English-born Theodore Payne, later to achieve renown identifying and preserving California native plants and writing another OC must-read,Life on the Modjeska Ranch in the Gay Nineties. Among other artists she hung with were piano man and Polish prime minster Paderwski and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz of Quo Vadis fame, who documented much of Madame's life himself, sitting out on the porch of Arden and, as it were, in the front row of the theater-as-life created by this world-class artistic emissary and ambassador of Polish liberation.
Starring Madame Modjeska: On Tour in Poland and America, Beth Holgrem, Indiana University Press, 432 pp., $39.95
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.