Jul 28, 2014

Getting Away From It All, Modjeska Style

In contrast to El Toro’s fruit growers and ranchers, most of whom lived a brief buggy ride away from the depot, actress Helena Modjeska lived in a remote canyon area—and loved it!

Getting Away From It All, Modjeska Style

Who was the first show business celebrity to establish a home in Orange County?

Some will say John Wayne. Others will tick off a long list of actors and actresses who made Laguna Beach their home in the 1930s and 40s.

But a Shakespearean thespian from Poland has the Duke—and all others—beat in this particular competition.


Soon after El Toro & Before's inception, I dedicated a column to the famous 19th-century actress Madame Helena Modjeska. This was due, in part, to my relative newcomer status when it came to El Toro history—especially in contrast to my years of experience as a volunteer docent at Arden, Modjeska’s former home!

What I already knew, however, was that Modjeska had definite connections to El Toro.  And not only with regards to her frequent arrivals and departures at the El Toro train depot—many of them due to extensive theater junkets throughout the United States—but for other reasons as well.

For example, Modjeska's voluminous mail was received at and sent to El Toro; supplies for her ranch were picked up at El Toro (from both the general store and at the train depot); and, on occasion, when she and her husband, Count Bozenta, hosted parties at Arden, El Toro residents were among the invitees.

It also should be noted that Modjeska, along with Lewis Moulton, James Irvine, and several other prominent residents of the area, are named by Dwight Whiting as references in his promotional booklet, Fruit Farming for Profit in California. 

Anaheim, Tustin, and, in particular, Santa Ana, were growing towns where one could find a burgeoning interest in the cultural arts. But El Toro was the little utilitarian community of ranchers and fruit growers that in many ways personified Modjeska’s love of the simple country life.   


A couple of Tuesdays ago I gave yet another tour at Arden, which is located a few miles off the Modjeska Canyon turn-off along Santiago Canyon. These days that means about a 20-25 minute drive from most points in Lake Forest—including the former "downtown El Toro" area near El Toro Road and the Santa Fe railroad—although in Modjeska’s time it took up to four hours to arrive at Arden, by buckboard, after leaving the El Toro depot.

In the case of my most recent tour, all of the folks were from a south Orange County gardening group. But often the tours are comprised of a mix of people, some from Orange County, others from neighboring areas, and quite often visitors from as far away as Modjeska’s native Poland, where she remains a national heroine. We’ve even had the pleasure of at least one modern-day actress taking the tour, namely Diane Keaton, who not only has her roots in Orange County, but also is interested the preservation of historic buildings.


At this point it should be mentioned that Modjeska’s home in the canyon has its own very interesting pedigree. Upon first view, surrounded by oaks, sycamores, and—surprise!—California redwoods, it appears as a beautiful—many say enchanting—white Elizabethan-style cottage. But once inside, be sure to have your docent point out the portion of the house which was a homesteader’s cabin—the homesteader being Joseph E. Pleasants, who with his first wife, Maria Refugio, built the original structure, plus a nearby stone storage room.

When Modjeska and her husband first came to California they settled in Anaheim. But upon visiting the canyon, at the invitation of Joseph and Maria, they fell in love with the area and decided to go into an agricultural and cattle raising partnership with the Pleasants. A few years later, however, the delicate Maria passed away. In the wake of Maria's death, her grief-stricken widower sold the entire property to his Polish friends. Eventually Modjeska and her husband had a home built around the original structure, the architect being the famous (and ultimately infamous) Stanford White, whom they had met either while in London or New York City.

Although Arden (named for Shakespeare's Forest of Arden in As You Like It) was a working ranch, Modjeska used it as her refuge from the hurly-burly of being one of three internationally renowned actresses of the era. (The others being  Sarah Berhardt and Eleanora Duse.) For while Modjeska obviously loved going before the footlights, often dined with royalty, artists, and authors, and appreciated those who appreciated her work, she also needed rest and relaxation betweeen these pursuits.

Arden was just the place for that rest and relaxation. Far from being a "McMansion," the home is a pleasant country house with numerous window views of the outdoors and doors opening directly out onto porches, balconies, or a veranda from virtually every room. And with good reason, for Modjeska loved the outdoor life.

Whether horseback riding or taking long hikes into the canyon, lazing in her hammock near the west veranda and fountain, walking among her roses as she practiced lines from an upcoming play, or picnicking with her family on the lawn adjacent the house, Modjeska always viewed her "down" time at Arden as a way to rest her spirits and rejuvenate her soul.


Today's visitors to Arden need only call Heritage Hill Historical Park at 949-923-2230 to make reservations. Tours are typically offered on the first and third Tuesdays and second and fourth Saturdays of the month and cost $5 per person.

Visitors may arrive as early as 9:30 a.m. to walk about the grounds, use the restrooms, and take a look at exhibits in the screened porch. At 10 a.m. a short video about Modjeska's life is shown in the screened porch, followed by the tour itself which usually ends between 11:30 and 11:45 a.m.

Want to read more about Modjeska before your visit? Here are two additional sources:

  • An article by Ellen Lee, narrator of that just-mentioned short video. Ellen was the pre-eminent Modjeska historian living in the United States, and was instrumental in having Arden transferred from private ownership to use as a County of Orange historical park.
  • A recently published Modjeska biography, Starring Madame Modjeska: On Tour In Poland and America, by Duke University professor of Slavic and Eurasian studies Beth Holmgren.  

Finally, a quick caveat: Tours are offered every month of the year except December. So, if interested in visiting Arden before the end of 2012, please call immediately! Otherwise, make it your New Year's resolution to visit this unique and picturesque area of Orange County—once the home of one of the world's greatest actresses—sometime soon in 2013.

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