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By Jan Siegel
The new exhibit at the Historical Society, opening on Wednesday, May 22, became an interesting story when the San Juan Capistrano connection was found. The new exhibit focuses on the life and times of W.T. Benda.
Wladyslaw Theodor Benda was part of the Golden Era of American illustrators. But he was so much more. He was known as a Western artist; by theater historians as a mask maker; and by vintage poster collectors as a poster artist. He was also an illustrator for many novels of well-known authors, including Willa Cather, for whom he illustrated My Antonia. After seeing his illustrations for the book, Cather stated that no other person could illustrate that book. He set the standard for mask making with his Fu Manchu scary mask, which was used by Boris Karloff in the 1932 movie The Mask of Fu Manchu. “Benda masks” became known all over the world and were used in stage productions, as well as movies. His Katharine Hepburn mask, made for her role of Jade in the 1944 movie Dragon Seed, went on a promotional tour for the film. He created a sea monster for a 1919 film, which is very similar to the monster’s costume in the 1954 movie Creature from the Black Lagoon.
The 1920s opened a new era for women in American culture. In 1919, women won the right to vote and began establishing themselves in culture and politics. The American girl was being portrayed by illustrators such as Charles Dana Gibson, and they became known as Gibson girls. Benda took a more ethnic approach. He added a hint of mystery by giving his illustrations a foreign look heightened by putting women in costumes representing different world cultures. These illustrations appeared in magazines, which were primarily being published for women readers. Many of these readers were immigrants or children of immigrants, and these faces were welcoming and made the reader feel like an American.
Benda was born and raised in Poland and emigrated to the United States with his father and sisters when he was in his twenties. He had already studied engineering and art in Poland and Vienna, Austria. Political upheaval made staying in Poland unacceptable.
And here is the San Juan Capistrano connection. Benda’s aunt, his father’s sister, was Helena Modjeska, the Shakespearean actress and good friend to Judge Richard Egan. Modjeska was known in San Juan Capistrano for attending many social functions hosted by Egan. Benda’s family moved into Arden, the Modjeska home in Anaheim. Working with his aunt, Benda made costumes and props for a production of Cleopatra in which Modjeska was the star. But Benda wanted to become an artist, so eventually, he moved to New York, became part of the Ash Can School, and became a member of the Society of Illustrators and the Architectural League.
Benda was an illustrator for numerous magazines including, Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, Cosmopolitan and, for 30 years, Collier’s. He made masks for notable play writers Noel Coward and Eugene O’Neill.
You can spend a Moment in Time enjoying Benda’s journey at the Historical Society and experiencing a true American success story.
Jan Siegel is a 28-year resident of San Juan Capistrano. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years and has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 18 years. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.