By Marek Żebrowski
Anne Strakacz-Appleton died in Sacramento, California on Friday, 31 July 2015. She was 93 years old. Widow of Louis B. Appleton, Jr., she leaves daughters Amy and Louise, residing in California, daughter Marguerite, a resident of Kansas, and four grandchildren.
Born in Warsaw on 17 March 1922, Anne Strakacz was the only child of Sylwin Strakacz, a career diplomat and longtime secretary to Ignacy Jan Paderewski. Anne’s mother, Aniela Karszo-Siedlewska, came from a very prominent Warsaw family of politicians, doctors and lawyers.
Known to her family and close friends as Anetka, she grew up between Warsaw and Riond-Bosson, Paderewski’s long-time residence near Lausanne, Switzerland. A precocious child, she was articulate and outspoken from an early age. Her mother recalled Anetka’s christening at the Sypniewski estate in Poland in November 1924 (pictured at left). As soon as Anetka was held up by Paderewski, she solemnly enquired if he had his own teeth. This unexpected question elicited gales of laughter, also from her new godfather, who obligingly demonstrated that the teeth were still firmly his.
Educated in the prestigious Miss Platter’s School in Warsaw, throughout her life Anetka was fluent in Polish and French, and later mastered English when she and her family followed Paderewski on his last voyage to the United States in 1940. Throughout the 1930s, Anetka’s spirited presence was much appreciated by Paderewski, especially after his wife died in 1934. Her summer visits in Switzerland gradually extended to a permanent residence as the political situation throughout Europe worsened on the eve of World War II.
As a teenager, Anetka was a direct eyewitness to many truly fascinating events and met a great number of prominent musicians, intellectuals and politicians. Blessed with clear and unfailing memory, she faithfully remembered Paderewski’s piano students (Aleksander Brachocki, Stanisław Dygat, Stanisław Szpinalski, Henryk Sztompka, Albert Tadlewski), Paderewski’s co-editors of the monumental Chopin Edition (Ludwik Bronarski, Józef Turczyński), the visits of Polish politicians associated with the so-called Front Morges political faction (Józef Haller, Wojciech Korfanty, Gen. Władysław Sikorski), as well as many other notables from practically every corner of the world. Conversing with Anetka about almost any topic—history, politics, music or poetry—was always a rare delight, since probing insights and mesmerizing details were invariably forthcoming, oracle-style, practically without prompting.
Just like her father to whom she was especially close, Anetka was a devoted and courageous advocate for Paderewski, her benevolent and ever-present godfather. It became especially true after Anetka’s father died in Los Angeles in 1973, and she resolutely continued the family mission of honoring Paderewski’s good name. Anetka’s dedication to this task was exemplary and unrelenting: her steely wit and unassailable intellect are on full display in an op-ed published by the New York Times in 1990, where in a bravura argument she methodically demolished a myth about Greta Garbo visiting Paderewski in Switzerland in 1938. Over Paderewski’s long and eventful life, there were many wild tales about him and those she could refute, Anetka certainly did. After all, she was there, she met the people, she saw things, and she knew the facts.
Some facts were almost too cinematic and needed no embellishment, like Paderewski’s last moments, witnessed by Anetka and her mother in a New York hotel on a hot June 1941 evening. In his last breath Paderewski’s quietly had asked for a sip of champagne. Indeed, it was exactly like that and, quite possibly in honor of Paderewski’s memory, Anetka always had a chilled bottle of choice champagne on standby for visitors who called on her for decades to come.
After Paderewski’s death, the Strakacz family moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles, where Anetka—with her beauty and unmistakably continental flair—enjoyed a brief acting career in Hollywood and worked as a make-up artist and the main representative for Max Factor in Europe. Endowed with a great singing voice and truly spellbinding stage presence (inheriting her father’s musical talents and her mother’s 1930s glamour), Anetka often performed with such notable Hollywood film composers as Henry Vars or Bronisław Kaper, who accompanied her at the piano.
Also in Hollywood, Anetka met Louis B. Appleton, Jr. (pictured below), a producer, writer and director whom she married in 1949. They were married for 63 years until Louis died in 2013 at the age of 98. Eventually retiring to Rancho Murieta in northern California, Anetka bravely continued to champion Paderewski’s legacy. She gathered a number of memorabilia left to her by Helena Liibke (Madame Paderewska’s secretary who came to live with the Appletons in Rancho Murieta) and cooperated on preserving them with Małgorzata Perkowska at the Institute of Musicology at Jagiellonian University in Kraków as well as with a number of researchers at the Hoover Institution at Stanford and the Polish Music Center at the University of Southern California. This is how young Paderewski’s letters to his future wife were donated to Jagiellonian University, that’s how Hoover Institution over the years has amassed a significant portfolio of Paderewski’s papers, and that’s how Polish Music Center became a repository for many of Paderewski’s personal items, correspondence, photographs and concert programs.
Surrounded by books and still more books, and propped in her favorite, semi-reclined position with an old-fashioned IBM Selectric typewriter on permanent stand-by, Anetka would engage in her other great hobby—writing and translating poetry. This she did almost to the end of her life, patiently correcting proofs and continuing to devour volumes of Polish, French and English poets. Reading well into the night, as was her lifelong habit, she finally fell asleep to the cadence of music and verse that accompanied her entire storied life.
[Photos from the Paso Robles Collection of Paderewski Memorabilia, Polish Music Center USC, Los Angeles. All rights reserved]