Sonja Henie: Queen of the Ice
Sonja Henie is a legend--in the world of sports, and in Hollywood.
With her Scandinavian good looks, dimpled smile, and perky demeanor, Henie attracted a legion of fans, and became one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood. Sonja Henie changed the world of figure skating forever, and will always be remembered for her talent, as well as her pioneering spirit.
Henie won the gold medal in Ladies Figure Skating not one, but three times in a row--in 1928, 1932, and 1936. Her record, of three Olympic, and ten World titles, remains unbroken to this day.
Henie single-handedly transformed the face of figure skating forever, turning it from a ho-hum sport into a glamorous form of entertainment sought after by the public. Due to her cutting-edge innovations, presented in the form of ice shows and feature films, audiences everywhere clamored for this new venue of entertainment. When Henie brought her new skating style to Hollywood, she became one of the most popular stars of the day, second only to Shirley Temple and Clark Gable.
Sonja Henie presents Shirley Temple with ice skates, 1936.
At 15, Henie was youngest woman to ever win an Olympic gold medal; her record remained unchallenged until 1998, when Tara Lipinski (by 32 days) won the gold medal in Women's Figure Skating.
Oslo, Norway--Birth Place of Sonja Henie
Who is Your Favorite Female Figure Skater of All Time?
The Gift of Athleticism and Endurance
Sonja Henie was born into a wealthy home in Oslo, Norway on April 8, 1912, Her parents were prosperous furrier, Wilhelm (a one-time world class cycling champion), and Selma, both products of inherited wealth. Henie exhibited signs of athletic prowess from an early age, inheriting an athlethic physique and a highly competitive spirit from both parents.
Henie excelled at many sports, including skiing, swimming, tennis (she was nationally ranked), automobile racing, and horseback riding. She was also highly competent in ballet.
Henie began taking ballet classes at the age of five, and put on her first pair of skates at the age of six. Her brother, Leif, taught her how to skate.
Once Henie became serious about figure skating, her parents hired the very best trainers for her, including the famous Russian ballerina, Tamara Karsavina. Henie saw Anna Pavlova (considered by many to be the greatest ballerina of all time) perform in 1927. Greatly inspired, she incorporated ballet moves and choreography into her figure skating routines, most notably, toe dancing. Hennie's most memorable number, "The Swan," was a tribute to her idol. Other crowd-pleasing favorites included her "Hula-Hula" dance and the "tango."
Henie's many innovations succeeded in transforming figure skating from a stuffy sport into a respected art form. Instead of wearing the traditional dress of the day--a cumbersome, ankle-length black skirt, worn for warmth as well as modesty, Henie introduced the short skirt, and revolutionalized skating forever. Henie's sassy, short skirt enabled her to perform jumps and other daring moves (double axels, twirls, spins, and jumps) which had previously only been done by men.
Henie's avant-garde skating costumes, designed by her devoted mother, Selma, made her stand out from the crowd. To top it all off, Henie opted for flashy white skates in lieu of the black ones used at the time.
Sonja Henie as "The Swan"
"Don't let Sonja Henie's dimpled baby face fool you. Sonja is a girl who knows what she wants and usually gets it."— Author unknown
The Norwegian Wonder's Rise to Fame
Throughout her early career, Henie's parents saw that she received nothing but the very best in training; among her coaches were career professionals, Martin Stixrud, Hjordis Olsen, and Oscar Holte. Sonja, who traveled extensively when competing, was also coached by various European coaches. Later on, she was coached in London by the American, Howard Nicholson.
The irrepressible Henie quickly moved up the ranks. At the age of eight, she won Norway's junior-level competition; at the age of ten, she won the Norwegian National Championship. By 1924, at only eleven years old, she competed in her first Winter Olympics, but ended up in last place, due to her poor showing in compulsory figures, which at that time counted for sixty percent of the score. The percentage requirement for compulsory figures would be gradually reduced, until their eventual elimination from International competition after 1990.
After her failure at the 1924 Olympics, a crushed Sonja Henie vowed never to lose again, and she didn't. Driven in her quest to obtain the gold medal, she upped her training to seven hours a day; her intense regimen paid off: In 1927, she won her first (of ten) World Figure Skating Championship. In 1928, at the age of fifteen, a very determined young Henie not only won the 1928 Olympics, she went on to win the 1932 and 1936 Olympics as well--for a grand total of three years in a row. Henie also won six successive European Championships (1931--1936), Her record remains unrivaled to this day.
Sonja Henie at the 1924 Winter Olympics
Sonja Henie on the Cover of "Time" Magazine, 1939
Sonja Henie on Modern Screen (March, 1942)
The Hitler Connection
Due to her celebrity status, Henie moved in the same social circles as royalty and heads of state. It was inevitable that she would become a favorite of the German people, including the infamous Adolph Hitler.
During an exhibition to Berlin (prior to the 1936 Olympics), Henie was sharply criticized for greeting Hitler with a Nazi salute. Although Henie was careful not to repeat her faux pas, she did accept Hitler's invitation to lunch, at his home in Berchtesgaden. It was there that Hitler presented Henie with an autographed photo of himself, personalized with a lengthy inscription.
Upon entering Henie's home during the German occupation of Norway, the Nazis encountered Hitler's inscribed photo, prominently displayed. Taken aback, they immediately ceased their intended mission of confiscating and destroying Henie's property.
Henie held on to her Nazi connections after making her first film, "One in a Million," and personally made arrangements with Joseph Goebbels for its release in Germany.
After the war, Henie's countrymen looked upon her as a "Quisling" (betrayer); nevertheless, she made a triumphant return to Norway with her "Holiday on Ice" tours, in 1953, and 1955.
Hollywood, Here She Comes!
In 1936, Sonia Henie turned professional, and began touring the country in ice shows. Figure skating, which had never before been presented to the public as a form of entertainment, became the newest sensation. Henie was billed as "Pavlova of the silver skates." She later joined up with Arthur Wirtz, touring in the highly successful "Hollywood Ice Revue."
As a young girl, Henie had already made plans to go to Hollywood and become an actress (when her Olympic career ended), which she did. Never once did it occur to her that her thick accent might be a deterrent to her success. On the contrary, her Norwegian accent seemingly made her more endearing in the eyes of the public.
Her father cleverly arranged for her to skate in an ice show in Los Angeles, adeptly catching the eye of Darryl F. Zanuck (of 20th Century Fox), who quickly signed Henie to a five-year movie contract. Her first feature, "One in a Million," was a huge success. Just as shooting was about to begin on "Thin Ice," her beloved father (who was also her advisor, and manager) died. Henie bravely carried on, minus the support of her father.
Henie went on to make a total of eleven films in Hollywood, appearing with the likes of Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, Cesar Romero, Adolphe Menjou, and John Payne. Her first six films were her most successful. By the end of the 1930s, Henie was one of the most popular actresses in Hollywood. Her last film, "Hello London," made in 1958, was solely released in England.
In 1938, Henie published her autobiography, Mitt Livs Eventyr. In 1940, it was translated and released as Wings on My Feet. A revised edition was published in 1954.
In 1941, Henie became a naturalized American citizen. She continued to live in America until 1956, when she moved back to Norway with third husband, Niels Onstad.
A shrewd business woman, Henie branched out into many profitable endeavors. In addition to touring in ice shows, she also had her own portable ice skating rink, a Zamboni ice machine, and the hugely successful Sonja Henie Ice Skating School. Henie profited from her endorsements of products such as dolls, clothing, and ice skates. She had investments in apartment buildings in Chicago, ice skating rinks, a ranch in Arizona, and a liquor business. By the age of twenty-six, Henie was a millionaire; by the late 1940s, she was one of the richest women in the world.
Sonja Henie Movie Posters
Sonja Henie and Tyrone Power in "Thin Ice" DVD
Sonja Henie and John Payne in "Iceland," 1942
Sonja Henie Videos
Sonja Henie Documentary
Sonja Henie in traditional Norwegian costume from "Happy Landing," 1938.
So--what do you think of Sonja Henie?
"Jewelry takes people's minds off your wrinkles."~~Sonja Henie
Her Personal Life
Henie was married three times: the first two were Americans Dan Topping (1940--46), and Winthrop Gardiner Jr.(1949--56); her third husband, whom she married in 1956, was Niels Onstad, a wealthy Norwegian shipping magnate and patron of the arts.
Henie had several affairs: with her skating partners, Stewart Reburn and Jack Dunn, as well as her co-stars and other celebrities (Tyrone Power, Van Johnson, and Joe Lewis).
When Henie retired in 1956, she and husband, Niels, settled in Oslo. Although their personalities often clashed, they found a like-mindedness in their love of art, turning it into a hobby. Together, they amassed an extensive collection of modern art, which they donated to a public trust in 1961. Their collection is currently housed in the Henie-Onstad Art Centre at Hovikodden in Baerum near Oslo.
After Henie's death, her brother, Leif, wrote a tell-all book about her titled, Queen of Ice, Queen of Shadows, along with Raymond Strait. The book details Henie's personal life as seen by Leif.
Queen of Ice: Queen of Shadows book
I own this book, and found it to be a real page turner. Written by Sonja's brother, Leif, and Raymond Straight, this book gets down to the nitty gritty of Sonja's life by someone who saw firsthand what went on behind closed doors. A fascinating read that that supports the age-old adage that things aren't always what they seem.
Dark Days and the Tragic End of a Champion
In 1950, Henie, pressured by her second husband, Winthrop Gardiner Jr. (who, unfortunately, butted into Henie's business affairs), made an ill-fated decision to end her contract with Wirtz over a salary dispute. She was replaced by new Olympic champion, Barbara Ann Scott.
Henie confidently set out on her own, touring in her new show, "The Sonja Henie Ice Review," but it was unsuccessful. Wirtz had a monopoly on all the best arenas and dates, so Henie was left to present her show in second-rate arenas and venues, and if that wasn't enough, since the time and location of the "Hollywood Ice Review" often coincided with her own show, she frequently found herself competing with Wirtz.
Just when things started looking up, tragedy reared its ugly head. In 1952, at a show in Baltimore, Maryland, a section of bleachers collapsed, and 400 spectators were injured, adding to Henie's already escalating financial and legal woes.
In 1953, Henie formed a partnership with Morris Chalfen, appearing in his European "Holiday on Ice" tour. It was a big success.
In 1956, Henie ventured out on her own again, producing her own show at New York's Roxy Theater. During her subsequent South American tour, she was again in trouble, due to her heavy drinking. This marked the beginning of her retirement.
In the mid 1960s, Henie was diagnosed with leukemia. She died on a flight from Paris to Oslo on October 12,1969, at the much-too-young age of 57. She was survived by husband Niels (and his three sons), and brother Leif. Henie never had any children.
Fittingly, Henie, and husband, Niels, are buried together on a hill in Oslo, overlooking the Henie-Onstad Art Centre, which was donated by them in 1968. Inside is housed their treasured modern art collection, as well as her awards and memorabilia, for all the world to enjoy.
Although Henie's bright star was extinguished many years ago, her legacy continues to live on--not only in memory, but visually as well. Aren't we fortunate to be able to access YouTube, cable, or our own movie collections and watch our "queen of the ice" anytime we want?
Sonja Henie in Fancy Costume with Feathers
Sonja Henie Wowing the Crowd at an Ice Show
Sonja Henie & John R. Walsh in the 1950s
John R. Walsh was Henie's partner in her "Hollywood Ice Review" tours from 1950--1953.
In her first ice shows Henie went solo, but soon included a skating partner to add pizazz to the show.
Other partners over the years included: Jack Dunn (1936--1938), and Steuart Reburn, who was her touring partner from 1939 until the outbreak of WWII. Reburn also appeared with Henie in her 1939 feature, "Second Fiddle."
It's a Pleasure DVD
Sonja Henie Movies are fun to watch, especially if you're a fan of figure skating and classic movies, as I am. I especially love the lighthearted humor and fun escapades inherent in her films. It's a Pleasure, Henie's only color feature, takes a more serious approach as Chris Lenden (Henie) battles to keep her alcoholic husband (michael O'Shea) from destroying himself.
Sonja Henie won over 500 awards & medals during her career
Other Awards & Honors
~~~ In 1938, at the age of 25, Sonja Henie was made a Knight First Class of the Order of St. Olaf by King Haakon of Norway, the youngest person to ever win that honor of distinction.
~~~ In 1976, Sonja Henie was inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame.
~~~ In 1982, Sonja Henie was inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame.
~~~ Sonja Henie has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
1927 ~~ Syv dager for Elisabeth (skater)
1936 ~~ One in a Million ~~ Greta 'Gretchen' Muller
1937 ~~ Thin Ice ~~ Lili Heiser
1938 ~~ Happy Landing ~~ Trudy Ericksen
1938 ~~ My Lucky Star ~~ Krista Nielsen
1939 ~~ Second Fiddle ~~ Trudi Hovland
1939 ~~ Everything Happens at Night ~~ Louise Norden
1941 ~~ Sun Valley Serenade ~~ Karen Benson
1942 ~~ Iceland ~~ Katina Jonsdottir
1943 ~~ Wintertime ~~ Nora Ostgaard
1945 ~~ It's a Pleasure ~~ Chris Linden
1948 ~~ The Countess of Monte Cristo ~~ Karen Kirsten
1956 ~~ Holiday on Ice (TV movie)
1958 ~~ Hello London (herself)