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14 July 2012

Sonja Henie

Petite and glamorous Sonja Henie (1912 – 1969) was one of the greatest figure skaters in history, the ‘Pavlova of the ice’. She won more Olympic and World titles than any other ladies figure skater. At the height of her acting career, the Norwegian figure skater and film star was one of the highest paid stars in Hollywood. She had a shrewd business sense, and was immensely successful next with a series of ice revues.

 Sonja Henie
French Postcard by Editions et Publications cinématographiques (EPC), no. 21. Photo: Fox Film.

Three Olympic Gold Medals
Sonja Henie was born in Kristiania (now Oslo), Norway in 1912. She was the only daughter of Wilhelm Henie, a Norwegian fur wholesaler and his wife Selma Lochmann-Nielsen. In addition to the income from the fur business, both of Henie's parents had inherited wealth. Wilhelm Henie had been a one-time World Cycling Champion and the Henie children were encouraged to take up a variety of sports at a young age. As a girl, Henie was ranked Norway's third best tennis player, and she was also a skilled swimmer and equestrienne. She initially showed talent at skiing, and then followed her older brother Leif to take up figure skating. She received her first skates from her father on the Christmas after her sixth birthday. Once Henie began to train seriously as a figure skater, her formal schooling ended. She was educated by tutors, and her father hired the best experts in the world to transform his daughter into a sporting celebrity. She studied ballet with Tamara Karsavina a former teacher of Anna Pavlova, and eventually she combined skating and ballet on ice. She won the children's figure skating championship of Oslo when she was 8, and two years later, in 1923, she won the figure skating championship of Norway. She then placed eighth in a field of eight at the 1924 Winter Olympics, at the age of eleven. Henie won the first of an unprecedented ten consecutive World Figure Skating Championships in 1927 at the age of fourteen. That year she also made her film debut with a small part in the romantic comedy Syv dager for Elisabeth/Seven Days for Elizabeth (1927, Leif Sinding). Henie went on to win first of her three Olympic gold medals the following year. She defended her Olympic titles in 1932 and in 1936, and her World titles annually until 1936. She also won six consecutive European championships from 1931 to 1936. Henie's unprecedented three Olympic gold medals haven't been matched by any ladies single skater since; neither are her achievements as ten-time consecutive World Champion. Henie was the first figure skater to adopt the short skirt costume in figure skating, wear white boots, and make use of dance choreography. Henie also had great spinning ability. She incorporated 19 different spins into her programs, and she could spin nearly 80 revolutions. Her innovative skating techniques and glamorous demeanor transformed the sport permanently and confirmed its acceptance as a legitimate sport in the Winter Olympics. Towards the end of her career, she began to be strongly challenged by younger skaters. However, she held off the competition and went on to win her third Olympic title at the 1936 Winter Olympics. Henie travelled widely and was much in demand as a performer at figure skating exhibitions in both Europe and North America. She became so popular that police had to be called out for crowd control on her appearances in various cities.

Sonja Henie
Dutch Postcard by J.S.A. Photo: Columbia F.B. / M.P.E.

Sonja Henie
British Postcard by Real Photograph, no. FS 166. Photo: 20th Century-Fox Pictures. Publicity still for Happy Landing (1938, Roy del Ruth).

Lavish Costumes And Spectacular Routines
After the 1936 World Figure Skating Championships, Sonja Henie gave up her amateur status and took up a career as a professional performer in acting and live shows. As a girl, Henie had decided to try to become a movie star when her competitive days were over. In 1936, following a successful ice show in Los Angeles orchestrated by her father to launch her film career, Hollywood studio chief Darryl Zanuck signed her to a long term contract at Twentieth Century Fox. It made her one of the highest-paid actresses of the time. Her first film, One in a Million (1936, Sidney Lanfield) with Adolphe Menjou, was a box-office smash. She continued to make profitable light comedies throughout the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Each film had several ice skating sequences. These films included Thin Ice (1937, Sidney Lanfield) with Tyrone Power, Second Fiddle (1939, Sidney Lanfield) again with Power, and Sun Valley Serenade (1941, H. Bruce Humberstone) with John Payne and the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Henie became increasingly demanding in her business dealings with Zanuck, and insisted on having total control of the skating numbers in her films. In addition to her film career at Fox, Henie formed a business arrangement with Arthur Wirtz, who produced her touring ice shows under the name of ‘Hollywood Ice Revue’. Wirtz also acted as Henie's financial advisor. At the time, figure skating and ice shows were not yet an established form of entertainment in the United States. Henie's popularity as a film actress attracted many new fans and instituted skating shows as a popular new entertainment. Throughout the 1940’s, Henie and Wirtz produced ice skating musicals with lavish costumes and spectacular routines at Madison Square Garden, attracting millions of ticket buyers. At the height of her fame, her shows and touring activities brought Henie as much as $2 million per year. She also had numerous lucrative endorsement contracts, and deals to market skates, clothing, jewelry, dolls, and other merchandise branded with her name. These activities made her one of the wealthiest women in the world in her time. In 1948 she made her last film, The Countess of Monte Cristo (1948, Frederick De Cordova). Henie broke off her arrangement with Wirtz in 1950 and for the next three seasons produced her own tours under the name ‘Sonja Henie Ice Revue’. It was an ill-advised decision to set herself up in competition with Wirtz, whose shows now featured the new Olympic champion Barbara Ann Scott. Since Wirtz controlled the best arenas and dates, Henie was left playing smaller venues and markets already saturated by other touring ice shows such as Ice Capades. The collapse of a section of bleachers during a show in Baltimore in 1952 compounded the tour's legal and financial woes. In 1953 Henie formed a new partnership with Morris Chalfen to appear in his European Holiday On Ice tour. This was a great success. She produced her own show at New York's Roxy Theatre in January 1956. However, a subsequent South American tour in 1956 was a disaster. Henie was drinking heavily at that time and could no longer keep up with the demands of touring, and this marked her retirement from skating.

 Sonja Henie
French Postcard, no. 725. Photo: Fox Film.

 Sonja Henie
British Postcard by Real Photograph, no. 132. Photo: 20th Century-Fox Pictures.

Nazi Salute
Sonja Henie's connections with Adolf Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi officials made her the subject of controversy. During her amateur skating career, she performed often in Germany and was a favourite of German audiences as well as of Hitler personally. As a wealthy celebrity, she moved in the same social circles as royalty and heads of state and made Hitler's acquaintance as a matter of course. Controversy appeared first when Henie greeted Hitler with a Nazi salute during an exhibition in Berlin some time prior to the 1936 Winter Olympics; she was strongly denounced by the Norwegian press. She did not repeat the salute at the Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, but after the Games she accepted an invitation to lunch with Hitler at his resort home in nearby Berchtesgaden. Hitler presented Henie with an autographed photo with a lengthy inscription. After beginning her film career, Henie kept up her Nazi connections, for example personally arranging with Joseph Goebbels for the release of her first film, One in a Million, in Germany. During the occupation of Norway by Nazi Germany, German troops saw Hitler's autographed photo prominently displayed in the Henie family home. As a result, none of Henie's properties in Norway were confiscated or damaged by the Germans. Henie became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1941. Like many Hollywood stars, she supported the U.S. war effort through USO and similar activities, but she was careful to avoid supporting the Norwegian resistance movement, or making public statements against the Nazis. For this, she was condemned by many Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans. After the war, Henie was mindful that many of her countrymen considered her to be a quisling. However, she made a triumphant return to Norway with the Holiday on Ice tour in 1953 and 1955. Her autobiography Mitt livs eventyr/Wings on My Feet (1938-1940) was republished in a revised edition in 1954. Henie was married three times, to Dan Topping (1940 - 1946), Winthrop Gardiner Jr. (1949 - 1956) and the wealthy Norwegian shipping magnate and art patron, Niels Onstad (1956 - 1969). After her retirement in 1956, Henie and Onstad (nicknamed ‘the Onassis of Norway’) settled in Oslo and accumulated a large collection of modern art. In 1968 they opened the Henie Onstad kunstsenter (Henie-Onstad Art Centre) at Høvikodden, about 10 km from Oslo. At the time of her death, Henie was planning a comeback for a television special that would have aired in January 1970. In the mid 1960’s, Henie was diagnosed with leukemia. She died of the disease in 1969 during a flight from Paris to Oslo. She was 57, and one of the ten wealthiest women in the world when she died. Sonja Henie is buried with her husband in Oslo on the hilltop overlooking the Henie-Onstad Art Centre. After her death her brother Leif published with Raymond Strait the biography Queen of Ice, Queen of Shadows: The Unsuspected Life of Sonja Henie (1990). According to her brother, Henie was obsessed with money and sex, had a vile temper when crossed, and used her family and others shamelessly to advance her own ends. However, Henie is inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame (1976) and the International Women's Sport Hall of Fame (1982), and the signature of her ice skate blades adorns the cement at Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

Sonja Henie
Dutch Postcard, no. 3171.

Sources: Jone Johnson Lewis (Women’s History Guide), Tony Fontana (IMDb), The New York Times, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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