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The Life and Career of Sonja Henie

Sonja Henie in "Wintertime."

Sonja Henie in "Wintertime."

Sonja Henie is a legend in the world of sports and Hollywood.

With her Scandinavian good looks, dimpled smile, and perky demeanor, she attracted a legion of fans, and she became one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood. Henie changed the world of figure skating forever, and she will always be remembered for her talent as well as her pioneering spirit.

Henie won the gold medal in ladies figure skating three times in a row in 1928, 1932, and 1936. Her record of three Olympic and ten World titles remains unbroken to this day. At 15, she was youngest woman to ever win an Olympic gold medal. This record remained unchallenged until 1998, when Tara Lipinski (by 32 days) won the gold medal in women's figure skating.

Henie single-handedly transformed the face of figure skating forever. She turned 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 she 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.

Sonja Henie presents Shirley Temple with ice skates, 1936.

The Gift of Athleticism and Endurance

Sonja Henie was born into a wealthy home in Oslo, Norway, on April 8, 1912. Her parents were Wilhelm Henie (a one-time world class cycling champion and a prosperous furrier) and Selma Lochmann-Nielsen. They were both products of inherited wealth. Sonja exhibited signs of athletic prowess from an early age. She inherited an athletic 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.

She began taking ballet classes at the age of five, and she 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, and she was greatly inspired by her. She subsequently incorporated ballet moves and choreography into her figure skating routines, most notably toe dancing. Her 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 that was worn for warmth as well as modesty— she introduced the short skirt. This revolutionized skating forever. Her 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, made her stand out from the crowd. To top it all off, she opted for flashy white skates in lieu of the black ones used at the time.

Sonja Henie as "The Swan."

Sonja Henie as "The Swan."

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 10, she won the Norwegian National Championship. By 1924, at only 11 years old, she competed in her first Winter Olympics. However, she ended up in last place due to her poor showing in compulsory figures, which at that time counted for 60 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 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 would pay off. In 1927, she won her first (of 10) World Figure Skating Championship. In 1928, at the age of 15, she won her first gold medal. She would win gold again at the 1932 and 1936 Olympics. She would also win six consecutive European Championships (1931-1936). Her record remains unbroken to this day.

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Sonja Henie at the 1924 Winter Olympics

Sonja Henie salutes Hitler at the 1936 Winter Olympics.

Sonja Henie salutes Hitler at the 1936 Winter Olympics.

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 in Berlin (prior to the 1936 Olympics), she was sharply criticized for greeting Hitler with a Nazi salute. Although she 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 her with an autographed photo of himself, personalized with a lengthy inscription.

Upon entering Norway in 1940, the Nazis encountered Hitler's inscribed photo prominently displayed in the Henie family home. Taken aback, they immediately ceased their intended mission of confiscating and destroying her property.

Henie held on to her Nazi connections after making her first film, One in a Million, and she personally made arrangements with Joseph Goebbels for its release in Germany.

After the war, Norwegians looked upon her as a "Quisling" (traitor). Nevertheless, she made a triumphant return to Norway with her "Holiday on Ice" tours in 1953 and 1955.

A promotional photo of Sonja Henie.

A promotional photo of Sonja Henie.

Hollywood, Here She Comes!

In 1936, 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. She was billed as "Pavlova of the silver skates." She later joined up with Arthur Wirtz to tour in the highly successful "Hollywood Ice Revue."

As a young girl, she had already made plans to go to Hollywood and become an actress (when her Olympic career ended). 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 without the support of her father.

She went on to make a total of 11 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, she 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, she 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. She 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 26, she was a millionaire. By the late 1940s, she was one of the richest women in the world.

Sonja Henie movie posters.

Sonja Henie movie posters.

Her Personal Life

Henie was married three times. Her first two husbands 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.

She had several affairs with her skating partners Stewart Reburn and Jack Dunn, as well as with her co-stars and other celebrities (Tyrone Power, Van Johnson, and Joe Lewis).

When Henie retired in 1956, she and husband 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. I own this book, and I found it to be a real page turner. The book gets down to the nitty gritty of Sonja's life by someone who saw what went on behind closed doors. It's a fascinating read that supports the age-old adage that things aren't always what they seem to be.

Skating Partners

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 she 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 film Second Fiddle.

Sonja Henie with her husband Niels Onstad.

Sonja Henie with her husband Niels Onstad.

Dark Days and the Tragic End of a Champion

In 1950, Henie, pressured by her second husband, Winthrop Gardiner Jr. (who butted into her 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. She toured in her new show, "The Sonja Henie Ice Review." Unfortunately, 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. If that wasn't enough, the time and location of the "Hollywood Ice Review" often coincided with her own show, so 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 the bleachers collapsed. 400 spectators were injured, adding to Henie's already escalating financial and legal woes.

In 1953, Henie formed a partnership with Morris Chalfen. She appeared in his European "Holiday on Ice" tour, which was a big success.

In 1956, she ventured out on her own again, producing her own show at New York's Roxy Theater. During her subsequent South American tour, she was in trouble once again 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 her husband Niels (and his three sons) and her brother Leif. She never had any children.

Fittingly, Henie and Niels are buried together on a hill in Oslo, overlooking the Henie-Onstad Art Centre, which was donated by them in 1968. The art museum houses their treasured modern art collection, as well as various 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. Aren't we fortunate to be able to access the internet, cable TV, or our own movie collections and watch our "Queen of the Ice" anytime we want?

Sonja Henie in fancy costume with feathers.

Sonja Henie in fancy costume with feathers.

Other Awards & Honors

  • In 1938, at the age of 25, Henie was made a Knight First Class of the Order of St. Olaf by King Haakon of Norway. She is the youngest person to ever win that honor.
  • In 1976, she was inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame.
  • In 1982, she was inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame.
  • Henie has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Sonja Henie wowing the crowd at an ice show.

Sonja Henie wowing the crowd at an ice show.

Filmography

  • Syv dager for Elisabeth—skater (1927)
  • One in a Million—Greta 'Gretchen' Muller (1936)
  • Thin Ice—Lili Heiser (1937)
  • Happy Landing—Trudy Ericksen (1938)
  • My Lucky Star—Krista Nielsen (1938)
  • Second Fiddle—Trudi Hovland (1939)
  • Everything Happens at Night—Louise Norden (1939)
  • Sun Valley Serenade—Karen Benson (1941)
  • Iceland—Katina Jonsdottir (1942)
  • Wintertime—Nora Ostgaard (1943)
  • It's a Pleasure—Chris Linden (1945)
  • The Countess of Monte Cristo—Karen Kirsten (1948)
  • Holiday on Ice (TV movie) (1956)
  • 1958 ~~ Hello London (herself)

Have You Ever Watched a Sonja Henie Movie? - If so, did you enjoy it?

Blonde Blythe (author) from U.S.A. on October 20, 2014:

Thank you very much, Jesse Helms! I've been busy polishing it up, so your comments are very much appreciated!

Jesse Helms from Irvine, California on October 20, 2014:

Great article! Keep up the good work.

Blonde Blythe (author) from U.S.A. on October 24, 2013:

@Loretta L: Yes, I enjoyed them so much in the Olympics. A very special pair that people are still talking about! :)

Loretta Livingstone from Chilterns, UK. on October 16, 2013:

I'm fairly certain that I did, many years ago. Of course, my own favourite Ice Queen has to be Jayne Torville who, together with Christopher Dean, won Olympic hold for Britain.

sukkran trichy from Trichy/Tamil Nadu on December 14, 2012:

thanks for introducing sonja henie. very much enjoyed the vids. what a talent?

KimGiancaterino on October 16, 2012:

I enjoyed learning about Sonja Henie. It's been awhile since I've seen her in a film. Quite the overachiever.

anonymous on June 05, 2012:

Sonja Henie has a beautiful tribute lens here, well done! :)

LeslieMirror on May 28, 2012:

We miss celebrities like her in modern world. She is great.

anonymous on January 26, 2012:

yess i have i have seen all of them and loved ALL of them :)

MusicFan57 on January 12, 2012:

Very interesting and awesome lens! Thank you for all the work you put into this.

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on September 25, 2011:

What a treat to read about this fascinating skater. I'm featuring your lens on What Was Life Like in the 1930s.

Laraine Sims from Lake Country, B.C. on August 20, 2011:

I've never watched a Sonja Henie movie. Looks like I missed a good movie.

Well done with mega coverage on this little beauty. Thank you for sharing.

Teri Villars from Phoenix, Arizona on July 31, 2011:

A famous personality and tragic figure. It's a shame that some are so opinionated, that they make wrong decisions...such as her Nazi ties. Many don't know that Charles Lindbergh also defended Nazi attempts at dominating Great Britain.

artdecoco on December 21, 2010:

yes

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