Sonja Henie (April 8, 1912 - October 12, 1969) was a Norwegian figure skater and actress. She is a three-time Olympic Champion (figure skater, figure skater, figure skater), a ten-time World Champion (1927-1936) and a six-time European Champion (1931-1936). Henie won more Olympic and World titles than any other ladies figure skater. At the height of her acting career she was one of the highest paid movie stars in Hollywood.
Sonja Henie was born in Kristiania, current Oslo, the daughter of Wilhelm Henie, a prosperous Norwegian furrier, and his wife Selma. 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. Henie initially showed talent at skiing, and then followed her older brother Leif to take up figure skater. As a girl, Henie was also a nationally-ranked tennis player and a skilled swimmer and equestrienne.
Once Henie began serious training as a figure skater, her formal schooling ended. She was educated by tutors, and her father hired the best experts in the world, including the famous Russian ballerina Tamara Karsavina, to transform his daughter into a sporting celebrity.
Henie won her first major competition, the senior Norwegian championships, at the age of 9. She then placed eighth in a field of eight at the 1924 Winter Olympics, at the age of eleven. During the 1924 program, she skated over to the side of the rink several times to ask her coach for directions. But by the next Olympiad, she needed no such assistance. Henie won the first of an unprecedented ten World Figure Skating Championships in 1927 at the age of fourteen, and her first Olympic gold medal the following year. She also won six consecutive European championships. Towards the end of her career, she began to be strongly challenged by younger skaters including Hedy Stenuf and Cecilia Colledge, but she held off these competitors to win her third Olympic title at the 1936 Winter Olympics.
During her competitive career, Henie traveled widely and worked with a variety of foreign coaches. At home in Oslo, she trained at Frogner Stadium, but during the latter part of her competitive career she was coached primarily by the American Howard Nicholson in London. In addition to traveling to train and compete, she was much in demand as a performer at figure skating exhibitions in both Europe and North America. Henie became so popular with the public that police had to be called out for crowd control on her appearances in various disparate cities such as Prague and New York. It was an open secret that, in spite of the strict amateurism requirements of the time, Wilhelm Henie demanded "expense money" for his daughter's skating appearances. Both of Henie's parents had given up their own pursuits in Norway -- leaving Leif to run the fur business -- in order to accompany Sonja on her travels and act as her managers.
Henie is credited with being the first figure skater to adopt the short skirt costume in figure skating, and make use of dance Choreography. Her innovative skating techniques and glamorous demeanor transformed the sport permanently and confirmed its acceptance as a legitimate sport in the Winter Olympics.
Professional and film careerEdit
After the 1936 World Figure Skating Championships, Henie gave up her amateur status and took up a career as a professional performer in acting and live shows. While still a girl, Henie had decided that she wanted to move to Hollywood and become a movie star when her competitive days were over, without considering that her thick accent might hinder her acting ambitions.
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 which made her one of the highest-paid actresses of the time. After the success of her first film, One in a Million, Henie's position was assured and she became increasingly demanding in her business dealings with Zanuck. Henie also 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 1940s, Henie and Wirtz produced lavish musical ice skating extravaganzas at Rockefeller Center's Center Theatre 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.
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, Maryland 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.
At the time of her death, Henie was planning a comeback for a television special that would have aired in January 1970.
In 1938, she published her autobiography, which was republished in a revised edition in 1954.
Henie's connections with Adolf Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi officials made her the subject of controversy before, during, and after World War II. During her amateur skating career, she performed often in Germany and was a favorite 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, where 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.
Henie was married three times, to Dan Topping, Winthrop Gardiner Jr., and the wealthy Norwegian shipowner and art patron Niels Onstad. After her retirement in 1956, Henie and Onstad settled in Oslo and accumulated a large collection of modern art that formed the basis for the Henie-Onstad Art Centre at Høvikodden, near Oslo.
In addition to her marriages, Henie had a variety of lovers, including her skating partners Jack Dunn (figure skater) and Stewart Reburn, a much-publicized affair with Tyrone Power, and a later romance with actor Van Johnson.
According to the biography Queen of Ice, Queen of Shadows, written by her brother Leif with Raymond Strait, 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.
She was diagnosed with leukemia in the mid-1960s. She died at age 57 in 1969 during a flight from Paris to Oslo. Considered by many as one of the greatest figure skaters in history, she and her husband are buried in Oslo on the hilltop overlooking the Henie-Onstad Art Centre.
- Inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame (1976).
- Inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame (1982).
- She has a star on the Hollywood.
- In 1938, at age 25, she became the youngest person made a knight first class of The Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav.
|1927||Seven Days for Elizabeth||Skater|
|1936||One in a Million||Greta "Gretchen" Muller|
|1937||Thin Ice||Lili Heiser|
|Ali Baba Goes to Town||Herself (Cameo)|
|1938||Happy Landing||Trudy Ericksen|
|My Lucky Star||Krista Nielsen|
|1939||Second Fiddle||Trudi Hovland|
|Everything Happens at Night||Louise|
|1941||Sun Valley Serenade||Karen Benson|
|1942||Iceland (film)||Katina Jonsdottir|
|1945||It's a Pleasure||Chris Linden|
|1948||The Countess of Monte Cristo||Karen Kirsten|
- Raymond Strait and Leif Henie: Queen of Ice, Queen of Shadows: The Unsuspected Life of Sonja Henie. ISBN 0-8128-8518-X.
- Sports Illustrated 100 Greatest Female Athletes
- Olympic.org Athlete Profile - Henie
- Sonja Henie by Reidar Børjeson
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