Sonja Henie

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Sonja Henie
Sonja Henie 1936.jpg
Henie at the 1936 Olympics
Personal information
Full nameSonja Henie
Born(1912-04-08)8 April 1912
Oslo, Norway
Died12 October 1969(1969-10-12) (aged 57)
Height1.55 m (5 ft 1 in)
Former partner Jack Dunn
Stewart Reburn
Former coachHoward Nicholson
Skating clubOslo SK

Sonja Henie (8 April 1912 – 12 October 1969) was a Norwegian figure skater and film star. She was a three-time Olympic champion (1928, 1932, 1936) in women's singles, a ten-time World champion (1927–1936) and a six-time European champion (1931–1936). Henie has 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 stars in Hollywood and starred in a series of box-office hits, including Thin Ice (1937), Happy Landing , My Lucky Star (1938), Second Fiddle (1939) and Sun Valley Serenade (1941). [1]



Early life

Henie was born in 1912 in Kristiania (now Oslo) Norway; she was the only daughter of Wilhelm Henie (1872–1937), a prosperous Norwegian furrier, and his wife, Selma Lochmann-Nielsen (1888–1961). 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, then followed her older brother, Leif, to take up figure skating. As a girl Henie also was 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. [1]

Competitive career

Henie with British skater Cecilia Colledge during the medals ceremony at the 1936 Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Medal ceremony figure skating Olympic Games 1936.jpg
Henie with British skater Cecilia Colledge during the medals ceremony at the 1936 Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

Henie won her first major figure skating competition, the senior Norwegian championships, at the age of 10. She then placed eighth in a field of eight at the 1924 Winter Olympics, at the age of eleven. [2] Henie won the first of an unprecedented ten consecutive World Figure Skating Championships in 1927 at the age of fourteen. The results of 1927 World Championships, where Henie won in 3–2 decision (or 7 vs. 8 ordinal points) over the defending Olympic and World Champion Herma Szabo of Austria, was controversial, as three of the five judges that gave Henie first-place ordinals were Norwegian (1 + 1 + 1 + 2 + 2 = 7 points) while Szabo received first-place ordinals from an Austrian and a German Judge (1 + 1 + 2 + 2 + 2 = 8 points). Henie went on to win first of her three Olympic gold medals the following year, becoming one of the youngest figure skating Olympic champions. She defended her Olympic titles in 1932 and in 1936, and her world titles annually until 1936. [2] She also won six consecutive European championships from 1931 to 1936. Henie's unprecedented three Olympic gold medals have not been matched by any ladies' single skater since, nor have her achievements as ten-time consecutive World champion. While Irina Slutskaya of Russia has held the record for most European titles among ladies' skaters since 2006, Henie still retains the record of most consecutive titles, sharing it with Katarina Witt of Eastern Germany/Germany (1983–1988).

Towards the end of her career, she began to be strongly challenged by younger skaters including Cecilia Colledge, Megan Taylor, and Hedy Stenuf. However, she held off these competitors and went on to win her third Olympic title at the 1936 Winter Olympics, albeit in very controversial circumstances with Cecilia Colledge finishing a very close second. Indeed, after the school figures section at the 1936 Olympic competition, Colledge and Henie were virtually neck and neck with Colledge trailing by just a few points. As Sandra Stevenson recounted in The Independent , "the closeness [of the competition] infuriated Henie, who, when the result for that section was posted on a wall in the competitors' lounge, swiped the piece of paper and tore it into little pieces. The draw for the free skating [then] came under suspicion after Henie landed the plum position of skating last, while Colledge had to perform second of the 26 competitors. The early start was seen as a disadvantage, with the audience not yet whipped into a clapping frenzy and the judges known to become freer with their higher marks as the event proceeded. Years later, a fairer, staggered draw was adopted to counteract this situation". [3]

During her competitive career, Henie traveled widely and worked with a variety of foreign coaches. At home in Oslo, she trained at Frogner Stadium, where her coaches included Hjørdis Olsen and Oscar Holte. 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 City. 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, wear white boots, [4] 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. [5]

Professional and film career

Sonja Henie appeared on the cover of Time magazine on July 17, 1939 Sonja Henie on Time Magazine 1939.jpg
Sonja Henie appeared on the cover of Time magazine on July 17, 1939

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. [2] While still a girl, Henie had decided that she wanted to move to California and become a movie star when her competitive days were over, without considering that her strong 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 (1936), 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 such as Second Fiddle (1939).

Henie tried to break the musical comedy mould with the anti-Nazi film Everything Happens at Night (1939) and It's a Pleasure (1945), a skating variation of the often-told A Star Is Born tale about alcoholic-star-in-decline-helps-newcomer-up. It was her only film shot in Technicolor, but it was not as huge at the box office as her other films and also proved her limitations as a dramatic actress in her only dramatic film.

When Zanuck realized this, he cast her in more musical comedies; Sun Valley Serenade (1941) with Glenn Miller, John Payne, The Nicholas Brothers, and hit songs such as "In the Mood", "Chattanooga Choo Choo", "It Happened in Sun Valley", and "I Know Why (And So Do You)"; followed by Iceland (1942) with Jack Oakie, Payne, and the hit song "There Will Never Be Another You"; and finally Wintertime (1943) with Cesar Romero, Carole Landis, Cornel Wilde, and Oakie. Sonja had by now developed a comedy flair and these films were all among the top box-office hits for 20th Century-Fox the respective years. Eight Sonja Henie movies crossed the $100 million domestic gross mark. [6] Happy Landing (1938) was her biggest box office hit.

In addition to her film career at Fox from 1936 to 1943, 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, Henie brought as much as $2 million per year from her shows and touring activities. 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 self-made women in the world in her time.[ citation needed ]

Henie's handprint/signature in front of the Grauman's Chinese Theatre Sonja Henie graumans.jpg
Henie's handprint/signature in front of the Grauman's Chinese Theatre

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, which proved to be a great success. She produced her own show at New York's Roxy Theatre in January 1956. [7] 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. She did try to make a film series at her own expense; a series that would serve as a travelogue to several cities. Paris and London were mentioned, but only Hello London (1958) was made with her own backing, co-starring Michael Wilding and special guest star Stanley Holloway. While her ice show numbers were still worth watching, the film received few distributors and poor reviews, ending her film career.

Her autobiography Mitt livs eventyr was published in 1938. An English translation, Wings on My Feet, was released in 1940 and republished in a revised edition in 1954. At the time of her death, Henie was planning a comeback for a television special that would have aired in January 1970. She was to have danced to "Lara's Theme" from Doctor Zhivago .

As international celebrity

Henie in Berlin, 1930 Bundesarchiv Bild 102-09482, Sonja Henie.jpg
Henie in Berlin, 1930

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 and 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. During the shooting of Second Fiddle (1939), she greeted the then Crown-Prince couple of Norway Olav and Märtha during their US tour. Through the years, her shows and later art exhibitions drew the attention of such people as Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon and Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden and she met with them.

Controversy appeared first when Henie greeted Hitler with a Nazi salute at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and 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. She was strongly denounced in the Norwegian press for this. In her revised 1954 biography, [8] she states that no Norwegian judge was in the panel for the 1936 Olympics—as she was entitled to as a Norwegian. She therefore made the most of it and won her third Olympic medal. When she—as a gold medal winner—passed Hitler's tribune with silver medalist Cecilia Colledge and bronze medalist Vivi-Anne Hultén, neither she nor the others honored Hitler with the Nazi salute. The 1936 European Figure Skating Championships also took place in Berlin and neither Henie, Colledge, nor Megan Taylor paid obeisance to Hitler. [9]

In her film Everything Happens at Night (1939), Ray Milland and Robert Cummings star as rival reporters hot on the trail of Hugo Norden (Maurice Moscovich). Norden, a Nobel Prize winner, was supposedly murdered by the Gestapo, but is rumoured to be in hiding and writing anonymous dispatches advocating world peace. When Geoffrey and Ken track Norden to a small village in the Swiss Alps, they soon find themselves competing over the affections of beautiful Louise (Henie), who has a deeper connection to the missing Nobel laureate than the reporters realize. When Geoffrey and Ken get so distracted by romance that they begin to neglect their assignments, it almost leads to disaster as the Gestapo sets out to silence Norden once and for all. Released on 22 December 1939, it was banned in Nazi Germany.

Henie with Hitler in 1936 Sonja Henie & Adolf Hitler 1936.jpg
Henie with Hitler in 1936

Through her 1940 marriage to Dan Topping, she had become an American citizen. As such, she was not eligible to speak to support Norway's cause. For example, Producer Alexander Korda was set to produce the propaganda film That Hamilton Woman , that could have resulted in him facing deportation. The Senate Subcommittee on (Senate Foreign Relations) dealt with such matters. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when America was no longer neutral, Henie pulled on uniform and visited and gave money to Little Norway. [10] All Norwegians got free tickets to her shows during the war and she paid for and held parties for them.

During the occupation of Norway by Nazi Germany, German troops saw Hitler's autographed photo prominently displayed at the piano in the Henie family home in Landøya, Asker. 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 1940. Like many Hollywood stars, she supported the U.S. war effort through USO and similar activities. After the Japanese attack, she invited the boys from Little Norway to her ice shows, gave the mechanics a plane as well a substantial sum of money to their educational fund. But her first rejection before the US entered the war was never to be forgotten. 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. The Norwegian Royal Family attended both events and indeed attended her funeral in 1969. The Royal Family were very mindful of whom they supported after the war and Norwegians looked to them as role models in that respect.[ citation needed ]

Personal life

External image
Searchtool.svg Sonja Henie with her art collection in Los Angeles, 1964. Her collection is now held by the Henie-Onstad Art Centre.

Henie was married three times, to Dan Topping (1940–1946), Winthrop Gardiner Jr. (1949–1956), [11] and the Norwegian shipping magnate and art patron Niels Onstad (1956–1969) (her death). 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 Kunstsenter at Høvikodden in Bærum near Oslo.

She studied in Oslo together with Martin Stixrud and Erna Andersen who was her competitor and skate club member. [12]

Henie was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in the mid-1960s. [13] She died of the disease at age 57 in 1969 during a flight from Paris to Oslo. [2] [14] She is buried with Onstad in Oslo on the hilltop overlooking the Henie Onstad Art Centre.

She was among 250 female stars who were nominated for "50 Greatest Screen Legend" status by AFI ... She did not make the final list however.


Ladies' singles

Henie's Olympic gold medal, St. Moritz 1928 Sonja Henie gold 1928.jpg
Henie's Olympic gold medal, St. Moritz 1928
Winter Olympics 8th1st1st1st
World Championships 5th2nd1st1st1st1st1st1st1st1st1st1st
European Championships 1st1st1st1st1st1st
Norwegian Championships 1st1st1st1st1st1st1st


(with Arne Lie)

World Championships 5th
Norwegian Championships 1st1st1st



1927 Seven Days for Elizabeth Skater
1929Se NorgeHerself
1936 One in a Million Greta "Gretchen" Muller
1937 Thin Ice Lili Heiser
Ali Baba Goes to Town Herself
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 Katina Jonsdottir
1943 Wintertime Nora
1945 It's a Pleasure Chris Linden
1948 The Countess of Monte Cristo Karen Kirsten
1958 Hello London Herself

Other appearances

Norwegian Long Haul Boeing 787 painted with an image of Sonja Henie EI-LNA Boeing 787-8 Norwegian Tail (9523928105).jpg
Norwegian Long Haul Boeing 787 painted with an image of Sonja Henie

Henie was portrayed in the 2018 Anne Sewitsky film Sonja – The White Swan, shown at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. [21] [22] [23]


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