Sonja Henie

Orfeas Katsoulis | Aug 13, 2022

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Summary

Sonja Henie († October 12, 1969 during a flight from Paris to Oslo) was a Norwegian figure skater who competed in individual skating. She is by far the most successful individual skater in figure skating history, having won three Olympic titles, ten World Championship titles and six European Championship titles between 1927 and 1936. In 1936 Henie began a successful career in Hollywood.

Sonja Henie was the only daughter of fur trader Wilhelm Henie and his wife Selma Lochmann-Nielsen (1888-1961). Her father became the world cycling champion in Antwerp in 1894. He also participated in European championships in speed skating. Thus, the children were encouraged early to try different sports. Henie showed talent for skiing, but then followed her older brother Leif into figure skating. As a child, Henie was also a nationally listed tennis player and talented swimmer and equestrian. When Henie began figure skating in earnest, her public school education ended. She was then tutored by private teachers, and her father hired experts to train his daughter to become a sports great. Among them was the Russian ballerina Tamara Karsavina.

At the age of eleven, Sonja Henie took part in the 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix, finishing eighth and last. At these games, she fell on her bottom and shouted "Oops", which earned her the nickname "Miss Oops". During her free skate, she had to run to her coach several times to ask what to do next. But already at the next Olympic Games, in 1928 in St. Moritz, she no longer needed this help. She won Olympic gold, well ahead of Fritzi Burger. At the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid, she again defended her Olympic title well ahead of Burger. Four years later, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, she triumphed for the third time in a row at the Olympics and is still the only figure skater to celebrate three Olympic victories in the women's competition. Her last title, however, was more controversial than the previous two. After the compulsory figures, Henie and Britain's Cecilia Colledge were separated by only a few points. Sandra Stevenson, in her article in The Independent of April 21, 2008, reported it as follows: "The closeness enraged Henie, who, when the result for that section was posted on the wall of the competitors' area, took the piece of paper and tore it into small pieces. The draw for the free skate then came under suspicion as Henie was the last starter in the best position, while Colledge was already second out of 26 starters. This early start was seen as a disadvantage, as the audience was not yet in the rhythm of an applause storm and the judges were known to become more generous with awarding higher scores the longer the competition went on. Years later, a fairer, staggered draw was introduced to counteract this fact."

In her first world championship, Henie finished fifth in 1924 in her home town of Oslo in the victory of Herma Szabó, the dominant figure skater of the twenties. She competed in her next World Championship two years later in Stockholm. There she won the silver medal behind Szabó. In 1927, the World Championship for the women's competition was again held in Henie's hometown of Oslo. Henie won her first gold medal in world championships in a controversial manner. After the compulsory figures, Herma Szabó still had a clear lead over Henie, but in the end she lost to the Norwegian by a majority of the Norwegian judges. Three of the five judges were from Norway, one from Germany and one from Austria. The three Norwegians put Henie first, while the other two judges put Szabó first. After this defeat, Szabó ended her career. Henie later offered her a rematch of the duel, but she refused. This cleared the way for Henie and she never lost another world championship. Nine more world championship titles in a row followed until 1936. No one could seriously threaten her, she won mostly by unanimous judges' verdict. Her challengers were Fritzi Burger, who was runner-up behind her in Budapest in 1929 and in Montréal in 1932; Maribel Vinson, runner-up in 1928; Cecil Smith, runner-up in 1930; Hilde Holovsky, runner-up in 1931; Vivi-Anne Hultén, runner-up in 1933; Megan Taylor, runner-up in 1934 and 1936; and Cecilia Colledge, runner-up in 1935. With a total of ten world titles, Henie is also by far the most successful figure skater in women's singles at world championships.

In 1930, for the first time there was a separate women's competition at the European Championships. Henie competed for the first time in 1931 in Vienna and for the last time in 1936 in Berlin. She won all the European Championships in which she competed, winning a total of six times in a row: in 1931 and 1932 ahead of Fritzi Burger, in 1934 and 1935 ahead of Liselotte Landbeck, and in 1933 and 1936 ahead of Cecilia Colledge. In the years 1925 to 1929 Henie became Norwegian champion in individual skating and from 1926 to 1928 together with Arne Lie also in pairs skating. Henie made her only international appearance in pairs skating alongside Lie at the 1926 World Championships, where the pair finished fifth.

During her career, Henie traveled widely and worked with numerous coaches. At home in Oslo, she trained at Frogner Stadium where she was coached by Hjordis Olsen and Oscar Holthe, among others. Later in her career, she trained primarily with American Howard Nicholson in London. Henie was also extremely in demand at exhibition events in Europe as well as North America. She became so famous that wherever she performed, a squad of police had to control the crowds. It was an open secret that Henie's father Wilhelm demanded large sums of money for his daughter's performances, despite her amateur status. Both Henie's father and her mother gave up their businesses in Norway and left them to Sonja's brother Leif to travel the world with her and manage her.

Henie is considered the first figure skater to introduce short skirts as a costume, wear white skates and use choreography.

After her retirement from amateur sports in 1936, Henie went on tour with lavish ice revues. As a child, she had already set her mind on going to Hollywood and becoming a movie star after her sports career, without thinking that her strong accent might hinder her ambitions. So she made contacts with the film industry during a performance in Los Angeles, in which her father played a major role, and ended up choosing the offer from 20th Century Fox, which was offered to her by Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of the studio. Henie insisted on being named as the star above the title in her very first film and received a fee of $125,000. The long-term contract made her one of the highest-paid actresses in the world. The studio subsequently developed a special camera capable of capturing the rapid movements on the ice accordingly. The rinks on which Henie made her rounds in the studio were also special custom-built rinks adapted to the requirements of the recording technology. For example, the ice was not allowed to be transparent or too reflective to ensure the best possible reproduction on the screen.

After the success of her first film, One in a Million, Henie's status was confirmed and she became increasingly demanding in her business relationships with Zanuck. She insisted on having total control over the skating numbers she performed in the film.

Henie, who played mostly Northern European women who spoke English with a heavy accent in her films, appeared mostly in lavishly produced musicals and alongside the studio's male stars, such as Tyrone Power, Don Ameche and later John Payne. As early as 1938 she was voted among the ten box office stars of cinema, and for a while she was more popular than Alice Faye. Her success was so great that other studios tried to produce similar ice revues. However, audiences did not accept the films starring ice skater Vera Hruba Ralston, nor was Joan Crawford a resounding success in The Ice Follies of 1939. Henie's most famous film was Sun Valley Serenade, in which she appeared alongside Glenn Miller and his orchestra in 1941.

In addition to her career at Fox, she had a business agreement with Arthur Wirtz, who produced her ice shows, with which she toured, under the name Hollywood Ice Revue. Wirtz also acted as Henie's financial advisor. At that time, figure skating and ice shows were not yet an established entertainment event in the United States. Henie's popularity as a film actress attracted many new fans, and so ice skating shows became established as a popular new form of entertainment. During the 1940s, Henie and Wirtz produced elaborate ice-skating spectacles set to music at the Center Theatre in Rockefeller Center, which attracted millions of visitors. At the height of her fame, Henie earned more than two million dollars a year from her shows and tours. She also had lucrative advertising contracts for skates, clothing, jewelry, dolls, and other items sold under her name. These earnings made her one of the richest women in the world.

Henie canceled the agreement with Wirtz in 1950 and produced her own tours for the next three seasons under the name Sonja Henie Ice Revue. It was not a good decision to enter into competition with Wirtz, whose shows now advertised Olympic champion Barbara Ann Scott. With Wirtz controlling the big arenas and the best dates, Henie now had to perform at smaller venues and serve markets already saturated with other touring ice shows like Ice Capades. The collapse of a grandstand at a Baltimore show then contributed definitively to the demise.

In 1953, Henie entered into a business partnership with Morris Chalfen to perform in his Holiday On Ice Tour. This became a success. She produced her own show at New York's Roxy Theatre in January 1956. However, the subsequent tour of South America was a disaster. Henie drank too much and could no longer meet the demands. This was the time to end all skating activity.

Among the spectators at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen was Adolf Hitler. He invited the Norwegian with her parents to the Berghof on the Obersalzberg for dinner. There he presented her with a photo with autograph and dedication. Contacts with high-ranking Nazis can still be traced to the early 1940s. Henie met with Joseph Goebbels on the occasion of the film premiere of One in a Million in Germany. During the occupation of Norway, German soldiers saw the signed photograph of Adolf Hitler in the Henies' home. As a result, none of the Henies' belongings were confiscated or even destroyed. Allegedly, Henie, who was in the U.S. at the time, had shortly before told the housekeeper by telephone to put the picture in plain view.

In 1941, Henie became a U.S. citizen. Like many Hollywood stars, she supported U.S. troops through the United Service Organizations, but she avoided supporting the Norwegian resistance movement or making public statements against the Nazis. For this, she was criticized by many Norwegians and Norwegian immigrants in the U.S. as a Quisling sympathizer. Henie was aware of this, but made a triumphant return home in 1953 and 1955 with her Holiday on Ice tour.

In 1938 Sonja Henie published her autobiography Mitt livs eventyr, which appeared in English in 1940 as Wings on My Feet.

When Henie ran in the Berlin Sports Palace at the age of 14, wearing a rabbit's foot around her neck for good luck, the Berlin original "Krücke" called out, "Kiek mal, det Häseken". From then on, she carried the nickname "Häseken" in Berlin, where she was a particular crowd favorite.

Her great love is said to have been the two-time Austrian Olympic champion in figure skating, Karl Schäfer, who, however, chose the daughter of his advocate Eduard Engelmann, whom he later married.

Sonja Henie was married three times. Her husbands were Daniel Topping (1912-1974), the co-owner and longtime president of the New York Yankees baseball team, from 1940 to 1946; Winthrop Gardiner Jr. (1912-1980), from 1949 to 1956; and Niels Onstad (1909-1978), a wealthy shipowner and patron of the arts, from 1956 to 1969. Together they built up a significant collection of modern art and founded a museum of modern art, the "Henie-Onstad kunstsenter" in Høvikodden, Bærum, near Oslo, which opened in 1968.

In addition to her marriages, Henie had numerous lovers, such as her figure skating partners Jack Dunn and Stewart Reburn, boxing legend Joe Louis, actor Tyrone Power and actor Van Johnson. According to the biography Queen of Ice, Queen of Shadows, written by Henie's brother Leif and Raymond Strait after her death, Henie was obsessed with money and sex, could become vile in anger, and shamelessly exploited her family and others to achieve her goals.

In September 1968, she was diagnosed with leukemia. Marked by the serious illness, she visited friends in Paris in October 1969 and died on the return flight to Oslo at the age of 57. She remained childless. Sonja Henie was buried above the Henie-Onstad Art Center.

Single run

(with Arne Lie)

Henie was inducted into the Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1976. She has a star on the Walk of Fame and the imprints of her skates have decorated a cement slab of Grauman's Chinese Theatre since 1937. In 1938, at only 25 years old, she became the youngest recipient of the Order of Saint Olav, First Class.

Sources

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