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Henie, Sonja

Sonja Henie

1912-1969

Norwegian figure skater

During her lifetime Sonja Henie reigned as the "queen of ice," and today she remains the most influential individual to have been part of figure skating. During a career that spanned the 1920s, '30s, '40s, and '50s, the Norwegian skater made major contributions to women's figure skating, which would help propel the sport into the prominence it now enjoys as a dazzling, physically-challenging, personality-filled field. Henie is credited with many "firsts," including being the first international sports star, the first superstar among figure skaters, and the firstand still onlywoman to win three Olympic gold medals in figure skating. Among her many victories as a competitive skater, she also won ten consecutive world championships. These honors were the result of talent, intensive training, and an interest in doing something different from other skaters. Henie is credited with transforming an originally demure, predictable activity by infusing it with her feminine charms and passion for the ballet. Short skirts and choreography were unknown in figure skating before Henie introduced them in the late 1920s. But Henie did not stop there. When she became a professional skater in 1936, she set her sights on movie stardom and quickly turned herself into a top box office draw. While also working as an ice show star and producer, she became a multi-millionaire

and easily eclipsed the earnings of any other star athlete, male or female.

Early Advantages

As a child, Henie enjoyed advantages that greatly contributed to her success as a skater. Born on April 8, 1912 in Oslo, Norway, her father, Hans Wilhelm Henie, was a successful fur trader and her mother, Selma Lochman Nielsen, had a fortune of her own. When their daughter showed a special passion for skating at about age six, which she began under the instruction of her brother Leif, they provided her with whatever training she required. The family also fully appreciated Henie's interest in sports. Hans was himself very athletic; among his diverse pursuits, he was a former world champion in bicycling. His daughter began studying ballet at age five and would be active in skiing, swimming, and horseback riding. She later competed successfully in tennis and auto racing in the midst of her skating career. After taking informal lessons at a local skating club, Henie won her first figure skating competition at age nine. The next year, she began training for the national championship of Norway. To allow for a rigorous training schedule, Henie's parents took her out of school, hired a private tutor, and gave her ballet lessons in London during the summer. In 1923 she became the senior national champion of Norway. Both Hans and Selma became deeply involved in Sonja's skating career. Her mother accompanied her on all of her travels and her father would eventually leave his fur business responsibilities to his son in order to manage Henie's career.

Youthful Champion

The intensity of Henie's commitment to skating was further intensified after competing in the first winter Olympics, in Chamonix, France, in 1924. After placing last in a field of eight, she increased her practice time to some seven hours a day. Because Norway did not yet have indoor ice rinks, she traveled around Europe to train throughout the year and benefit from the best instructors. Her new goal was the 1927 world figure skating championship. Her performance, skating "at home" in Norway's Frogner Stadium, earned her the first of ten consecutive world figure skating titles (and the distinction of being the youngest world champion until Tara Lipinski edged her out in 1997 by a margin of thirty-two days). The pretty, blond skater stood out among the competitors in a white silk and ermine skating dress that had a short skirt. Long, black skirts were the norm, being both modest and warm. But the fourteen-year-old Henie was too small to wear such heavy garb; it tended to act like a sail and tangle in her legs. Selma had designed her daughter's above-the-knee skirt with heavy fur trim to give it fullness. Beyond the garment's visual impact, it gave her the freedom to do jumps and other movements that had only been done by men. When Henie began her program, her ballet training was evident in the flourishes she made with her head and legs. She managed to tie together the elements in her routine in way that had not been done before. She also lit the entire performance with a dazzling, dimpled smile. The hallmarks of Henie's future successes were in place.

Later in 1927 Henie saw the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova dance in London. The experience inspired her to introduce choreographic design in her free skating program, an innovation that helped her win an Olympic gold medal in 1928 at St. Moritz, Switzerland. Her program also included double axels, spins, twirls, and jumps. Her innovations and unparalleled determination would fuel another ten years of amateur successes, including a still unmatched Olympic record. Henie went on to win a total of three Olympic figure skating championships: she also won gold medals at Lake Placid, New York in 1932 and at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria in 1936. The skater turned professional later that same year, after having won her tenth world championship.

Chronology

1912 Born April 8, outside of Oslo, Norway, to Hans Wilhelm Henie and Selma Lochman Nielsen
1918 Receives first pair of ice skates
1921 Wins Norway's junior-level national competition
1922 Studies with private tutor to allow for longer practice sessions
1923 Wins Norwegian National Championship
1927 Sees Anna Pavlova dance in London
1927 Wins first of ten Women's World Figure Skating Championship titles
1928 Awarded Olympic gold medal in figure skating at St. Moritz
1930 Performs in New York City's Madison Square Garden in amateur exhibition
1932 Awarded Olympic gold medal in figure skating at Lake Placid
1936 Awarded Olympic gold medal in figure skating at Garmisch-Partenkirchen
1936 Wins tenth World Championship title
1936 Signs contract to skate in U.S. tour, Sonja Henie's Night,
1936 Rents Hollywood arena to woo filmmakers
1936 Signs five-year contract with Twentieth-Century Fox
1936 Appears in first film, One in a Million
1937 Begins touring in Hollywood Ice Review
1938 Rated third-most-popular film star in poll
1940 Marries Daniel Reid Topping
1941 Becomes U.S. citizen
1946 Divorces Daniel Reid Topping
1948 Makes last film in Hollywood
1949 Marries Winthrop Gardiner, Jr.
1952 Ends long relationship with promoter Arthur Wirtz and tours independently
1952 Stops appearing in arena-style shows after bleacher accident injures 250 spectators
1956 Divorced by Winthrop Gardiner, Jr.
1956 Marries Niels Onstad
1956 Retires from professional skating
1958 Appears in British film Hello London
1968 Donates modern art collection to Norway; builds Henie-Onstad Museum near Oslo
1968 Diagnosed with leukemia
1969 Dies on ambulance plane flying from Paris to Oslo

Turning Professional

Henie had turned down contract offers following the 1932 Olympics, but now set about in earnest to make a career as an exhibition skater and film star. In the effort, she exercised the same mental intensity and financial resources that were the foundation of her earlier work. She already had considerable experience as an exhibition skater, having been a soloist for the New York Skating Club's production Land of the Midnight Sun at Madison Square Garden in 1930. She had also performed for European royalty and presented a skating version of Pavlova's "Dying Swan" that was first seen in Milan, Italy in 1933. Within a month of her last amateur victory, Henie signed with promoter Arthur Wirtz to appear in a U.S. tour. She made seventeen performances in nine cities and earned phenomenal box office returns. The tour did not, however, result in the film contract Henie desired. Henie famously asserted that she wanted to do for skating what Fred Astaire had done for dancing on film. To get the attention of film executives, Henie's father leased Hollywood's Polar Palace for two performances in May 1936. The highly-publicized shows were well attended by film stars and filmmakers, including Darryl F. Zanuck of Twentieth Century-Fox. He soon signed Henie to a five-year contract.

The one obstacle that remained in Henie's way proved to be of small concern: the fact that she wasn't much of an actress. She nevertheless had negotiated an impressive contract and was an immediate hit with audiences. Zanuck first cast Henie in One in a Million (1936), which also starred Don Ameche, Adolphe Menjou, and the Ritz Brothers. It set the pattern for the films to follow as a light musical comedy that included songs and skating. It made the most of Henie's smiling, energetic persona and her dimpled beauty in a story about an Olympic hopeful. Moreover, her skating numbers were fantastic. Critic Roy Hemming enthused about the film when it was among seven video releases made at the time of the 1994 Olympics. "Henie skates with speed, grace, and eye-boggling abandon through four big numbers," he noted in Entertainment Weekly. Of the films in general, he decided, "The best of them hold up as unmatched combinations of romantic comedy, catchy songs, and dazzling skating routines." Theatergoers of the era certainly were thrilled with Henie and their introduction to figure skating. The film soon grossed $2 million and made Henie a household name.

Film Stardom

The year 1937 held some of Henie's greatest accomplishments and one of her greatest losses. Hans Henie died that year, at a time when his daughter's career had reached amazing heights. She was made a Knight First Class of the Order of St. Olaf by King Haakon of Norway, becoming the youngest person to receive this honor. She appeared in the film Thin Ice and was rated in a Motion Picture Herald poll as the eighth most popular film star of the year. As the first and only ice-skating film star, Henie is a show business phenomenon comparable only to the swimmer Esther Williams , who appeared in romantic comedies in the late 1940s. Following the success of Thin Ice, Henie showed her growing business savvy by getting Twentieth Century-Fox to renegotiate her contract. Surely she exceeded nearly everyone's expectations when she was rated as the third most popular film star of 1938, surpassed by only Shirley Temple and Clark Gable. As a result, her 1939 salary was more than $250,000. Another measure of her worth is that in 1940 her legs were insured by Lloyds of London for $5,000 per week.

Henie would make eleven films in Hollywood, with the first six being the most successful. The best paired her with some of the biggest male stars of the time, including Tyrone Power in Thin Ice and Second Fiddle (1939), Don Ameche (for the second time) and Cesar Romero in Happy Landing (1938), and Ray Milland and Robert Cummings in Everything Happens at Night (1939). Sun Valley Serenade (1941), in which Henie appeared with John Payne and Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, is memorable for its Academy Award nominations for best cinematography, best music, and best song. During the 1940s, Henie's popularity with movie audiences began to falter and her contract with Twentieth Century-Fox was not renewed. She made one film each with RKO and Universal in the following years, and in 1958 appeared in Hello London, which was only released in England.

Awards and Accomplishments

1921 Norwegian junior-level national championship
1923 Norwegian National Championship
1927 Women's World Figure Skating Championship
1928 Olympic figure skating championship
1928-36 Women's World Figure Skating Championship
1932 Olympic figure skating championship
1936 Olympic figure skating championship
1937 Made Knight First Class of the Order of St. Olaf

Gee-Whizzer

Second Fiddle displays Sonja [Henie] as Trudi Hovland, a schoolmarm of Bergen, Minn. who is called to Hollywood because her local swain has sent her photograph to Consolidated Pictures Corp., which has been looking high & low for just such a heroine. Jimmy Sutton (Tyrone Power), the press agent sent to Bergen to fetch her, at first treats her merely as Entry No. 436. He agrees that she has no chance for the part but talks her into flying to Hollywood for the trip, with her Aunt Phoebe (Edna May Oliver). After a twirl on the ice with her pupils, Trudi consents. Although Trudi does no skating in her screen test, she makes the grade. Jimmy believes that, as the new star, she can be used to bolster the publicity value of Roger Maxwell (Rudy Vallee), a crooner on the studio pay roll whose self-esteem is more impressive than his newsworthiness. Touched by Roger's mash notes, which are really written by Jimmy, Trudi moons over him all during production of Girl of the North. Only when she learns the real author of the notes does Trudi realize that her heart has been bent, not broken.

Source: Time, 34 (July 17, 1939): 51-54.

Hollywood Ice Revue

Troubles in Henie's film career were not mirrored in her popularity as a live performer. She was showcased in the Hollywood Ice Revue, which began in 1938 and continued for twelve years in cities across the United States. A 2002 article in the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer reflected Henie's impact in these shows, an accomplishment undimmed by the passing of sixty-four years. It recounted that her appearance had been a front-page story in which Roelif Loveland had written "there is no simile to express adequately the grace and loveliness of this glamorous young woman." Loveland continued, "she seems to float, like something in gossamer wings, but anyone tempted to drift off into an ethereal realm is brought back by a pair of very shapely limbs, which move with the smoothness of running water and the strength of youth." Members of the audience paid up to $4.40 for the chance to see Henie. This was more than a day's pay for Steve Turocy, who at age eighty-two remembered having to settle for a $3.30 seat because the others were sold out. During a week in Cleveland, she would skate for more than 62,000 fans.

The Hollywood Ice Review was polished by Henie's unwavering pursuit of perfection. A New York Times obituary noted that she once summoned Eddie Pec, who was said to be the only person she trusted to sharpen her skates, from New York to Chicago by train to do a job that took only a few minutes. She also forbade the skaters in her chorus from wearing hairpins, after having fallen and broken ribs because of a pin on the ice. Henie characterized her skating as very dangerous, but others said that because she almost never fell she did not know how to do it without hurting herself. And most importantly, she hired the best skaters and choreographers and paid them handsomely.

In cooperation with promoter Wirtz, Henie honed her skills as a producer of ice shows as well as maintained her prowess as a skater. In 1940 the pair offered the ballet-on-ice Les Sylphides, which was so successful that they began to produce reviews throughout the year at the Center Theatre in New York City. Henie did not appear in these shows, but rather was an advisor and financial partner. In 1951 Wirtz and Henie were unable to agree on a contract and parted ways. So the skating star created her own ice show, Sonja Henie with Her 1952 Ice Revue. It featured spectacular costumes and included waltz and hula dances. Reviewers marveled that Henie was still in top form. According to a quote in the New York Times, Henie felt that she was working harder than ever: "When I was in championship competition I was on the ice for exactly four minutes. Now I arrive at the Garden at 6:45 and I never stop until 11:10. Besides, I can't quite imagine my doing the hula in the Olympics." But Henie stopped producing shows after an accident in 1952 prior to a performance. A stand of bleacher seats collapsed at a Baltimore armory, injuring more than 250 people. Henie was not judged to be responsible for the incident, but she decided not to hold any more arena-style shows. Subsequently, she appeared on television several times, including her own one-hour special.

Ends Long Career

Henie retired from skating in 1956, the same year that she married her third husband, following two earlier marriages that ended in divorce. Her union with American sports investor (and later owner of the New York Yankees) Daniel Reid Topping lasted from 1940 to 1946, likely a victim to her grueling film production and touring schedules. The year after they were married she became a U.S. citizen. Henie wed American business executive Winthrop Gardiner Jr. in 1949; he divorced her in 1956 for "desertion and mental cruelty." Less than a month later, she was married to a childhood friend, Niels Onstad, who had become a shipping magnate and art collector. Henie did not have any children and became an active collector with her new husband. Her wealth allowed her to maintain a home in Hollywood, a villa in Norway, and an apartment in Lausanne, Switzerland, and to invest in impressionist and expressionist paintings. The couple decided to build a museum for their collection, and in 1968 donated 250 works to the Sonja Henie-Niels Onstad Art Center outside of Oslo. It would later house all of Henie's skating memorabilia. Not long after the center's lavish opening celebration, Henie was diagnosed with leukemia. She died a year later at age fifty-seven. The international star had managed to keep her illness a secret and was seen with her husband at an Oslo theater less than two weeks before her death. Henie died in her sleep on an ambulance plane that was taking her from Paris to Oslo to see a specialist.

Temper Remembered

Public interest in Henie has fueled continued debate about her off-ice and off-screen behavior. A bubbly, smiling figure in her performances, she was in fact a fierce competitor who wanted nothing to do with her rivals. Her brother, Leif Henie, coauthored Queen of Ice, Queen of Shadows: The Unsuspected Life of Sonja Henie (1985), in which he discussed her violent temper. At the time of the 1994 Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan rivalry, their altercations were compared in the press with the sparring that went on between Henie and Swedish skater Vivi-Anne Hulten many years earlier. At the age of eighty-two, Hulten still had plenty of venom for Henie. She remembered in the Sporting News how Henie had screamed at her after the 1933 World Championship competition, saying she was an unworthy opponent. "She went after me in every which way from that point on," said Hulten. "Nobody hit me in the leg or tried to shoot me, but there were some likenesses to what's happening now." Hulten charged that Henie was responsible for having her strip searched and detained on suspicion of smuggling jewels while traveling across the German border in 1935. After she complained to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, the guard was summoned to apologize for the incident. He named Henie as the instigator. Moreover, Hulten believed that Henie's father influenced competition organizers by playing poker for "appearance fees" and, in one case, the agreement to place Hulten third in the 1936 Olympics.

Other stories echo these allegations, although in a milder fashion. During the years that Henie won her world championships, the five-member judging panel was dominated by three Norwegians. Complaints by Austrian skaters would result in new rules allowing only one judge per country for each event. In a 1999 account for Newsweek, silver-medal holder Cecilia Colledge also remembered competing against Henie in the 1936 Olympic games. She recalled the champion's marvelous clothes and icy disdain. "To her, there were no other skaters," wrote Colledge. "Even on the podium after the Olympics, there were no kisses, no handshakes, not even a word." A male cast member from the Hollywood Ice Review had warmer memories of Henie in a 1996 interview in Films in Review. Bill Griffin described Henie as a perfectionist with a short fuse. It was Selma Henie, he said, who ended her daughter's squabbles and made sure that things ran smoothly. Griffin saw Henie as person intent on reaching her professional goals and little else. "You could laugh with Sonja, but she had other things on her mind. I don't think she ever really learned to enjoy life. She had to concentrate on her profession, and fulfill contracts, really from the age of nine on," he explained.

Another accusation that hurt Henie's image was the perception that she was a Nazi sympathizer. This was particularly true in Norway after World War II, where her status as one of the most admired Norwegians of all time was threatened by criticisms that she had not contributed to war relief efforts. It was also noted in Queen of Ice, Queen of Shadows that before the war started the Henies had visited with Adolf Hitler and that during a 1936 show in Berlin she had given him the Nazi salute and said "Heil, Hitler."

But Henie will be best remembered for putting skating above the personal and political. Her passion for performing turned her into a huge financial and popular success among athletes. During sixteen years of touring she earned something in the range of $10 million and her movies probably netted her more than $25 million. However, these are not Henie's most enduring achievements. Likewise, her films are still enjoyable, but their style and that of her skating is dated. Her jumps and spins seem ridiculously easy compared to the athletic feats of contemporary figure skaters. It is her effect on the sport of figure skating that is unrivaled. She took a largely unnoticed, technically-oriented sport and turned it into a dynamic art form that, along with its star performers, is avidly followed by fans around the world.

SELECTED WRITINGS BY HENIE:

Mitt livs eventyr, Oslo, Norway: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, 1938.

Wings On My Feet, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1940.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Periodicals

Colledge, Cecilia. "The World's First Ice Queen." Newsweek (October 25, 1999): 53.

Dolgan, Bob. "When Cleveland fell under Sonja's spell 64 years ago, Henie's visit enchanted the city." Plain Dealer (January 16, 2002).

"Gee-Whizzer." Time (July 17, 1939): 51-54.

Hemming, Roy. "Tonya-no! Sonja-yes!" Entertainment Weekly (February 11, 1994): 62.

Knisley, Michael. "Tormented by a rival who was cold as ice." Sporting News (February 14, 1994): S21.

O'Brien, Richard and Jack McCallum. "Ice Wars: The Prequel." Sports Illustrated (February 14, 1994): 18.

"Remembering Sonja Henie." Films in Review (July-August 1996): 60.

"Sonja Henie, Skating Star, Dies." New York Times (October 13, 1969).

Sketch by Paula Pyzik Scott

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Sonja Henie

Sonja Henie

Modern figure skating is deeply indebted to Sonja Henie (1912-1969), one of the greatest athletes of this century. She was the first skater to incorporate the principles of ballet into her routines and the first woman to perform spins and jumps. Through her live ice shows and a series of Hollywood movies, Henie enlarged the audience for figure skating and transformed it into a thrilling entertainment.

Born April 8, 1912, in Oslo, Norway, Henie was blessed from the beginning with every attribute a skater might need. Her father was a wealthy fur salesman and a former amateur cycling champion who encouraged his children to compete. Her mother was willing to travel all across Europe with her to find coaches and outdoor ice rinks. Private tutors were hired to educate her while she concentrated on her skating. Her talent was evident from a very early age.

Henie entered her first Olympic competition in 1924, when she was 11 years old. Because she was still a child, she competed in a knee-length skirt, rather than the calf-length outfits the older women wore. Her fur-trimmed costume afforded her greater ease of movement, and she performed some moves that were downright shocking for the time, including a jump into a sit spin. A surprised panel of judges awarded her third place in the free style portion of the competition, but her poor showing on the compulsory figures lowered her score dramatically. She finished in last place.

Far from being discouraged, the youngster poured all her energies into skating. In 1927, at the tender age of 14, she won the first of ten consecutive world championships. No other skater before or since has dominated the sport as thoroughly as Henie did between 1927 and 1936.

Soon after winning her first world championship, Henie saw a ballet performance by Russian great Anna Pavlova. The young Norwegian was profoundly influenced by Pavlova's artistry, and she tried to incorporate ballet-style choreography into her skating routines. At the time this was a brave departure from convention, and audiences loved it. Henie's sense of drama, athletic perfection, and graceful, balletic performances wrought a permanent change in figure skating and paved the way for today's skating superstars.

Henie won Olympic gold medals in 1928, 1932, and 1936 before retiring from amateur skating. At the height of the Great Depression she had become an international star with enough clout that she could announce that she planned to be in motion pictures. The idea of an ice skating movie might seem quaint today, but Henie starred in a number of them, most notably One in a Million, the story of a skater's rise to Olympic glory, and Thin Ice. Typically, Henie films were short on plot and long on her trademark skating routines. In an era before television, these films were an introduction to skating for millions of American viewers.

Within a year of turning pro, Henie had earned in excess of a quarter of a million dollars. She became a millionaire by 1940, an accomplishment that outstrips even the male athletes of her generation. With her sunny personality and obvious love of skating, Henie popularized the sport and served as a role model for American skating hopefuls of both sexes, including Dick Button, Tenley Albright (the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal), and Carol Heiss.

When live television began to cut into the film industry, Henie stopped making movies and returned to traveling ice shows. For a time she had her own company, Sonja Henie's Hollywood Ice Revue, but an unfortunate bleacher collapse at one of her shows caused the venture to fold. After that Henie could be seen in other ice shows and on television specials. Gradually her appearances dwindled, and in 1956 she retired.

Dividing her remaining years between homes in Norway and the United States, Henie lived happily with her third husband, Niels Onstad. In the mid-1960s she developed leukemia and spent the rest of her life fighting the disease. Her death in Los Angeles, California on October 12, 1969, robbed the skating world of one of its brightest stars. By today's standards, Henie's routines were almost ridiculously simple, her jumps far from spectacular. Her contribution to skating is secure, however, because she combined all of the elements so important to the sport today: high drama, athletic prowess, and star power. A champion in her own day, she has become a legend in ours.

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Henie, Sonja

Sonja Henie (sō´nyə hĕn´ē), 1912–69, Norwegian-American figure skater and movie actress, b. Oslo, Norway. She began ice skating at the age of eight and two years later won the first of six straight Norwegian figure-skating championships. She won the world's figure-skating crown ten consecutive years, the European title eight times in a row, and the Olympic figure-skating championship in 1928, 1932, and 1936. After her last Olympic win she moved permanently to the United States and turned professional. Her ice carnivals attracted millions. She starred in a number of motion pictures and wrote the autobiographical Wings on My Feet (1940).

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