Henie, Sonja (1912–1969)

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Henie, Sonja (1912–1969)

Norwegian figure skater who won three consecutive gold medals and became a movie box-office attraction surpassed in her day only by Shirley Temple and Clark Gable. Name variations: Sonia Henje. Born in Oslo, Norway, on April 8, 1912 (some sources erroneously cite 1910); died of leukemia on board an ambulance plane traveling from Paris to Oslo on October 12, 1969; daughter of Selma (Nilsen) Henie and Wilhelm Henie (a fur merchant and former champion cyclist); married Dan Topping, in 1940; married Winthrop Gardner, in 1949; married Niels On-stad, in 1956.

In addition to three Olympic gold medals (1928, 1932 and 1936), won ten consecutive World titles(1927–36) and six European championships (1931–36); starred in films (1927–58); along with Niels On-stad, acquired a superb art collection, the major part of which was donated to Norway where it found a home in a new art museum the Ostads erected outside Oslo (1968).


The Norwegian Government's Medal for Versatility and Achievement in Sport (1931); honorary member of the Navajo Indian Tribe (1937); The Order of St. Olav (1938).


Svy Dager for Elisabeth (Norwegian, 1927); One in a Million (1937); Thin Ice (1937); Happy Landing (1938); My Lucky Star (1938); Second Fiddle (1939); Everything Happens at Night (1939); Sun Valley Serenade (1941); Iceland (1942); Wintertime (1943); It's a Pleasure (1945); The Countess of Monte Cristo (1948); Hello London (London Calling , 1958).

The unseasonal blizzard that struck Norway on April 8, 1912, would have had no faster swirls and spins than those executed by Sonja Henie 24 years later at Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Born that day in April, she revolutionized figure skating, making what had been a "stiff and pedantic" set of maneuvers into a ballet on ice, which she performed in short skirts and gray, beige or white boots and stockings.

Sonja Henie began training early. From the age of four, she skied with her parents and older brother Leif in the family hunting lodge at Geilo. Simultaneously, she started her much-loved ballet lessons. Her instructor was Love Krohn, an Oslo ballet master who had been a teacher of the great Anna Pavlova . Henie continued her ballet lessons as she took up skating; gradually the idea of combining the two took hold in her imagination.

Because her parents thought a six-year-old too young for the unforgiving ice, she had to beg for her first pair of skates. When they finally relented, she tagged along after her elder brother, who rarely succeeded in ruses to avoid her, whenever he skated in Oslo's Frogner Park. By the age of seven, she could negotiate the slippery surface on her own. She was an absorbed, wildly enthusiastic skater, forgetting meals as she lost track of time doing her figures and swirls. Her efforts drew the attention of a young woman, Hjordis Olsen, who belonged to Frogner's private club. Olsen had observed the child, who appeared to live on the ice from sunup to sundown, and invited her into the secluded area where club members practiced their spins and jumps. There, Olsen started with simple lessons in school figures which Henie practiced so assiduously that her father Wilhelm Henie, on Olsen's recommendation, entered her in the children's competition held each year. Henie took first prize: a silver paper cutter with a mother-of-pearl handle.

The following year, when she was eight, Sonja won the Junior Class C competition and went from there to the Senior A category, Norway's national championship. To train for that, she was given lessons by Oslo's leading skating instructor, Oscar Holte. She was also put on a schedule—three hours of skating in the morning, two in the afternoon—and a diet regimen that called for her to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at regular hours.

In the spring and summer, she continued her ballet lessons. School became a series of tutorings. Henie counted herself extremely fortunate to have been born in a family that could afford private lessons, not only at home but also in the countries where she would go to train and perform. After winning the Norwegian championship, she went with her family to St. Moritz and Chamonix and, in 1924, was entered in the Chamonix Olympic Games just to have the experience of the competition. Though one of the judges gave her top ranking in free skating, she took last place. Old sports reels show her spinning round and round in her coat and hat, a small blonde 11-year-old who would become the most famous figure skater in the world.

At 14, Sonja was entered in the 1927 World championship in Oslo, the youngest contestant ever in that event. Skating before thousands of onlookers, including Norway's King Haakon VII and Queen Maud , she twirled herself to victory and into a decade of travel and international ice rinks. Henie's top ranking stirred some controversy, however, because two of the five judges—the Austrian and the German—gave their first place votes to Herma Planck-Szabo , gold-medal winner of the 1924 Olympic games. Though the three Norwegian judges prevailed, the International Skating Union instituted a rule that only one judge per country be allowed in international meets.

Sonja Henie spoke of three elements in her preparation which were crucial to success. One was anticipation. She worked intensively on all 80 school figures, any of which might be selected for the Olympic test of 1928, her next immediate goal. Secondly, she sought exhibition experience wherever she could find it. Her father Wilhelm, who was also her supportive and promoting manager, would bring a phonograph

to the ice where she was practicing, and admirers would line up to watch her performance. Finally, she had a role model which offered unending inspiration: Pavlova, the unsurpassed Russian dancer.

The summer between the World championship and the St. Moritz Olympics, her mother Selma Henie took her to London to see the famous ballerina. Pavlova's performance, which according to Henie went "beyond dancing, transcending technique to such an extent that the onlooker was unaware of technique," steeled her determination to make her free-skating program a combination of dancing and skating. She would make her performance a dance, she decided, "with the choreographic form of a ballet solo and the technique of the ice," a radically untraditional approach.

[Being a skater is] having a feeling of… speed lifting you off the ice far from all things that can hold you down.

—Sonja Henie

At the 1928 Olympics in St. Moritz, no one debated Sonja Henie's top ranking. It was awarded her by six of the seven judges. Only the American judge voted for Beatrix Loughran of the United States, who took third place. With that victory, Henie felt herself stepping into a world of "incessant rivalry… exploding jealousies, explosions of temperament, milling acquaintances, and a few firm friendships; a world of trunks and suitcases; fast trains, steamships, hotel suites, parties; music, costumes, spot-lights—and all the time the necessity to sleep long hours, eat regularly and rightly, and train constantly." Nor was she spared the experience of mob hysteria. On one occasion, a waiting crowd outside the skating rink surrounded her so closely they nearly squeezed her to death. She was saved by her father forcing himself through a crowd that would not yield to his protestations that he was her father but only to the officials he hailed for help. On her way back to her hotel, the same crowd exerted enough pressure on her car to shatter the glass of the windows.

Occasionally, she marveled at her father's continued support and encouragement as well as his willingness to spend the thousands of dollars needed to keep her going from competition to competition. She marveled equally at her mother's steadfast vigilance in the office of chaperon. Selma Henie, in fact, became her daughter's constant companion and closest counselor. From time to time, Sonja was even amazed at her own unflagging interest in competition, but she never questioned her desire to skate. "Not many people can spend their lives doing what they like to do best. I happen to be one of those few who can," she wrote in her memoirs. "All my life I have wanted to skate, and all my life I have skated." Professional skating was an idea yet to be discovered, so participating in competitions was the only way to stay on top in the "business" of skating.

The St. Moritz Olympics were succeeded by the World championships in London. In addition to another first place, Henie took pleasure in learning that the meet had occasioned an increased public interest in figure skating, evidenced by the addition of four new skating rinks in the city of London. She was less thrilled at the thought of the royal faux pas she committed there as she responded to Queen Mary of Teck 's questions about skating with the suggestion that the queen take up roller skating. Henie considered that the safer sport.

After Europe, America beckoned. In December of 1929, Henie sailed for New York to give performances in Madison Square Garden before traveling to Canada where she won her fourth World championship title. Reading newspaper reports of her performances, she was intrigued with the predilection of the American press for the "little" things: the number of skates and dresses in her trunk, the length of her skirts, or the shortness rather. European skaters had raised their hemlines, and Sonja followed fashion. She, too, as it turned out, would become attached to "little" things, such as the Roxy motion picture theater in New York which impressed her with its comfortable decor and glamorous atmosphere.

The mature phase of Sonja Henie's skating, she noted, was "clouded by the envy and jealousy of rivals and their supporters." Her first place at the Olympic Games in Lake Placid in 1932 was unrivalled; she was the unanimous choice of the seven judges. That event also saw two Sonja Henie clones, one of whom would be the first reminder of the ever ticking clock. Megan Taylor and Cecilia Colledge from Great Britain—both 11 years old—took seventh and eight place.

Rumors began circulating that Henie would be accepting proposals for professional engagements in the States, one of them from a film company. Though her father turned them down because they were not particularly good offers, and the family did not like the idea of professionalism in sports, it did not still the voices. Gossip had also been ignited in Canada when, on their arrival in Montreal, Wilhelm stuck by his decision to decline the invitation to skate in two clubs there. His refusal was complicated by the fact that he had accepted an engagement on his daughter's behalf at the New York Skating Club. His reasoning was that, unlike Montreal, the New York performance followed long enough after the Lake Placid Games to give Sonja a chance to rest. Newspapers, however, made a point of noting that Wilhelm had made such exorbitant demands for expense money that the Canadian clubs would have had to renege on their invitations anyway. In subsequent performances in New York, Paris, and Oslo, Sonja was greeted warmly by the audience, which soothed her mind and spirit, but in the summer following her second Olympic gold medal, she considered retiring for the first time.

Henie ended such considerations after entering an automobile race for amateur drivers in Stockholm. Taking second place, she once again felt the adrenalin rising. With renewed vigor, she therefore made plans for performances in Paris and Milan where she made her debut in the Swan dance, her ice version of Pavlova's solo. The Italians loved it, and Sonja felt that a new career of dancing on ice was opening up to her.

And yet, she was not quite ready to embrace the challenges of that envisioned future. She felt she had one more Olympic medal in her and one more World championship. She consequently exerted the utmost pressure upon herself by announcing that she would retire from competition after the 1936 World championship which would follow one week after the Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, West Germany. Henie won her gold medal, only 3.6 points ahead of young Cecilia Colledge of Great Britain, who had soared from eighth place four years earlier. A week later, Henie won her tenth straight World championship. Only Ulrich Salchow, who won 11 consecutive World titles from 1901 through 1911, had done better.

After winning 1,473 cups, medals, and trophies, Sonja Henie decided to go professional. In March 1936, she signed a contract with Arthur Wirtz to give four exhibitions in New York and four in Chicago. After that, she would go to Los Angeles. She was convinced that the cinema would be the perfect medium for projecting dancing on ice.

Henie arrived in Hollywood after giving seventeen appearances in nine cities between March 24 and April 15 of 1936. When the Henies learned that the city had an ice rink—"The Polar Ice Palace"—Wilhelm Henie arranged to rent it for several days and planned two exhibitions. Realizing that Hollywood was not "ice conscious,"

they sent out a deluge of invitations and advertised the shows in the newspapers. It was to their great advantage that reporters with the major papers had heard of Sonja Henie's work abroad and wrote helpful promotional pieces. The two performances went beyond anyone's expectations. Hollywood's gliterati came to see Sonja Henie, and many returned on the second night. In the audience was Darryl Zanuck, the man for whom this whole extravaganza had been performed. The Henies had heard of his reputation for welcoming new ideas and possessing the persistence to realize them. But Zanuck was hesitant when he asked her what she wanted in a film and Henie replied, "the title role." She was not interested in a supporting part that would sell a movie on her reputation. After lengthy negotiations, she was offered the lead in One in a Million. Her performance put Zanuck's doubts to rest. Million was a huge popular success, and nine films would follow.

Living and performing in Hollywood, Henie learned to transform herself from a skating champion to a businesswoman. At first, she had the steady guidance of her father who saw her through the writing of the initial contract as well as the filmmaking. Her mother's presence, from their rising at five o'clock in the morning through the grueling day on the set, offered further comfort and stability in a world that held little of either. But when she lost her father in May of 1937, Henie felt the responsibility for her future falling on her own shoulders. She would miss his "vision, guidance, and encouragement,… his tricks of competition and business," but as it turned out, she had inherited a good share of his business acumen. She quickly learned, as she put it, to "make no decision hastily, to judge no man by his front, and to remember that the world never puts a price on you higher than the one you put on yourself."

Film followed film interspersed with tours. Miss Sonja Henie with her Hollywood Ice Revue, which hit the road after her third film Happy Landing, was finally dancing on ice, just as she had imagined it: a spectacle of lights, costumes, music and dance-like motions, with numbers ranging from Liszt to the Susi-Q. Finally in 1940, skating to Les Sylphides, she felt that ballet had arrived on the ice.

In December 1937, the Navajo Indians made her an honorary member of their tribe, christening her Ashonogo Sonnie Tin-Edil-Goie, "graceful young lady who skates on ice." The following year, January 1938, she was awarded Norway's highest distinction, the Order of St. Olav, the youngest person ever to receive the decoration. The tribute was paid for her "unique contribution as a sportswoman, an artist, an interpreter of the ideals of Norway's youth, and one who has upheld the honor of the flag of Norway."

An ill-considered refusal to aid Norwegian refugees in Canada during the early years of the Second World War incurred their censure, however. Later donations and performances for the troops were mitigating factors, but on the whole the decade of the 1940s proved emotionally challenging. Henie had not only lost her father, the mainstay of her life, her two marriages to Dan Topping and Winthrop Gardner failed. In the mid-1950s, she finally found the happiness and sense of security she sought in her union with Niels On-stad, a distinguished Norwegian shipowner. With his encouragement, she transferred her focus from figure skating to art collecting, a field in which On-stad was a longtime connoisseur. Henie had previously collected old masters, but when her husband introduced her to contemporary painters, she quickly developed an eye for the boldness and balance of abstract art as well. Together they traveled to "keep track of what was going on," as he put it, buying whatever appealed to them. By and by, their collection exceeded their wall space, and they began to contemplate where they might find a "house" for their artists. After careful deliberation about which country most needed a modern art collection—America or Norway—they decided on Norway. At mid-century, modern art was poorly represented in public Norwegian collections, none of which had received private donations. By deeding separate gifts, they therefore established the Sonja Henie-Niels On-stad Foundation. The donations comprised 110 paintings by 20th-century masters as well as means to erect a building that would not only house and show this collection but also encom-pass activities within the other arts, such as music, theater, dance, film and multimedia. Additional means were allotted for the upkeep and running of the art center, which was opened on August 23, 1968, by King Olav V of Norway. It is Norway's largest museum of international modern art. In October 1969, Henie became ill while in France and died of leukemia on board an ambulance plane traveling from Paris to Oslo.


The Complete Book of the Olympics. Edited by David Wallechinsky. New York, 1984.

Durant, John. Highlights of the Olympics. NY: Hastings House, 1965.

Henie, Sonja. Wings on My Feet. NY: Prentice-Hall, 1940.

The Olympic Story. Danbury, CT: Grolier Enterprises, 1983.

related media:

Sonja Henie: Queen of the Ice (60 min. documentary), aired on PBS, 1995.


Henie-On-stad Foundation, Oslo, Norway.

Inga Wiehl , a native of Denmark, teaches English at Yakima Valley Community College, Yakima, Washington