Ice Queen who became Hollywood’s golden girl
As the Winter Olympics gets under way in Pyeongchang, South Korea, we look at the blonde figure skater, Sonja Henie, who dominated her sport in the 1930s
SHE was the original “Queen of the Ice”, the figure skater from Norway who revolutionised her sport in the 1930s and 1940s and became a top Hollywood star and international celebrity. Sonja Henie said she wanted to do for skating what Fred Astaire had done for dancing and it’s fair to say she achieved her ambition to a quite remarkable degree.
Born, appropriately enough, during a snow storm in Oslo on April 8, 1912, she was the second child of a prosperous furrier and his wife. Her father Wilhelm had been a world cycling champion and spared no expense in helping his daughter reach the top. From an early age she showed a great aptitude for sport, excelling in tennis, swimming and riding. But skating was her first love.
Having won her first major competition, the Norwegian national championships, aged 10, she competed a year later at the 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France. She came last in a field of eight but four years later in St Moritz it was a very different story. She won the gold medal aged 15 in a virtuoso display.
“She had a gracefulness, she was like some kind of fairy on the ice,” her friend Ole Henrik Moe recalled in a 1994 documentary. Henie retained her Olympic title in 1932 and 1936 and also won 10 consecutive world titles. “Her father was always saying, ‘Meet Sonja, the world’s champion – the best there ever is or ever will be,’” Vivi-Anne Hulten, a fellow skater, recalled.
Henie made headlines not just for her superb performances but also for her risqué outfits. She was the skater who gave her sport sex appeal. She caused something of a sensation by wearing white velvet in the 1927 World Championships.
Later she became the first competitor to wear short skirts. Before Henie, women skaters wore black boots, she popularised wearing white ones. She also pioneered the trend for incorporating graceful choreography into her routines. And when it came to exploiting her popularity and fame for financial gain Henie paved the way.
Her hard-nosed commercial attitude earned her the nickname Little Miss Money-Bags. Even as an amateur she endorsed products for cash. A 1935 advertisement for Chesterfield cigarettes saw her skating the words “they satisfy” on to the ice. On another occasion she happily posed next to a shiny new motor and said: “This is a good opportunity for me to send my greetings to my American public and thank them for a beautiful car!”
After the 1936 Olympics she turned professional and toured the US with her own ice show extravaganza. Not only that but she signed a lucrative five-year $125,000-a-film contract with 20th Century Fox in which she would star in a series of musicals with a skating theme. Producer Darryl F Zanuck first offered her supporting role status but Henie – who only ever wanted to be “No 1” – insisted she had top billing. Zanuck reluctantly agreed.
By the time the Second World War broke out she had established herself as one of Tinseltown’s most popular stars: a 1939 poll put her behind only Clark Gable and Shirley Temple.
Her first picture One In A Million was a huge hit in 1936, her next Thin Ice sparked a romance with her co-star Tyrone Power, thought to be the love of her life. Other love interests included actor Van Johnson, heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis and a “relationship” with the flamboyant gay pianist Liberace. Henie never lacked male admirers. In the skating world it was common knowledge that Sonja’s skating partners often partnered her in bed. “I think she slept with them all. She was always in bed with somebody,” said Susan Strong Davis, who appeared in Henie’s ice shows.
While the public adored her she wasn’t universally liked off screen. “She was a beautiful little doll on the ice and she really knew how to perform. But the second she was off the ice she was like two people – very selfish,” revealed Vivi-Anne Hulten.
CONTROVERSY followed her during her competition years too. She was heavily criticised for not speaking out more forcefully against the Nazi invasion of her native Norway in 1940. And four years earlier her popularity took a pummelling after she performed in front of Hitler in Berlin, ahead of the 1936 Winter Olympics.
Skating into the rink at full speed she did a sharp little skid stop in front of the Führer, raised her arm and declared, “Heil Hitler.” The next day her compatriots were distraught, with newspapers asking: Is Sonja a Nazi?
In 1956, having married for the third time to Norwegian shipping magnate Niels Onstad, she finally hung up her skates. In between jaunts around the world, partying with the likes of Cary Grant and Joan Crawford and spending lavishly on jewellery and art, she made one final film, 1958’s Hello London. A decade later she and her husband opened the HenieOnstad Art Centre in Oslo.
Around this time Henie got a cold she couldn’t shake. Onstad took her to several doctors but unwilling to accept the diagnosis – leukaemia – he decided to keep the truth from her. On October 12, 1969 Henie died in her sleep on a flight from Paris to Oslo, aged just 57. She left behind a fortune of $47million (£34m).
To this day her record of skating titles has not been matched. “Technically she was not much better than we were,” recalled Fritzi Burger, twice a runner-up to Henie at Olympic Games. “But she had more showmanship, the best I’ve ever seen.”
THIN ICE: With Tyrone Power in 1937 FLAMBOYANT: Alongside Liberace UNMATCHED: To this day Sonja’s record of skating titles hasn’t been beaten