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

Daily Express - - LETTERS - By Neil Clark

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.”

Pic­tures: GETTY

THIN ICE: With Ty­rone Power in 1937 FLAM­BOY­ANT: Along­side Lib­er­ace UN­MATCHED: To this day Sonja’s record of skat­ing ti­tles hasn’t been beaten

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