Figure skater Sonja Henie was the world’s best paid movie actor – and misunderstood in her home country Norway. Read the fascinating story about the Norwegian Ice-Queen.
Norwegian figure skater and film star Sonja Henie (1912 – 1969) won more Olympic and World titles than any other ladies’ figure skater. She was three-time Olympic Champion in women’s Singles, a ten-time World Champion and a six-time European Champion. She also made millions with hit Hollywood films like My Lucky Star and Sun Valley Serenade, and sold-out ice shows in the 30s and 40s.
Sonja ranked as one of the most internationally famous Norwegians, but wasn’t very popular at home.
Serious training as a figure skater
She unwrapped her first skates on Christmas morning 1919. That was the only item on seven-year-old Sonja’s Christmas want list. “Such skates to walk around and around on,” she told her dad Wilhelm. Already on the first day of Christmas she glided onto the ice-skating rink on little too big skates. The seven-year old was obsessed.
The Henies were in a position to satisfy Sonja’s every desire. Wilhelm, who came from old money generated by a brush factory and a fur company, was a smart businessman who grew the family fortune. He was also a world-class athlete who’d been a competitive speed skater, and won the track cycling world championship in 1894.
Once Sonja began serious training as a figure skater, her formal schooling ended. She was educated by tutors, and her father hired the best experts in the world, including the famous Russian ballerina, Tamara Karsavina, to transform his daughter into a sporting celebrity.
Legitimate sport in the Winter Olympics
Henie is credited with being the first figure skater to adopt the short skirt costume in figure skating, wear white boots and make use of dance choreography. Her innovative skating techniques and glamorous demeanor transformed the sport permanently and confirmed its acceptance as a legitimate sport in the Winter Olympics. Sonja had innate musicality, which gave her skating numbers a feeling of well-being. She had a lovely, Astaire-like élan on the ice.
Today, say her name to anyone under 40, and they won’t know that she was the first teen phenom of modern times—that in 1928, months before Shirley Temple was even born, this dimpled imp of 15 was already a child star on the world’s stage. She was nicknamed “the Nasturtium of the North,” “the Ice Queen of Norway,” “the White Swan,” and, less flatteringly, “Little Miss Moneybag”, perhaps because her surname rhymed with “penny”.
The White Swan
However, an new film “Sonja. The White Swan” (2019) shows that her life wasn’t so super at all. The Norwegian director Anna Sewitsky’s film centers on how Henie, after winning triple Olympic gold, headed for Hollywood in 1936 and became a film star. Then followed ups and downs.
When Sonja Henie and her father arrived in Los Angeles, a number of Hollywood’s top actors were invited. “The result of Dad and my little plan broke all records,” Henie writes. She signed a five years’ contract with Darryl Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox, which proved to be a monster at the box office, reportedly earning more than $500,000 within the first year. Her sold-out ice shows worked as advertising for her movies. Henie was irresistible and put figure skating on the map and got everyone heading for the ice.
In The White Swan, Henie is portrayed as a sharp businesswoman, full of self-confidence and able to get what she wanted out of Hollywood’s biggest film tycoons at the time. In the film version, Sonja Henie is a stubborn, greedy, egoistical and, at times, downright nasty woman who loved mounting huge parties but could also end up getting hurt.
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World War II breaks out
When World War II broke out, Hollywood had become Henie’s new home. In 1941, she applied for US citizenship, which was seen as an insult at home in occupied Norway. The fact that Henie had made a Nazi salute to Hitler during one of her shows a few years earlier also created speculation. “She asked for it”, wrote Norwegian commentator Tor Myklebost about the rumors at home in Norway, claiming Henie had failed to offer more support for her home country during the World War II occupation.
The White Swan includes a memorable scene where, when confronted with concerns about her films’ distribution in Europe, Henie claims “I can call Goebbels in the morning.” She’d had dinner with him at one of Hitler’s homes.
Towards the end of her career, she began to be strongly challenged by younger skaters. However, she held off these competitors and went on to win her third Olympic title at the 1936 Winter Olympics.
Returning to Norway
She eventually returned to Norway, where she hadn’t been forgiven. But shortly after Henie’s return, the Norwegians’ hearts melted again. With her show Holiday on Ice she met Norwegian shipowner Niels Onstad. Both he and she were self-made and not fully accepted in more conditioned environments. So, they stayed abroad and longed for home. However, they experienced the art environment as a comfortable escape and together, the couple built an art collection consisting of 400 works that formed the basis for their Henie Onstad Museum just west of Oslo, which opened in 1968 with Norway’s royal family in attendance.
Her autobiography Wings on My Feet, translated from Mitt livs eventyr and published in 1940, was republished in a revised edition in 1954.
When she died, in 1969, her holdings were estimated at more than $47 million.
The Norwegian Ice Queen, written by Tor Kjolberg.