April 8, 1912
October 12, 1969
Sonja Henie was born the daughter of a furrier, Wilhelm, and his wife Selma, April 8, 1912, in Kristiania, now Oslo, Norway. She learned to dance at four, and began ice-skating at five. At eleven, Sonja won the Figure Skating Championship of Norway, while wearing a flowing skirt designed by her mother, which at the time was considered risque. At thirteen, Sonja earned second place in the World Championships, and at fourteen she won the World Title, which she held on to for ten consecutive years.
Henie studied ballet and became known as the “Pavlova of the Ice” while she introduced new styles of dress, showmanship and dance that are today considered standard. Her elegant costumes, all designed by Selma Henie, and envied and copied by her peers and competitors around the world, got shorter and shorter. With her constant winning smile, her glamorous attire, and little white skating boots that later became a classic, Henie executed leaps on the ice previously performed only by men, and popularized a sport that was at one time considered boring and mundane.
Henie broke records and won gold medals in the Olympic Games of 1928, 1932, and 1936. During the 1936 Games, she raised her arm to Germany’s Fuhrer, shouting “Heil Hitler,” and a friendship between them ensued. That same year, while criticized for frolicking with Nazis, Henie was still loved and admired by her fans.Deciding to turn professional, tiny, five-foot-three, blonde Henie made her way to Hollywood where she undertook exhaustive beauty treatments to make her more appealing as the movie star she intended to be. Studio executives wanted to see the famed skater in movies, but they felt her asking price was outrageous. Sonja demanded that she be paid $75,000 to appear in a film, a fortune at that time, and insisted it be written specifically for her talents.
The studio balked at first. To prove her worth to them, Henie rented an ice rink and produced and starred in her own Hollywood Ice Revue, an enormously successful show, selling out to standing-room-only crowds, which with the backing of financier, director, producer, and owner of the Chicago Stadium Arthur Wirtz, continued to produce every year through 1950.
On the very last day of filming, Henie fell and was covered in black dye. Instead of re-shooting the sequence, the director decided on a sudden, ludicrous cut to Henie happily skiing down a Sun Valley slope with costar John Payne. Sonja Henie’s beautiful beaded, velvet, satin, feathered and fur-trimmed costumes became more fantastic each year, and she was one of the biggest box-office draws in America. One of Henie’s’s dramatic entrances to the ice in her Ice Follies show in Chicago had her in a nine-foot jeweled-collar cape covered in a hundred huge, real foxtails ranging from white to pale blue to purple.
With keen business sense, Henie demanded revisions in her contract, and became the highest-paid star in the movie capital. However, her novelty began wearing off. After her film Wintertime (1941), and the advent of World War II, Fox dropped her contract. Published photos of Henie’s 1936 embrace with Hitler did not help her film popularity. After a few unsuccessful movies with other studios, Henie concentrated on skating in her scintillating ice revues, bringing even more costumed glamour to her audiences. She made a fortune.
Henie’s other films include Happy Landing (1939), My Lucky Star (1939), Second Fiddle (1941), Everything Happens At Night (1941), and Iceland (1943). In 1969, costumes and set pieces used in Henie’s shows, including original programs and photos which were stored in an Arthur Wirtz warehouse in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood, went on sale to the public, and it seemed as if everyone was walking around in costumes and beads.Later that year, when she died of leukemia October 12, 1969, on a plane from Paris to her native Oslo, Sonja Henie was one of the ten wealthiest women in the world.