Yes, Sonja Henie was one of the most successful actresses in Thirtes and Forties Hollywood.
But she was also a supremely gifted athlete, a pioneering figure skater whose competitive record — three consecutive Olympic gold medals , ten consecutive world championships — has never been approached much less equaled.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your Classic Movie guys, to continue our Sonja Henie series, this time focusing on her astounding athleticism. (She was also a pretty fair skier and tennis player.).
Since Joe and Frank know little about figure skating — we are being charitable here — we have invited our friend Edward Z. Epstein, Joe’s collaborator on some 15 books about famous Hollywood stars and a talented ice skater in his own right, to take the editorial reigns today. Here’s Ed…..
Just how did (Henie), a diminutive Norwegian-born lass become the premiere ice ballerina of the world?
“I was fortunate. I discovered what I loved to do and wanted to do from a very early age,” she would say. Her obsession: “to skate.” Sonja was also fortunate to have a solid support system: her parents were willing and able (he was a fur wholesaler in Oslo) to underwrite, with dollars and encouragement, their daughter’s unswerving desire to perform on ice.
Sonja proved to be a prodigy. At six, after badgering her mother and father for months, she received her first pair of skates. At seven, competing against skaters twice her age, she won her first competition. By the age of eight, she was the Norwegian Junion Class C Champion, and at nine she became champion of Norway, Senior Class A. At ten, Sonja entered her first Olympics (the 1924 Games) and place last.
That was one of the last times Sonja Henie was not the leader of the pack.
At 13, she became the youngest girl ever to win a world championship (that distinction still holds). Sonja’s idol was the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova (Henie subsequently took ballet lessons from Pavlova’s instructor, Mme. Karsavina). Sonja’s goal was to become a true artist of the ice.
She was an innovator in her sport, the first to combine dance and figure skating. Sonja won her first Olympics in 1928, in St. Moritz; her second world title in London; her third the following year in Budapest. She journeyed to the U.S. for the first time in 1930, to compete in the world championships.
The much-heralded event took place in Madison Square Garden in New York City, where 16-year-old Sonja placed first. Naturally, she greatly intrigued both press and public alike — just who was this talented kid who’d already won four world titles?
In news reports Sonja was affectionately dubbed “New York’s Scandinavian Sweetheart.” Berlin was the scene of Sonja’s next skating victory (her fifth world championship). And the following year, 1932, she won her second Olympic gold medal in Lake Placid, N.Y. (Then) in 1936, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, Sonja accomplished the impossible: a third Olympic gold medal, followed by a tenth world championship in Paris.
Burning all amateur bridges behind her she turned professional, singing with American entrepreneur Arthur Wirtz. While Sonja’s skating repertoire didn’t include today’s requisite double and triple jumps (many of which didn’t exist then), the skater’s personal charisma compensates for that arguable shortcoming.
Her performing seems effortless; she appears to be having the time of her life, inviting one and all to share in the fun: “It’s easy! Try it yourself!” is the message, and the public flocked as never before to ice rinks. Many new rinks sprang up throughout the country.
Thanks to Sonja Henie, ice skating became (and has remained) one of the most popular sports throughout the world.
Thanks, Ed. Next up? We’ll take a close look at Henie’s highly successful movie career. She was a star in two worlds, after all.