Sonja Henie_TIME Magazine Cover_July 17, 1939
Sonja Henie on the cover of TIME Magazine, July 17, 1939

A skate, according to Mr. Webster, is a contrivance for the foot, consisting of a keel-like runner attached to a plate or frame, enabling the wearer to glide rapidly over the ice. This definition, good enough so far as it goes, is, in the light of recent developments, plainly deficient. It is evidence that the times move faster than the dictionary, and that the dictionary is not yet aware of Sonja Henie.

For this blood daughter of the Norse has during recent months demonstrated unmistakably that a skate is something more than what Mr. Webster’ says it is. To her it has proved the means to fame, fortune, movie stardom and the plaudits of kings. With it she has glided swiftly not merely over the ice, but also into one of the most extraordinary of all motion picture careers.

J.D. Shapiro of Arkansas Gazette, January 23, 1938 had an opportunity to interview Sonja Henie, a retired figure skater whose three straight Olympic gold medals and ten straight world championships in individual figure skating propelled her to the heights of Hollywood. Henie would leverage her sporting accomplishments and become one of the most famous people on the planet in the 1930s and 1940s, a movie and professional skating star, who earned millions of dollars in the process.

At the time of the interview, Henie’s third feature film – “Happy Landing” – was about to debut, and she was about to leave with 80 other skaters on a lucrative national tour of her own ice skating show, called the “Hollywood Ice Revues.” Thanks to her first two films, Henie had already earned hundreds of thousands of dollars. Her first film “One in a Million,” had already made 20th Century Fox more money than any of its other films released in 1936, while her second film, “Thin Ice,” was the fifth biggest box office hit of 1937.

Sonja Henie_One in a Millions
Sonja Henie in One in a Million

According to the Shapiro interview, skating stardom and Hollywood famedom was the goal all along.

“I said to myself,” she explains, “I’ll win 10 skating championships, then I will go into the movies,” She won the championships. Now she is in the movies. So what is strange about it? Sonja it seems has always been like that. She usually knew what she wanted. She usually go it. At seven years old, she told us recently, she wanted a pair of skates for Christmas. Her parents didn’t want to give them to her because they thought she was too young, but in the end she got them. Soon she wanted to win a Norwegian championship. She did, at 11. Next she fastened her eye on a world championships, and she got it, at 14. After that she decided to triumph in the Olympics, and nothing could stop her.

And when it came to the world of film, she targeted 20th Century Fox, led by Darryl F. Zanuck, who according to this Vanity Fair article, had a nose for talent outside the acting world and was willing to take a chance on non-conventional ideas and people. Henie’s business partner, Arthur Wirtz, who created the ice revue business for Henie in New York, would help Henie bring an ice show to Hollywood with the hopes of getting the studio heads’ attention.

Sonja’s father, Wilhelm, then went to see media mogul, William Randolph Hearst with an offer – the Henie’s would donate $5,000 to a charity of Hearst’s choice if his mistress and actress, Marion Davies, would sponsor Sonja’s ice shows. They agreed, and two shows were produced, and the stars came out to the spectacle: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and Myrna Loy – Hollywood royalty of the time.

Sonja Henie and Tyrone Power in The Second Fiddle
Sonja Henie and Tyrone Power in The Second Fiddle

And at the second show, Zanuck showed up. According to Shapiro, Zanuck signed Henie to a five-year contract, instantly making her one of the highest paid actresses of her time.

At the release of her first picture, “One in a Million”, Sonja Henie, walked arm in arm with Hollywood leading man, Tyrone Power at the film’s premier at the Roxy Theater in New York City. The one-and-a-half meter tall woman from Oslo, Norway was a giant of giants.

Here is Sonya Henie in Fly on Ice, her last theatrical film in 1958.

She was still relatively unknown to the world. But at the 1927 figure skating world championships, the young Norwegian managed to be thick in the middle of controversy. Sonja Henie, at the age of 14, won her first world championships, the five judges deciding 3 votes to 2 that young Henie was the best.

Unfortunately, the optics were poor as three of the five judges were Norwegian, and their votes carried the day, as explained in The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics 2014 Edition. As a result of Henie’s victory, the International Skating Union came to their senses and created a rule that there can no longer be more than one judge from a single country at an international competition.

A year later, Henie showed she needed no partisan assistance at the 1928 Sankt Moritz Winter Olympics. Henie was not considered a favorite as the field was strong with 20 skaters, and yet she won handily, making her the youngest figure skater to win gold at the age of 15.

To get to that level, she clearly had to get started early. Her father, Wilhelm Henie (pronounced like “penny”), was a good athlete who competed as a speed skater and a cyclist, and so encouraged his children to take up sports. At the age of 4, according to this Vanity Fair article, Sonja Hennie was on skis. At the age of 5, she took up ballet, as well as skating, and much to her parents’ surprise, she won a children’s skating competition on borrowed clamped-on blades.

Once Sonja and her parents realized that she was a natural on ice, they placed her on a diet and a program. The diet was “raw eggs and rare steaks,” a lifetime delight, and the program was three hours practice in the AM and two hours in the PM, sans school. Thanks to the resources of her furrier father, figure skating and ballet coaches were at little Sonja’s service.

Sonja Henie was at the 1924 Chamonix Winter Games competing against 7 others, including world champion and eventual gold medalist Herma Planck-Szabo. Despite the small field, Henie finished dead last in eighth place. At the incredibly young age of 11, half the age of the gold and silver medalist and a third of the age of the bronze medalist, Henie was clearly a bit over her head. She was said to have repeatedly skated to the rinkside asking for her coach’s advice during her routine.

Sonja Henie_1924 Chamnoix Winter Olympics
Sonja Henie at the 924 Chamonix Winter Olympics

But the transformation of Henie, from rough to polish, began in those four years between Chamonix in 1924 and St. Moritz in 1928. According to the Vanity Fair article, in addition to the considerable improvement in her technical skills, Henie re-created not only her own image, but the image of the figure skater as beauty and art personified.

Here was a huge visual shift—from masculine to feminine, from prose to poetry. Just as the ballerina’s pointe shoes were pink, suddenly the female ice skater’s boots were white, redolent of fairy and folk tales, of youthful purity and Nordic power. Sonja had single-handedly pulled figure skating into the realm of metaphor—and where there is metaphor, there can also be art. In “The Pavlova of the Ice,” film footage shot in 1928 (and available on YouTube), she is skating outdoors, her slow-motion leaps and spins set against snow-dusted mountains that are nothing short of Wagnerian.

The most significant part of this “visual shift” was parting ways with long skirts that all the women skaters wore to very short ones. Not only was Henie’s short skirt stunning and sensational to spectators used to more modest wear, it was revealing in ways that showed off the power and technical level of her spins and spirals, “and allowed her to perform tricks – the single axel, for instance – that had previously belonged to male skaters.”

Sonja Henie_1928 St Moritz Winter Olympics
Sonja Henie at the 1928 St Moritz Winter Olympics

At the age of 23, she had been to four Olympics, won three gold medals in three consecutive Olympiads, and 10 consecutive world championships in a row, and was arguably one of the most famous people in the world. And yet, her rising star was yet to hit its zenith.