Sunday, April 08, 2007

Ice Queen


Sonja Henie was born on this day in 1912 in Kristiana, Norway.

The blonde, blue-eyed ingénue who dominated and changed the style of international figure skating competition also turned out to be a cunning marketeer, a trait she may have inherited from her father, a leading Norwegian furrier who owned the first automobile in Oslo. Sonja Henie learned to ski almost as soon as she could walk, but by 5 she was immersed in studying dance with Love Krohn, teacher of the great ballerina Anna Pavlova. With Pavlova as her role model-by-proxy, she began to skate at age 6, taking her first Norwegian championship at age 10.

As a tiny 12 year old, Henie competed in her first Olympics in 1924 at Chamonix, placing 8th; but 2 years later she was challenging the 1924 gold medallist, Herma Planck-Szabo of Austria, placing a close 2nd to her in the 1926 world championships. On her way up the international rankings, she also drew raves for her short skirts, which better emphasized her graceful leg work, as opposed to the long skirts worn by her competitors. In 1927, Henie unseated Planck-Szabo in a controversial competition in which 3 out of 5 judges were Norwegian. Her breakthrough world championship in 1927 would, however, prove to be the first of an entire decade of uninterrupted major victories.

That year she also tentatively began her film career, appearing in a Norwegian film, Seven Days for Elizabeth. In 1928, she stretched the confines of figure skating as a sport by introducing dance routines into freeskating, and won her first of 3 Olympic gold medals at St. Moritz. By the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid, her international competitors, British pre-teen Cecilia Colledge notable among them, were imitating her costumes, dance style and spinning repertoire, but Henie was still the unanimous choice for the gold medal.

In 1936, Henie announced that she would retire from amateur skating following the Olympics and the subsequent world championship to be held the following week, and although she succeeded in winning the gold and the world championship, this time she received stiff competition from Colledge. She obviously knew when to quit (ending her career with 14 national championships, 8 European championships and 10 world championships in addition to the Olympic gold medals), and how to proceed on her next career choice: within a year, Henie was in Hollywood with a contract from 20th Century-Fox, and her first American musical, One in a Million, became a huge hit.

Henie was not much of an actress (and "her accent was as thick as her ankles," as Schickel observed), but her skating numbers and her sunny persona served her well in a number of light musicals, including Thin Ice (1937), Happy Landing (1938) and Sun Valley Serenade (1941, with Glenn Miller); in 1938, she was ranked as the 3rd most popular box office attraction, after Clark Gable and Shirley Temple.

By the mid-1940s, however, fans were growing tired of her movies, so she took the big dollars she earned in Hollywood and poured them into her Hollywood Ice Revue traveling show (of which she was the star), exhibiting her typical combination of drive and perfectionism in assuring the quality of her productions. After two American marriages, she married her Norwegian childhood sweetheart, a shipowner, at 44. When she died of leukemia at 57 (in an airplane en route from Paris to Oslo), she was worth over $47 million.


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