- The Washington Times - Monday, February 20, 2006

There should be no argument about the identity of the best female figure skater ever. Forget Americans like Tenley Albright, Carol Heiss, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill and Janet Lynn. Never mind Russia’s highly favored Irina Slutskaya, or whoever else leaves Turin with gold this week.

Seventy years this month after she won an unprecedented third Winter Olympics gold medal and more than 36 years after her death from leukemia at 57, Sonja Henie stands alone.

Henie, virtually forgotten today, dominated an era like no other skater. She made her Olympic debut in 1924 at the unbelievable age of 11, carted gold back to her native Norway in 1928, 1932 and 1936, won 10 consecutive world championships from 1927 to 1936 and later became a popular Hollywood movie star and then an astute businesswoman. At her death, she was listed among the world’s 10 wealthiest women.

Yet Henie also was a controversial figure, perhaps because of her youth and political naivete when the sporting spotlight shone down on her. After winning her third Olympic gold at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, in ‘36, she shook hands with Chancellor Adolf Hitler — an act that angered many who were already aware of the atrocities committed by the Nazis.

Henie was a favorite of Hitler’s and often visited him at his Eagle’s Nest retreat in the mountains of Germany. According to Henie biographer Raymond Strait, “He felt she epitomized his vision of a pure, blond Aryan race.”

Henie denied the inevitable rumors of a romance, calling Hitler merely “a dear friend.” Once after performing in Germany, she skated in front of the chancellor’s box, raised her right arm and cried, “Heil Hitler!”

After the Olympic handshake, the widespread criticism forced Henie to call a press conference at which she said, “How can people say such things? Nazi-shmatzy! Hitler is the German leader, and I was honoring Germany, not the Nazis. I don’t even know what a Nazi is.”

If that was true, she learned in April 1940, when the Third Reich invaded Norway — though her home near Oslo was left unharmed on orders from the German high command. The following year, presumably enlightened about her “dear friend,” she became a citizen of the United States and settled in Los Angeles.

Henie grew up under circumstances that aided her rapid development as a skater. Her wealthy father was a former cycling champion who urged his children to compete. Sonja and her mother traveled across Europe in search of the best coaches, most notably the highly respected Oscar Holte. She began skating competitively at 6 and won her first Norwegian national championship at 9. Two years after that, she made Norway’s team for the 1924 Olympics at Chamonix, France.

Because she was a child, Henie skated in a knee-length skirt rather than the calf-length outfits worn by her rivals and displayed some moves that were revolutionary for that time. She so impressed the judges that they awarded her third place in freestyle. However, a poor showing in the compulsory events relegated her to a last-place finish overall.

Undaunted, she kept improving until she won her first world title three years later with the king and queen of Norway watching. Then it was on to St. Moritz, Switzerland, and her first Olympic gold in 1928. Her second came four years later at Lake Placid, N.Y.

On the ice, Henie was as innovative as she was successful. She was the first skater to incorporate elements of ballet into her routines (as a disciple of the famed Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova) and the first woman to perform spins and jumps. Eventually, Henie’s triumphs changed figure skating as rivals deserted the conventional, boring routines that had characterized the sport.

Undoubtedly figuring after her third Olympic gold medal that she had done it all as an amateur, Henie turned pro in 1936 to concentrate on making films and starring in ice shows. Within a year, she had earned her first quarter-millions dollars — and this during the Depression.

Her beauty and skill impressed famed movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, who signed her to do a series of films for 20th Century Fox. Though she wasn’t much of an actress, her skating routines highlighted such innocuous films as “One in a Million,” “The Peach Edition,” “Thin Ice” and “Sun Valley Serenade.” Her leading men included Robert Cummings, Tyrone Power, Ray Milland and Don Ameche.

By 1939, Henie trailed only Clark Gable and Shirley Temple as a box-office attraction, (Too bad nobody came up with the idea of putting Shirley and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson on skates instead of staircases.)

During the ‘40s and ‘50s, Henie constantly performed at ice shows across America. She was married three times and had no children. Her first husband was Dan Topping, a wealthy sportsman who later was co-owner of the New York Yankees. That union ended in divorce, as did her second to Winthrop Gardiner. At her death, she was married to Niels Onstad, a Norwegian businessman and art patron.

When television began cutting into movie profits in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, she toured with her own ice show, “Sonja Henie’s Hollywood Revue,” but lawsuits resulting from the collapse of bleachers at a 1952 show in Baltimore caused her production company to fold. However, a highly profitable tour of Europe restored her financial stability, and she continued to perform in shows periodically until retiring in 1960.

Henie was diagnosed with leukemia in the mid-‘60s and spent her last years battling the disease. She died on a flight from Paris to Oslo on Oct. 12, 1969, and was elected posthumously to the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. She and her husband are buried on a hill overlooking the Henie-Onstad Art Centre near Oslo.

In “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia,” the noted critic described Henie as a “bright-eyed, bubbly blond” whose “natural effervescence and enchanting smile — together with her physical and athletic attributes — went a long way toward covering up thespic deficiencies. … [The studio] tailored vehicles with light comedy, romance and music, surrounded her with top-rank stars and — perhaps most important — kept her on the ice as much as possible.”

And for sure, that’s where Sonja Henie belonged.

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