Henie was born in 1912 in Kristiania (now Oslo) Norway; she was the only daughter of Wilhelm Henie (1872–1937), a prosperous Norwegian furrier, and his wife, Selma Lochmann-Nielsen (1888–1961). In addition to the income from the fur business, both of Henie's parents had inherited wealth. Wilhelm Henie had been a one-time World Cycling Champion and the Henie children were encouraged to take up a variety of sports at a young age. Henie initially showed talent at skiing, then followed her older brother, Leif, to take up figure skating. As a girl Henie also was a nationally ranked tennis player, and a skilled swimmer and equestrienne. Once Henie began serious training as a figure skater, her formal schooling ended. She was educated by tutors, and her father hired the best experts in the world, including the famous Russian ballerina, Tamara Karsavina, to transform his daughter into a sporting celebrity.
Henie won her first major competition, the senior Norwegian championships, at the age of 10. She then placed eighth in a field of eight at the 1924 Winter Olympics, at the age of eleven. During the 1924 program, she skated over to the side of the rink several times to ask her coach for directions, but by the next Olympiad, she needed no such assistance.
Henie won the first of an unprecedented ten consecutive World Figure Skating Championships in 1927 at the age of fourteen. The results of 1927 World Championships, where Henie won in 3–2 decision (or 7 vs. 8 ordinal points) over the defending Olympic and World Champion Herma Szabo of Austria, was controversial, as three of the five judges that gave Henie first-place ordinals were Norwegian (1 + 1 + 1 + 2 + 2 = 7 points) while Szabo received first-place ordinals from an Austrian and a German Judge (1 + 1 + 2 + 2 + 2 = 8 points). Henie went on to win first of her three Olympic gold medals the following year, became one of the youngest figure skating Olympic champions. She defended her Olympic titles in 1932 and in 1936, and her world titles annually until 1936. She also won six consecutive European championships from 1931 to 1936. Henie's unprecedented three Olympic gold medals haven't been matched by any ladies' single skater since; neither are her achievements as ten-time consecutive World Champion. While Irina Slutskaya of Russia won her seventh European Championship in 2006 to become the most successful ladies' skater in European Championships, Henie retains record of most consecutive titles, sharing it with Katarina Witt of Eastern Germany/Germany (1983–1988).
Towards the end of her career, she began to be strongly challenged by younger skaters including Cecilia Colledge, Megan Taylor, and Hedy Stenuf. However, she held off these competitors and went on to win her third Olympic title at the 1936 Winter Olympics, albeit in very controversial circumstances with Cecilia Colledge finishing a very close second. Indeed, after the school figures section at the 1936 Olympic competition, Colledge and Henie were virtually neck and neck with Colledge trailing by just a few points. As Sandra Stevenson recounted in her article in The Independent of 21 April 2008, "the closeness [of the competition] infuriated Henie, who, when the result for that section was posted on a wall in the competitors' lounge, swiped the piece of paper and tore it into little pieces. The draw for the free skating [then] came under suspicion after Henie landed the plum position of skating last, while Colledge had to perform second of the 26 competitors. The early start was seen as a disadvantage, with the audience not yet whipped into a clapping frenzy and the judges known to become freer with their higher marks as the event proceeded. Years later, a fairer, staggered draw was adopted to counteract this situation".
During her competitive career, Henie traveled widely and worked with a variety of foreign coaches. At home in Oslo, she trained at Frogner Stadium, where her coaches included Hjørdis Olsen and Oscar Holte. During the latter part of her competitive career she was coached primarily by the American Howard Nicholson in London. In addition to traveling to train and compete, she was much in demand as a performer at figure skating exhibitions in both Europe and North America. Henie became so popular with the public that police had to be called out for crowd control on her appearances in various disparate cities such as Prague and New York City. It was an open secret that, in spite of the strict amateurism requirements of the time, Wilhelm Henie demanded "expense money" for his daughter's skating appearances. Both of Henie's parents had given up their own pursuits in Norway—leaving Leif to run the fur business—in order to accompany Sonja on her travels and act as her managers.
Henie is credited with being the first figure skater to adopt the short skirt costume in figure skating, wear white boots, and make use of dance choreography. Her innovative skating techniques and glamorous demeanor transformed the sport permanently and confirmed its acceptance as a legitimate sport in the Winter Olympics.
Professional and film career
Sonja Henie appeared on the cover of Time magazine
on July 17, 1939.
After the 1936 World Figure Skating Championships, Henie gave up her amateur status and took up a career as a professional performer in acting and live shows. While still a girl, Henie had decided that she wanted to move to California and become a movie star when her competitive days were over, without considering that her thick accent might hinder her acting ambitions.
In 1936, following a successful ice show in Los Angeles orchestrated by her father to launch her film career, Hollywood studio chief Darryl Zanuck signed her to a long term contract at Twentieth Century Fox, which made her one of the highest-paid actresses of the time. After the success of her first film, One in a Million (1936), Henie's position was assured and she became increasingly demanding in her business dealings with Zanuck. Henie also insisted on having total control of the skating numbers in her films such as Second Fiddle (1939).
Henie tried to break the musical comedy mould with the anti-Nazi film Everything Happens at Night (1939) and It's a Pleasure (1945), a skating variation of the often-told A Star Is Born tale about alcoholic-star-in-decline-helps-newcomer-up. It was her only film shot in Technicolor, but it was not as huge at the box office as her other films and also proved her limitations as a dramatic actress in her one only dramatic film.
When Zanuck realized her limits in the pseudo-dramatic vein, he cast her in more musical comedies; Sun Valley Serenade (1941) with Glenn Miller, John Payne, The Nicholas Brothers, and hit songs such as "In the Mood", "Chattanooga Choo Choo", "It Happened in Sun Valley", and "I Know Why (And So Do You)", followed by Iceland (1942) with Jack Oakie, Payne, and the hit song "There Will Never Be Another You", and finally Wintertime (1943) with Cesar Romero, Carole Landis, Cornel Wilde, and Oakie. Sonja had by now developed a comedy flair and these films were all among the top box-office hits for 20th Century-Fox the respective years.
In addition to her film career at Fox from 1936-1943, Henie formed a business arrangement with Arthur Wirtz, who produced her touring ice shows under the name of "Hollywood Ice Revue". Wirtz also acted as Henie's financial advisor. At the time, figure skating and ice shows were not yet an established form of entertainment in the United States. Henie's popularity as a film actress attracted many new fans and instituted skating shows as a popular new entertainment. Throughout the 1940s, Henie and Wirtz produced lavish musical ice skating extravaganzas at Rockefeller Center's Center Theatre attracting millions of ticket buyers.
At the height of her fame, Henie brought as much as $2 million per year from her shows and touring activities. She also had numerous lucrative endorsement contracts, and deals to market skates, clothing, jewelry, dolls, and other merchandise branded with her name. These activities made her one of the wealthiest women in the world in her time.
Henie broke off her arrangement with Wirtz in 1950 and for the next three seasons produced her own tours under the name "Sonja Henie Ice Revue". It was an ill-advised decision to set herself up in competition with Wirtz, whose shows now featured the new Olympic champion Barbara Ann Scott. Since Wirtz controlled the best arenas and dates, Henie was left playing smaller venues and markets already saturated by other touring ice shows such as Ice Capades. The collapse of a section of bleachers during a show in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1952 compounded the tour's legal and financial woes.
In 1953, Henie formed a new partnership with Morris Chalfen to appear in his European Holiday On Ice tour. This was a great success. She produced her own show at New York's Roxy Theatre in January 1956. However, a subsequent South American tour in 1956 was a disaster. Henie was drinking heavily at that time and could no longer keep up with the demands of touring, and this marked her retirement from skating. She did try to make a film series at her own expense; a series that would serve as a travelogue to several cities. Paris and London were mentioned, but only Hello London (1958) was made with her own backing, co-starring Michael Wilding and special guest star Stanley Holloway. It was a complete failure and effectively ended her career on celluloid. Again, her numbers were worth watching.
Her autobiography Mitt livs eventyr, was published in 1938 which was translated and released as Wings on My Feet in 1940, and which was republished in a revised edition in 1954. At the time of her death, Henie was planning a comeback for a television special that would have aired in January 1970. She was to have danced to "Lara's Theme" from Doctor Zhivago.
Henie's connections with Adolf Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi officials made her the subject of controversy before, during, and after World War II. During her amateur skating career, she performed often in Germany and was a favorite of German audiences and of Hitler personally. As a wealthy celebrity, she moved in the same social circles as royalty and heads of state and made Hitler's acquaintance as a matter of course. During the shooting of Second Fiddle (1939), she greeted the then Crown-prince couple of Norway, Olav V of Norway and his wife Princess Märtha of Sweden during their US tour. Through the years, her shows and later art exhibitions drew the attention and meetings with such people as Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon and Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden to name but a few.
Controversy appeared first when Henie greeted Hitler with a Nazi salute at the Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and after the Games she accepted an invitation to lunch with Hitler at his resort home in nearby Berchtesgaden, where Hitler presented Henie with an autographed photo with a lengthy inscription. She was strongly denounced in the Norwegian press for this. In her revised 1954 biography [note 1] she states that no Norwegian judge was in the panel for the 1936 Olympics - as she was entitled to as a Norwegian. She therefore made the most of it and she won her third Olympic medal. When she as a gold medal winner passed Hitler's tribune with silver medalist Cecilia Colledge and bronze medalist Vivi-Anne Hultén, neither she or the others honored Hitler with the Nazi salute. The 1936 European Figure Skating Championships also took place in Berlin and neither Sonja, Colledge, nor Megan Taylor paid obeisance to Hitler.
In her film Everything Happens at Night (1939), Ray Milland and Robert Cummings star as rival reporters hot on the trail of Dr. Hugo Norden (Maurice Moscovich). Norden, a Nobel Prize winner, was supposedly murdered by the Gestapo, but is rumored to be in hiding and writing anonymous dispatches advocating world peace. When Geoffrey and Ken track Dr. Norden to a small village in the Swiss Alps, they soon find themselves competing over the affections of beautiful Louise (Henie), who has a deeper connection to the missing Nobel laureate than the reporters realize. When Geoffrey and Ken get so distracted by romance that they begin to neglect their assignments, it almost leads to disaster as the Gestapo sets out to silence Dr. Norden once and for all. Released on December 22, 1939, it was banned in Nazi Germany.
Through her 1940 marriage to Dan Topping she had become an American citizen. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when America was no longer neutral, Henie pulled in uniform and visited and gave money to Little Norway. All Norwegians got free tickets to her shows during the war and she paid and held parties for them.
During the occupation of Norway by Nazi Germany, German troops saw Hitler's autographed photo prominently displayed at the piano in the Henie family home in Landøya, Asker. As a result, none of Henie's properties in Norway were confiscated or damaged by the Germans. Henie became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1940. Like many Hollywood stars, she supported the U.S. war effort through USO and similar activities. After the Japanese attack, she invited the boys from Little Norway to her iceshows, gave the mechanics a plane as well a substantial sum of money to their educational fund. But her first rejection before the US entered the war was never to be forgotten. For this, she was condemned by many Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans. After the war, Henie was mindful that many of her countrymen considered her to be a quisling. However, she made a triumphant return to Norway with the Holiday on Ice tour in 1953 and 1955. The Norwegian Royal Family attended both events and indeed attended her funeral in 1969. The Royal Family were very mindful of whom they supported after the war and Norwegians looked to them as role models in that respect. Her complex reputation and legacy continues to stimulate debate amongst Norwegians, writers and historians
Henie was married three times, to Dan Topping (1940–1946), Winthrop Gardiner Jr. (1949–1956), and the Norwegian shipping magnate and art patron Niels Onstad (1956–1969) (her death). After her retirement in 1956, Henie and Onstad settled in Oslo and accumulated a large collection of modern art that formed the basis for the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter at Høvikodden in Bærum near Oslo.