ol garmisch-partenkirchen 1936

There is hardly anyone who has dominated the sport of figure skating such as Sonja Henie. She can safely be described as a main attraction in the history of sport both during her time as an amateur and later as a professional. Sonja Henie was one of a kind. Her equal on ice will probably never be found. Times have changed and the nature of the Olympic competitions has been altered. She was a champion on ice and a champion in her heart. Her name was known worldwide and still is. She will always be the prototype for all future figure skaters. 

Sonja Henie was born in Oslo on April 8, 1912. She was the only daughter of Wilhelm Henie and his wife Selma. He had inherited a very profitable fur business, and in 1894 he won the world bicycle championship. He knew by experience what it would take to reach the top, and he more than anyone else guided his daughter in her career. Her mother was also a tremendous support for her daughter throughout her life. She also designed all of her beautiful skating outfits (costumes) during her amateur time. Sonja Henie had from her parents inherited both an excellent physics and also high competition spirit.

From the age of 5 she went to ballet classes and the following year she was given her first pair of skates. From this day on she spent all her time on the ice rink. It didn’t take long before she entered small competitions. The very first price she was awarded was a pearl handled paper cutter, which became her most priced possession all her life. She had the best coaches, the professional Oscar Holthe and Martin Stixrud.

Eventually, Wilhelm Henie travelled with Sonja to Chamonix and Budapest to train. In 1922 Mrs Henie took Sonja to London for a ballet tuition (training) with the famous Russian ballerina Karsavina. Pavlova was Sonja’s idol. She included ballet in her skating and her beautiful number ”The Swan” will always be remembered. She won 1st price in the Norwegian championship in 1924, but lost the title, as her then school figures didn’t satisfy the requirements.

Two years later she was number two in the world championship in Stockholm. After the competition she said: ”I didn’t win this time, but next year I will and I’ll never lose again.”

From 1927-1936 she won a record three Olympic gold medals (1928-1932-1936), six European championships in a row and 10 straight world championships. Then she had won almost every competition possible to win. No other athlete, man or woman, can show a comparable record in world competition. Sonja Henie had become Norway’s greatest national idol since Henrik Ibsen.

sonja og bror

1912 Born 8 April, the daughter of sportsman and businessman Wilhelm Henie (1872-1937) and Selma Lochmann-Nielsen (1888-1961)

1918-23 Begins skating at Frogner Stadion in Oslo, and soon becomes pupil at the figure skating school run by Oslo Skøiteklub since 1900. Here she is guided by Hjørdis Olsen, and Martin Stixrud becomes her first trainer. Between 1921 and 1923 she gives short performances between the races at the great speed skating competitions at Frogner, to entertain the crowds.

1924 Competes for the first time for the World title (Oslo) and for the Olympic Championship, mainly to gain experience. Begins serious training abroad, first at Chamonix.

1925 Wins her first Norwegian championship (Moss) and begins to travel around in Norway, giving solo performances. This she continued to do almost to the end of her career as amateur skater.

1926 Wins the Norwegian championship (Tønsberg) and on the same occasion the Norwegian championship in pair skating with Arne Lie as partner.

1927 Wins the Norwegian championship (Oslo) and on the same occasion the Norwegian championship in pair skating with Arne Lie as partner. Wins her first World championship (Oslo) and begins to give solo Performances abroad. This she continued to do to the end of her career as amateur skater. Acts in her first film, ”Seven Days for Elizabeth”, with Leif Sinding, Oslo, as director.

1928 Wins the Norwegian championship (Sandefjord) and on the same occasion the Norwegian championship in pair skating with Arne Lie as partner. Wins the World title (London) and her first Olympic championship (St. Moritz).

1929 Wins the Norwegian championship (Lillehammer). This is the last time she takes part in this competition. Wins the World title (Budapest)

1930 Wins the World title (New York). On this her first visit to America she tours the USA and Canada, giving performances in a number of different places. For the first time she acts as star in big shows with lighting effects and a large supporting cast of skaters in picturesque costumes. The Americans had done this kind of show since 1924. She does not compete in the first European championship, which is held in Vienna and won by Fritzi Burger.

1931 Wins the World title (Berlin) and her first European championship (St. Moritz). Begins training with Howard Nicholson in London, and continues to work with him to the end of her career as amateur skater.

1932 Wins the World title (Montreal), the European championship (Paris) and the Olympic championship (Lake Placid).

1933 Wins the World title (Stockholm) and the European championship (London). Her performances in Norway now become sophisticated arrangements accompanied by fireworks.

1934 Wins the World title (Oslo) and the European championship (Prague).

1935 Wins the World title (Vienna) and the European championship (St. Moritz).

1936 Wins the World title (Paris), the European championship (Berlin) and the Olympic championship (Garmisch-Partenkirchen). Gives up her amateur status, and goes to America, where she gives performances in Madison Square Garden in New York, in Chicago and Los Angeles. Signs a five year contract with Fox and makes her debut as a Hollywood star in ”One in a Million” with Don Ameche and Adolphe Menjou.

1938 Publishes her autobiography, ”Mitt livs eventyr” (The Fairy tale of my Life). New, revised and enlarged edition published in Oslo in 1954.

1937-56 Tours USA and Europe with big ice shows of which she is not only the star, but eventually manager and owner as well. In 1953 and 1955 she brings her shows to Jordal Amfi, Oslo and is given a tumultuous reception by hundreds of thousands of spectators.

1956 Marries the Norwegian ship-owner Niels Onstad, together they settle in Oslo and begin building up an important collection of modern paintings.

1958 Acts in her last film, ”Hello London”, Regal films, London

1961 Sonja Henie and Niels Onstad donate their art collection to a Public Trust, which bears their names.

1968 The Henie Onstad Art Centre at Høvikodden near Oslo is opened to the public in the present building, which was designed by the architects Jon Eikvar and Svein-Erik Engebretsen and donated by Sonja Henie and Niels Onstad.

1969 Dies from leukaemia in an aeroplane from Paris on her way home to Oslo.

sonja 14
With her 3rd Olympic gold medal in Garmisch and her 10th world championship in Paris in 1936, she gave up her amateur status. She had decided that her next great role should be that of a film star in Hollywood.

Early autumn 1936 the Henie family travelled to America. Sonja gave a few exhibitions around before the family arrived in Hollywood. Wilhelm Henie rented the only ice rink there, ”Polar Palace” for 2 exhibitions contacted the newspaper Mogul Randolph Hearst for advertising and his protégé the film star Marion Davis to take care of all invitations.

Sonja Henie was a sensation. Nobody in Hollywood had seen ice-skating. All the big stars were present, only one important person did not come, Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox. He came the second evening and a few days later he invited Sonja and her father to his office to have her sign a contract. The first meeting led to nothing. Sonja knew exactly what he wanted and Zanuck did not agree. So they left. Later on she was called back again. After a lot of arguments, Zanuck had to comply with her demands and she signed a 5-year contract with the leading part, $ 75.000 per film. This was soon raised to $125.000, one film a year and permission to run her own ice show when not working in the studio. Zanuck declared later: ”I have signed Sonja Henie with her skates. Even if she couldn’t skate, I’d signed her, but not for so much money.”

Her first film ”One in a million” had a Galla opening in Radio City Music Hall on New Year’s Eve 1936 and was immediately a huge success.

Soon another manuscript was on the table. Title: ”Thin Ice”. Once again she had to argue with Zanuck. She wanted Tyrone Power as her co-star. He didn’t. Again she won.

Suddenly, as the shooting was to start, her beloved father died and she was left without her manager and loyal adviser, but she went on working sturdily throughout her life with a strength like few others, as an administrator and organizer. Her films always filled the theatres and towards the end of the thirties she was an all time favourite star only surpassed by Shirley Temple (Fox) and Clark Gable (MGM). The box-office takings for her 9 fox films were a record $25 millions.

Sonja Henie, with her salary from films and ice shows was soon to become one of the richest women in America. She had interests in many indoor ice rinks, in business concerns and apartment buildings in Chicago and Los Angeles, a ranch in Arizona, a liquor business and a huge source of income through her Sonja Henie Skating School, her own portable ice rink, her own Zamboni ice machine and Sonja Henie memorabilia. Somebody said about her: ”Don’t let Sonja Henie’s dimpled baby face fool you. Sonja is a girl who knows what she wants and usually gets it.

In late 1936 she also joined a professional ice show and was billed as ”Pavlova of the Silver Skates”.

She went into partnership with Arthur Wirtz in Chicago and she started to produce and star in her own shows, The Sonja Henie Ice Revue. Her ice shows had packed houses everywhere she appeared.

Her private life though was not a success. She married twice and both marriages ended in divorce.

sonja åpningen 1968

Unfortunately, heeding the unwise advice of her second husband, accusing Arthur Wirtz for giving less profit of the ice show takings to Sonja than contracted, she dissolved her very successful years with him. Sonja was now blacklisted and could not get into his ice arenas. She had to go into smaller rinks here and there. This was a very tough period for her, but she never gave up. In 1952 things looked up again, but when she was to open her show in Baltimore, there was a serious accident. During the overture, the last four rows in the front section collapsed and 400 spectators were injured.


Morris Chalfen who had interests in many arenas around Europe had heard of Sonja’s misfortunes and contacted her. He wanted her to take her show to Europe. She was persuaded and the show visited Paris, Berlin, Dortmund, London etc. before she finally agreed to visit Oslo. Her show opened in August 1953 and it was an enormous success, a triumph for Sonja, both artistically, financially and to Sonja personally. Through 33 performances 360.000 spectators from all over Norway saw the show. She was back in Oslo again in 1955. Sonja Henie and Morris Chalfen strengthened their Association of Holiday on Ice, known as Henie-Holiday. During the late fifties she also starred in three specials for NBC Television and she appeared in Las Vegas. She produced her own show at the Roxy Theatre in New York. Her always most famous numbers were her hula-hula-dance, the swan ballet number and the tango.

She played Caracas – and South America was to be her last engagement.

Soon after she married her third husband, the wealthy shipping magnate Niels Onstad. The Henie-Holiday years were effectively over. The marriage of Sonja Henie and Niels Onstad, and Sonja Henie’s ensuing interest in art came at a time when she had already started to withdraw from her professional career and finally found the peace and quiet to concentrate on her other talents. In many ways, the couple’s personalities were diametrically opposed but eventually Niels Onstad’s and Sonja Henie’s interest in contemporary art world became all encompassing. From the moment they decided to make their collection public, their deepest hope was to be able to bring it home to Norway and to establish a museum for modern art. In 1961 they established separate foundations, through which they channelled their paintings, building fund and a maintenance fund. The Henie Onstad Art Centre was opened in 1968.

Among Norwegian Artists, Sonja Henie gradually developed a special relationship with Jakob Weidemann. His collection is still the nucleus of the much larger collection that the Art Centre has gradually acquired. Fourteen months after the opening, Sonja Henie died of leukaemia on a plane home from Paris, only 57 years old.

Sonja Henie was the youngest person to be appointed knight of first class of the Order of St. Olav by His Majesty King Haakon. President Mannerheim awarded her the Finnish Red Cross medal.

By Reidar Børjeson


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Henie-Onstad Kunstsenter
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Ulrikke T. Berg