Sonja Henie Nutshell Biography
I have assembled the nutshell biography of Sonja Henie below in response to the many questions I receive regarding Sonja's personal life. Unfortunately, there has been little written about Sonja's personal life, so what has been written may not present an objective view. Most of the information presented below comes from the Raymond Strait / Leif Henie biography (see above), and a bit of additional material from various sources, including fan magazines of the 1930s and 1940s. [JJ]
Sonja's father, Wilhelm Henie, was born in Kristiana (now Oslo), Norway in 1876. Wilhelm was an athletic man; he won the world bicycling championship twice and won medals for speed skating, ski jumping and cross-country skiing.
Sonja's mother was Selma Nielson.
Both Wilhelm and Selma inherited "old money," and Wilhelm's fur business was very successful. They were able to give Sonja the best in training, and were easily able to finance her travels and other expenses in amateur skating.
Sonja was born in Oslo, Norway on April 8, 1912.
Sonja had one sibling: her brother Leif, five years her senior.
Sonja took dancing lessons from about age two. Her dancing lessons would prove to be an important component in her later years as she combined dancing with skating, which was to be key to her success in her ice revues.
It was Leif who introduced Sonja to ice skating, when Sonja was just a toddler. Sonja took to the ice, and won her first championship at age 5; a children's ice skating competition in which she won first place, receiving a pearl-handled silver letter opener, which she cherished all her life.
At the age of nine, Sonja won the Norway national amateur skating championship.
Immediately after winning the Norway championship, Wilhelm and Selma took Sonja to the continent for advanced lessons. They mapped out Sonja's training for higher and higher competition.
Sonja competed in the 1924 Olympics at the age of 12, but placed last, even though one judge graded her 1st place in free skating.
Sonja again won the Norway championship in 1925.
Sonja won her first world championhip in the winter of 1926/27, at the age of 14, becoming the youngest ever to win that competition. She would win 10 consecutive wold championships from 1927 through 1936.
Sonja won the Gold Medal at the 1928 Olympics, and her life would never be the same. Following that championship was a frenetic blur of constant training and competing in events all over Europe and Scandinavia. She would win a total of three consecutive Gold Medals in the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Olympics.
Immediately following the 1930 worlds championship, again won by Sonja, Sonja triumphantly toured the US for the first time.
By early spring 1930, Sonja had captured the attention of the world. In her brother's words, "Since 1924 she had captured five more Norwegian singles crowns, the Norwegian doubles title three times with Arne Lie, the all-Scandinavian championship, four world skating championships, and the 1928 Olympics. She had also taken the time to become the third-ranking woman tennis player in Norway, an excellent swimmer, a daring equestrienne, and a capable ballet dancer. These accomplishments brought her the first medal ever bestowed on a woman by the Norwegian government for versatility and achievement in sport." [quote from the Strait/Henie biography, cited above].
In August, 1932, Sonja took second place in an amateur automobile race in Stockholm.
In Milan, in 1932, Sonja, already known as "the Pavlova of the Ice" because of the way she combined dance with figure skating in her exhibitions, first performed a complete ballet number, which came to be know as "Sonja's Swan Number."
In March 1936, immediately after winning her third Gold Medal in the 1936 Olympics, Sonja went professional, signing an agreement with Arthur M. Wirtz and beginning with a benefit performance at Madison Square Garden, which ended up becoming a national tour. The tour culminated in a two-night stand at the Polar Palace in Hollywood, skillfully arranged by her father, Wilhelm, so as to ensure that every star and producer in Hollywood showed up. The result was a 5-year contract at 20th Century-Fox.
Sonja married Dan Topping on July 4, 1940.
Sonja was an immediate hit with her first film, "One in a Million." She was ranked 8th in the box office polls for 1937 and second in 1938, but afterward her popularity began to slip. Fox pulled out all the stops for Sonja's seventh film, "Sun Valley Serenade," and it was a major hit. Sonja's original contract with Fox was due to terminate shortly after the release of "Sun Valley Serenade" in 1941. But, due to the success of that film, Fox offered Sonja a new contract. Her final films made money, but were far from being hits.
Sonja filed for divorce from Dan Topping in January, 1946.
By 1947, it was estimated that more than 15 million people had paid more than $25,000,000 to see Sonja skate in her Hollywood Ice Revues. Sonja was one of the wealthiest women on earth.
Sonja's last movie, "The Countess of Monte Cristo," was released in 1948 after several years in the works.
Sonja married Winthrop Gardiner, Jr. on September 15, 1949.
Sonja unwisely terminated her agreement with Arthur Wirtz in 1950. Beginning with the 1951 Hollywood Ice Revue, Sonja would handle all productions on her own (with a lot of help from her friends!).
Sonja's 1951, 1952 and 1953 Hollywood Ice Revues were financial disasters. She was now competing against Arthur Wirtz, who had put Barbara Ann Scott in Sonja's place in his ice revues, and had a virtual monopoly over every major stadium in every major city in the US. Sonja's show couldn't get sufficient accommodations, and without competent management, the show ended up cancelling the 1953 season with Sonja nearly broke.
In the spring of 1953, Sonja's show was desperate, and was playing small towns in Canada. Morris Chalfen and Sonja made a deal for Sonja to take her troupe to Europe to tour the cities where the people still loved Sonja as much as they had in the 1930s. The European tour went well, but the following years tour of South America was a disaster, and Sonja more or less retired.
Sonja and Winthrop Gardiner, Jr. were divorced in April, 1956.
Sonja married Niels Onstad on June 6, 1956. She and Niels attempted a comeback movie, called "Hello London," filmed in 1958 and 1959, but it was never released.
Sonja died of leukemia on October 12, 1969. She was 57 years old. Her estate was willed to the Henie Onstad Art Center (Henie Onstad Kunstsenter), just outside Oslo, Norway. The art center was a project which Sonja and Niels worked on during most of the 1960s, and houses most of their art collection as well as all of Sonja's trophies and medals. Sonja was buried near there.
Sonja had no children. At the time of her death, she was survived by her husband, Niels Onstad, her brother Leif and his three sons.