Encyclopedia Womannica

Olympians: Sonja Henie

Episode Summary

Sonja Henie (1912-1969) was a cross between athlete and celebrity whose routines on the ice eventually made her a famous actor on screen.

Episode Notes

All month, we're talking about Olympians. Tune in to hear incredible stories of women who either were in the Olympics or likely should have been!

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Local Legends, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Grace Lynch, Maddy Foley, and Brittany Martinez. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Carmen Borca-Carrillo, Taylor Williamson, and Ale Tejeda.

We are offering free ad space on Wonder Media Network shows to organizations working towards social justice. For more information, please email Jenny at jenny@wondermedianetwork.com.

Follow Wonder Media Network:

Episode Transcription

Hello, from Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s Olympian was a cross between athlete and  celebrity. Her routines on the ice eventually made her a famous actor on screen. She changed the world of figure skating with her decade-long reign over the sport. Today, we’re talking about “the Ice Queen of Norway,” Sonja Henie.

Sonja was born April 8, 1912 in Oslo, Norway. In her own memoir, Sonja placed her birth during one of the biggest snowstorms to rock the country-- perhaps a foreshadowing of  the career that lay ahead.

Sonja grew up well off. In addition to inherited wealth, her father Wilhem, was successful in the fur business. Wilhelm had also enjoyed a career as a competitive speed skater. He passed on his love for athletics to Sonja, who was a prodigy on skis by the age of four.

 Growing up, Sonja was a multi-sport athlete.  She was an acclaimed competitor  in tennis, horseback riding, and swimming.

The story of Sonja’s first time in skates is up for debate. Wilhelm claimed that one day  five-year-old Sonja stole her brother’s skates and ended up winning a children’s skating championship. Sonja herself said her brother gifted her the skates and helped her learn before winning that first competition. Either way, once Sonja was in the skates, there was no getting her out of the rink.

Soon, all of Sonja’s energy went toward figure skating. She even stopped schooling to make time for day-long practice sessions.

At the age of eleven, Sonja made her Olympic debut. She came in last in her field. The next time she entered  the rink, she did so as a new competitor altogether. She shed the sport’s standard baggy skate suit and black skates., Instead, she wore a white velvet dress with a hemmed skirt. It ended just above her knee, simultaneously shocking audiences and giving  her the flexibility  to perform tricks and jumps usually only available to men. That year, at just 14 years old, Sonja  won her first World Figure Skating Championship. It would be the first of an unparalleled, consecutive, ten-year domination of the World Championships. The following  year, in 1928, she won the first of three consecutive Olympic gold medals in figure skating. Another unprecedented record. To this day, neither of Sonya’s  winning streaks have been matched.

Sonja rocketed to fame during her early skating career-- as  did rumors about her political affiliations. Just before the 1936 Winter Olympics, where Sonja would win her third gold medal, she skated into a Berlin rink. After being told Adolf Hitler was in attendance, she began her routine with a “Heil Hitler.” It didn’t go over well in the Scandinavian press, and Sonja never fully outlived the scandal.

That same year, Sonja turned away from the competition circuit and set her eyes on a new horizon: Hollywood. She signed a contract with Twentieth Century Fox and from 1936 to 1943, she starred in ten box office hits that showcased her skating. She also started a yearly skating review called, “Sonja Henie Night” at Madison Square Garden.

During these years of stardom, Sonja also earned another nickname: “Little Miss Moneybags.” She was often seen wearing luxurious furs, staying at the best hotels, and throwing parties for the Hollywood elite. According to some stories, she even entered one of these parties on the back of an elephant. 

In 1937, Sonja’s father died. . His death marked a change in Sonja’s work ethic. She saved more money, and took more control over her skating shows and movie roles.

During the  1940s, Sonja was married and divorced, twice. By 1952, Sonja  entered her 40s, and her athletic career started  to suffer. Her “Ice Revue” required her to complete eight skating numbers back-to-back -- a tough ask even for an athlete in their prime. By this point, Sonja had been skating at a professional level for over three decades. Fatigue, and a falling out with her previous manager, combined for a less-than-stellar season.. This disappointing performance  led Sonja to retire in 1956. That same year, she married for the final time to Niels Onstad, a childhood friend.

In the 1960s, Sonja and her husband ventured into art collection. They built a museum to house their modern art collection in Oslo. In  1968, Sonja was diagnosed with leukemia. She died on October 12, 1969, at 57 years old. 

All month, we’re talking about Olympians. 

For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our newsletter Womannica Weekly. 

Follow us on facebook and instagram @encyclopediawomannica. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!