PyeongChang 2018 marks 90 years since Sonja Henie’s first of three gold medals for Norway. She has the most career medals – and most career gold medals – of any female figure skater.
Henie, the daughter Wilhelm and Selma, began skating when her parents relented and bought her a pair of skates for Christmas when she was 6 years old. She already knew how to ski and was very interested in the ballet. While Selma was not as athletically inclined as her daughter, Wilhelm was fully supportive as he was a cycling world champion in his youth. He called the sensation of sledding, skiing, and skating into icy winds “winter drunk.”
Henie came from serious money: Wilhelm was a fur wholesale magnate and her mother was independently wealthy as the daughter of a shipping captain. Her older brother, Leif, gave Henie some of her first skating lessons.
Henie furthered her ballet studies all throughout Europe and soon incorporated choreography into her skating – a revolutionary idea at the time. By age 8, she won the children’s skating championship in Norway, and two years later, won her first national title. Her father took her out of school in fourth grade, according to one report, so she could singularly focus on skating. She practiced up to seven hours a day and was on a strict diet (reportedly including rare steaks and raw eggs). Throughout her life, she was also an accomplished tennis player, runner, swimmer, equestrian and racecar driver.
At the 1924 Olympics in Chamonix, France, Henie was 11 years old and finished last of eight competitors. Her free skate was memorable for her frequent visits to the sidelines; she was asking her coach what she should do next. Mostly, she went for experience.
After winning a silver medal at Worlds in 1925, Henie won her first of 10 world titles in 1926. She was only 14 and she would later go on to be the six-time European champion.
At the 1928 Olympics, Henie was awarded the first-place vote by six of the seven judges. An American judge voted for Beatrix Loughran from the U.S., who eventually won the bronze medal in St. Moritz. Her free skate was performed to the music of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” Henie was the first skater to ever wear a dress cut above the knee, and one of the first skaters to wear white boots. She claimed they reminded her of home, in snowy Norway.
She would defend her title at the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid and again in 1936 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. She is the only female figure skaters with three gold medals. She was so popular that at her appearances ranging from Prague to New York City, police forces were called in for crowd control.
She used the momentum of her popularity to begin starring in Hollywood films. At one point, she was quoted as saying she wanted to do for figure skating what Fred Astaire was doing for dance. It worked. She would eventually make 12 films and inherited her father’s savvy business sense. At one point, her contract with 20th Century Fox was set to expire the day before finishing up one of her films. She charged the studio $225,000 for the final day of shooting. For her first five films, she reportedly made $125,000 per film, about $4 million today. Her popularity at the time was on par with Shirley Temple and Clark Gable.
Between movies and her own tour productions – in which she managed every aspect of the shows – Henie could afford a life of luxury. She often appeared wearing gold, diamonds, pearls, and, of course, her father’s furs. She first married Daniel Reid Topping, the heir to millions and part owner of what became the New York Yankees, in 1940. Henie and Topping divorced in 1946. She was married to Winthrop Gardiner, Jr. from 1949 to 1956.
Later in 1956, she married her childhood sweetheart and Norwegian ship owner Niels Onstad and stepped away from tour life. The pair turned their attention to art. Henie, a fan of Renoir and Gainsborough, became a fan of modern art under Onstad’s keen eye. They soon amassed an enormous collection and eventually donated some of the collection to the Oslo modern art museum that now bears their name: the Henie-Onstad. Many of Henie’s trophies are displayed in a room at the art center.
She earned various monikers throughout her career, including “the Nasturtium of the North,” “the Ice Queen of Norway,” and “the White Swan.” She was also referred to as “Little Miss Moneybags.”
Henie was diagnosed with leukemia in September of 1968, but it was a well-kept secret. She was in Paris for rehearsals for another Hollywood production when she felt ill, and decided to get a tune-up in Oslo before flying to the States. En route from Paris to Oslo, she took a nap she never awoke from, according to Onstad.
Between her estate in Oslo, Los Angeles residence, and apartment in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the wealth she accumulated throughout her Hollywood career, she was estimated to be worth $47 million at the time of her death. She was heralded around the world for shaping the sport of figure skating and for her unparalleled career.