Memories of Henie, the first ice queen, nearly lost in her homeland of Norway WINTER OLYMPICS

February 06, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

OSLO, NORWAY — "I was born in a blizzard, a special out-of-season blizzard, the worst blizzard Oslo ever suffered. Family, home, circumstances, the country I lived in and the weather I was born in all conspired to make a skater of me."

-- Sonja Henie

OSLO, Norway -- She was the first to spin, the first to jump, the first to be crowned a figure skating ice queen.

She wore jewels during practice and plumes during competition. She won her first Olympic gold medal at 15, and her third at 23.

She dazzled Roosevelt. Beguiled Hitler.

And she conquered Hollywood.

But 25 years after her death at age 57, Sonja Henie is rarely remembered in her native Norway.

There is a museum on the outskirts of Oslo that bears her name, her collection of modern art pieces and her skating trophies and medals.

But there are no monuments to her skating greatness.

"Of course, she was very popular when she was skating," said Reidar C. Borjeson, a former confidante and skating partner of Henie's.

"Of course, the whole town was upside down when she came back to Oslo in 1936 with that last gold medal. But the war changed a lot. It changed her image."

The story of Sonja Henie is the story of ambition unsatisfied.

She always wanted more.

More money.

More medals.

Even more Technicolor.

"Skating was her life," said Borjeson, whose father was a prominent skating official who frequently judged Henie's performances. "She was driven by her father [Wilhelm Henie, a furrier]. But of course, she wanted it, too. She liked the money."

Henie's skating life may have been filled with glamour and triumph. But her private life was tumultuous.

She was married three times, and was portrayed by her brother as a selfish, greedy alcoholic.

She dated men ranging from $50-a-week Hollywood extras to Tyrone Power to future Tonight Show producer Fred De Cordova.

She even once announced plans to wed Liberace.

Henie "disinherited her blood relatives, left her secretary of 26 years with nothing, and left instructions that her jewelry be permanently displayed as if they were the crown jewels of England," wrote Raymond Strait, co-author of a biography of the skater with her brother, Leif.

She was the "Material Girl" long before Madonna was born. But as a skater, Henie was beyond reproach.

She revolutionized a staid sport, from the white boots she wore to the spins and jumps she completed, to her signature "Dying Swan" and "Hawaiian" routines that she performed for decades.

Her first Olympic medal won in 1928 in St. Moritz, Switzerland, turned her into an international celebrity.

"It was harrowing but heady," she wrote in her autobiography, "Wings On My Feet."

In all, she would win 10 World Championships, and captivate a generation of American girls who wanted to grow up to become skaters -- just like Henie.

But in Norway, she never achieved long-lasting fame.

It was an incident in Berlin that forever changed her fellow countrymen's view of her. Minutes before she was to take the ice in an exhibition, she was notified that Hitler was in attendance. She skated onto the ice in the direction of the German leader, stopped, saluted and said, "Heil Hitler."

The crowd roared.

In Norway, there was controversy, followed by anger.

"People here thought she didn't do too much for the Norwegians in the war," Borjeson said.

Henie was busy becoming a star in America, headlining the first ice shows that barnstormed the country, and then starring in a series of skating films.

She was No. 2 in the Hollywood box office, behind only Shirley Temple.

"Sun Valley Serenade," became her most popular film. But her ambition was to star in a Technicolor movie, a goal finally achieved in 1945 with "It's a Pleasure."

After the war, though, her popularity began to wane. There were other, younger skating stars. And, at the behest of her second husband, Winthrop Gardner, she made a dreadful business decision, cutting her skate show ties to Arthur Wirtz.

On her own, she could barely find arenas to play. And after bleachers collapsed and left 400 injured before a March 1952 show in Baltimore, her days of touring America were soon over.

But she made one last triumphant European tour in 1953, finishing in Oslo.

"She was afraid no one would come," Borjeson said. "But we had 33 full houses. Nine thousand people stood up to see her every show."

Henie soon reaffirmed her ties to Norway with her third husband, Niels Onstad. Together, they worked toward building the Henie-Onstad Museum to showcase her collection of art and jewelry.

Even in her final days, she talked of performing one last time on television. Suffering from leukemia, she died on April 12, 1969, in her husband's arms on a private plane bound for Oslo.

"Really, she was more famous in America than in Norway," Borjeson said. "There was no figure skating in America before Sonja."

And what of skating in Norway?

Consider: Fifty-eight years after Henie won her last Olympic gold medal, Norway will not even send one figure skater to its Winter Olympics in Lillehammer.

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