How Henie’s Hitler meeting placed champion skater on thin ice

Cinema Ruskin meets once a month, screening old movies and raising funds for the up-keep of the listed Ruskin House. This Saturday, its show includes a film about a long-forgotten star of the 1930s.
BERNARD WINCHESTER provides a timely reminder

The Pavlova of the Ice: they don’t make Hollywood movies like this any more…

Who, today, remembers Sonja Henie?

In the 1930s, she was the darling of the decade. This was a time which celebrated youth, vitality and the body beautiful, and Henie was the embodiment of all three. It would even earn her a lunch invite to Hitler’s Bavarian retreat at Berchtesgaden.

Known as “the Pavlova of the Ice”, Henie first came to the world’s attention when, at the age of just 12, she skated for Norway in the 1924 Winter Olympics and came eighth. She went on to become the world champion in 1927 and then to win gold medals in the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Olympic Games. With her 10 world championships, Henie collected an unmatched number of  titles among women skaters.

This, though, was only the beginning of her fame.

She came from a wealthy family, and her sporting fame saw her acquire global celebrity and made her a popular guest of royalty and socialites. It occurred to Henie that her sporting successes could provide the springboard for her to enter a more lucrative and enduring career in entertainment, and she became one of the first sports stars to follow this course.

The 1936 Winter Olympics, staged at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany, were her sporting swan song. Once her competition career was over, Henie’s wealthy father sponsored an extravagant ice show in Hollywood which came to the attention of producer Darryl Zanuck, who offered her a movie contract.

Henie was a popular cover star for magazines in the 1930s

Her first film, One In A Million, was a huge success. It is being screened in 16mm at Cinema Ruskin this Saturday.

Audiences loved her, particularly in the dazzling ice skating routines which she choreographed herself, and she went on to star in a string of hits including Thin Ice, My Lucky Star and Sun Valley Serenade.

By 1939, she was one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood and had appeared on the cover of Time magazine. She had high-profile romances with Tyrone Power, world champion boxer Joe Louis and Van Johnson.

Her worldwide fame also created a great demand for personal appearances, and she toured the world performing in ice shows and enjoying the endorsement deals which continued to support her later in life.

Her lunch Berchtesgaden was a cause of some delayed indigestion in 1940, however, when Germany was at war in Europe and a photo of Henie with Adolf Hitler was published in America.

Hitler never hung around for the medal ceremonies when Jesse Owens was winning Olympic gold in Berlin later in 1936. But he insisted on meeting ice skater Sonja Henie

At the time of those 1936 Games, when the picture had been taken, the Norwegian press had denounced her for greeting Hitler with a Nazi salute and for accepting an autographed photo with a lengthy inscription from him. That photograph later protected her property in Norway from confiscation or damage when seen by occupying Nazi forces.

Her film career continued, but never truly recovered.

Henie married an American in 1940, became a US citizen and supported the war effort in her films by giving large sums of money and staging ice shows for free Norwegian forces in Canada.

In 1956, after two divorces, she married a Norwegian shipping magnate and returned home. She was supported in regaining her tarnished reputation by the Norwegian royal family, who attended her Holiday On Ice tours in 1953 and 1955, and who in 1969 attended her funeral.

Henie is buried on a hilltop overlooking the Henie-Onstad museum, which she and her husband built to house their art collection. She had died, aged 57, from leukaemia.

  • Tickets for Cinema Ruskin are just £2, available on the door, and the bar is open from 7pm with the screening starting at 8pm. Ruskin House is at 23 Coombe Road, Croydon, CRO 1BD

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