They are the stars of the Winter Olympics — appointment viewing on television, their every move equally calculated and scrutinized.
The figure skaters.
Every four years, one seems to become an instant celebrity — a bona fide diva and a household name.
The first ice queen was Norway’s Sonja Henie, an Olympian by age 11 who won three gold medals — in 1928, 1932 and 1936 — before becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest celebrities.
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At the height of her off-ice fame, Henie, nicknamed the “Pavlova of the Ice,” was third at the box office, behind Clark Gable and Shirley Temple. Her cement prints on the sidewalk outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood include her palms, stilettos and skate blades. But her legacy has been complicated by her cozy relationship with Hitler.
Henie was 5 years old, the story goes, when her older brother, Leif, got a pair of ice skates for his birthday. Henie, already a precocious skier and swimmer, cried until her parents bought her a pair, too. Then they couldn’t drag her off the ice.
By age 8, she was the junior champion of Norway. By 10, the national champion. By 11, her star was born at the very first Winter Olympics, in 1924, even after she had to skate over to her coach in the middle of her program to ask what part of her routine to perform next.
Henie finished last of eight skaters, but the world’s fans forgave her. She had only skated for six years.
From a young age, Henie’s parents pulled her out of school and traveled with her abroad to bolster her skating prowess. She trained in London with acclaimed prima ballerina Tamara Karsavina and traveled Scandinavia for lessons with longtime Norwegian champion Martin Stixrud.
Early on, Henie developed a balletic style that defined an era of figure skating. She floated around the ice smoothly and extended her frame into graceful lines during spins and twists. Her smile seemed to beam into arenas’ rafters.
“She absolutely radiated joy on the ice,” said Roy Blakey, who runs the website IceStage Archive, a seven-decade study of ice skating on the silver screen. “When she skates zooming around on the ice, you get the feeling that she’s really enjoying that. And it paid off. The audience responded. They’d never seen anything like that before.”
By age 14, Henie started an historic streak of 10 consecutive world championships and was the prohibitive favorite in the 1928 Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. What’s more, audiences had taken to her style of dress: short skirts — cut two inches above the knee, according to the Associated Press at the time — that whirled up in the air around her waist during spins.
She won the gold medal in women’s singles in St. Moritz, then defended her title in the 1932 games in Lake Placid, N.Y., and the 1936 games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.
Performing in Germany ahead of those games, she offered a Nazi salute to Adolf Hitler. He congratulated her rinkside after she won her third consecutive Olympic gold medal and invited her family to lunch.
When the Nazis invaded Norway in 1940, the Henie family displayed a signed photo of Hitler prominently atop the piano in its Oslo home. The house went unharmed during the fighting.
Those ties didn’t do much to dim her international star. She retired from competitive skating after the 1936 games and debated turning professional.
“I’m tired of keeping in condition all the time,” she told the AP in March 1936. “After all, I’ve won ten world championships and three Olympic titles. What more is there for me to do?”
A week later, she decided. She signed a $150,000 contract ($2.7 million adjusted for inflation) to appear in a 10-city tour of ice shows. Afterward, she’d begin negotiating with major motion picture studios for a movie deal.
“I want to do with skates what Fred Astaire is doing with dancing,” Henie told the New York Times. “No one has ever done it in the movies and I want to.”
That summer, she was supposed to screen test for America’s largest film studios. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer reportedly already began making contract offers. Instead, she took her ice show routine to Hollywood’s Polar Ice Palace for film’s brightest stars and deepest pockets to see her in person.
“Inside, there was bedlam,” reported The Washington Post. Clark Gable, Ginger Rogers and Jimmy Stewart sat rinkside. “Stars and stars — and every production boss in the business.”
The lights dimmed as Henie glided to the middle of the ice. She launched into her Olympic routine to thunderous applause.
“Now she was poetry in motion,” The Post gushed. “Now she was a streak of cold white lightning as she swept dizzily past the wooden rails.”
She next skated her swan dance, a program performed almost entirely on the toes of her blades.
“[The audience] wouldn’t let her go,” The Post noted. “Encore. Encore. Encore. People jumped up and down on their feet. Stars forgot themselves in her brilliant performance. While they yelled themselves hoarse, producers eyed each other and fervently prayed that the other fellow wasn’t thinking in terms of a contract.”
She signed with 20th Century Fox for $300,000 ($5.3 million adjusted for inflation) after intense wooing from studio executive Darryl Zanuck.
“I’ve signed Miss Henie and her skates,” he told The Post. “Even if she couldn’t skate, I’d have signed her anyway — but not for so much money.”
Her first film, “One in a Million” in 1936, starred Henie as a Swiss Olympic phenom preparing for the games, then a career of ice shows in the United States.
“Make arrangements whereby you may be sure not to miss it,” Post film critic Nelson B. Bell wrote.
She had a knack for hitting laugh-lines with her accent and producers always managed to get her on skates.
“The skating was the top act, and the acting came next,” said Blakey from IceStage Archive, “but I don’t think they gave her any deep acting problems to overcome.”
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