Saturday, January 17, 2015

Sonja Henie - A Cutting Edge Millionaire

Sonja Henie, the dimple-faced Norwegian skating sensation of the 1930s, shot to stardom when she appeared in her first motion picture for 20th Century Fox - One in a Million - in 1936. In less than a year she became the eighth most popular actress at the box office, but according to a Motion Picture article* she declared "I'd rather be first". 

This little spit-fire was not just a pretty face on the screen, she had a heart set on fire with ambition. Henie was keen on winning not only gold medals but a lasting legacy in the world of skating.

"I want to do with skates what Fred Astaire is doing with dancing". 

The Queen of Ice also had a shrewd business sense that made her harder than the ice she skated on when it came to sealing a financial deal, but did the limelights of Hollywood turn this country-cutie into a golden-eyed Scrooge. Was she "money-mad"? Let's take a look at what author Roger Carroll wrote about this topic in this ( slightly abridged ) republication of his January 1939 article for Motion Picture magazine : 

Is Sonja Henie Money-Mad? Sonja has been earning money for little more than two years. Yet, today, she is earning more money than any other woman alive. What's behind her apparent determination to be absolute tops financially?


When Sonja Henie started to skate, at seven, she skated for fun. At eight, she won her first skating title. After that, she skated for applause, for achievement's sake. Magically, she won title after title — until, at 23, she had won more than anyone else ever had. But she was not content. She wanted to form one more magic feat, wanted to turn her silver skates into gold. 

And she has. 

[Henie] has a contract to do two pictures a year for five years at 20th Century-Fox. Her starting salary was at least $125,000 a picture. It must be more now. With her first picture, she became one of the top ten box-office stars. It's a cinch that she asked for a raise after that. 

But let's be conservative. Let's say that her movie earnings are only $250,000 a year. Figured on a yearly basis, that would be a salary of $5,000 a week. A nice, cozy little sum — more than most stars earn. But Sonja crowds all of her movie-making into twenty weeks, ten to a picture. That makes her movie salary something more like $12,500 a week. A staggering sum. The absolute tops. 

And it's fair to figure that way because Sonja doesn't stop earning when the cameras stop turning. She doesn't sit back and relax, waiting for her next picture to go into production. She treats herself to a real vacation onlv once a year, spending a few weeks in her native Norway. The rest of the time, she adds to her bank balance with exhibition tours. 

Her first big tour, made after her first picture, grossed her $327,500. Before she started her last tour, she had a guarantee of $800,000. Before starting her present tour, which is more ambitious and includes several cities she has never appeared in before, she had a guarantee of $2,000,000! Deduct her expenses — costumes, traveling, living in the best hotels, paying the salaries of a troupe of sixty (the chorus boys and girls get $75 a week or better, while a few featured members get more) — and take a flying guess at what Sonja's remaining slice is. It's breathtaking. 

It makes her movie dollars look like dimes. 

And she has still other sources of income. Radio appearances, for example. She doesn't make these gratis. Then there are commercial endorsements. With one or two exceptions, she has never taken her payment in trade or in publicity. She has taken her payment in cash. One of the exceptions was the time that she endorsed a car. And then she received not one car, but two. Why is she so ambitious in an income way? Why is she constantly striving to increase her earnings, when they are overwhelming already? Is she money-mad?

She may have muscles as hard as steel, but Sonja herself isn't hard. Her eyes are a soft brown. She has a soft voice. She has never sacrificed the softly-rounded curves of femininity to athletics. Her twinkling smile is only one symptom of her sunny disposition. She is unassuming. She is friendly. She is natural, devoid of poses. 

It's hard to believe that such a girl could have an insistent urge for money, and yet more money. But there are those fabulous figures, becoming more fabulous all the time. And not only does she seem to be working tirelessly to get more money, she seems to hang on to it. 

No one questions Sonja's smartness. Yet up she shoots her earnings, farther and farther. Out of every thousand she earns, past a certain point, she will be able to keep only a few dollars. The tax collector will take the rest. But, apparently, she wants even those few dollars badly enough to work hard for them. Why? She can't be haunted by memories of a poverty-stricken past or by fears of a penniless future. Money isn't something new to her. Only the experience of earning it is. 


The Henies were wealthy before Sonja ever went to work. For more than eighty years, the family has been famous as fur merchants in Oslo. For generations, they have been furriers to royalty, including the royalty of England. Her older brother, Leif, is now carrying on the prosperous business that their father, Wilhehm, inherited from his father. It was partly the Henie wealth that made Sonja's career possible. The late Wilhehm Henie was able to afford the best trainers for his daughter. 

Sonja didn't find the road to Fame easy. To get there, she had to train day in day out, for years on end, constantly struggling to improve. But — her struggle didn't have any financial complications. If she never had earned a cent, she still could have lived in comfort, for the rest of her life.She didn't have to turn professional. But, now that she has, is she hounded by the fear of the professional athlete of having only a little while in which to cash in on athletic ability? 


Constant conditioning takes an early toll of athletes. Perhaps she has thought of this. Perhaps this is what has made her decide to get all that she can, while she can. . . But this is doubtful. If she were afraid, at twenty-five, of wearing out by the time she's thirty, wouldn't she be conserving her energy to last as long as possible? Instead, Sonja is working more feverishly, more strenuously, than ever. So strenuously that recently, for the first time, she has had to have massages to relax her muscles and her nerves. 

Perhaps she has believed some of the assertions that her popularity is a "fluke," that it can't last, that she is a novelty who will cease to be popular the moment she ceases to be a novelty. But this, too, is doubtful. No athlete, either male or female, has ever made the movie splash that she has made. Plenty of them have had screen chances. And, in most cases, the fans have been satisfied after one look. Not so, in Sonja's case. She has something more than an athletic specialty that appeals to audiences. 

For one thing, she is unusually attractive for a girl athlete, both in face and figure. She has coquettish charm and warm personality. And Darryl Zanuck thinks enough of her acting ability to have considered casting her as an outdoor girl who does everything but skate. 

She doesn't have to rush to cash in before the public gets tired of her skating. The public hasn't shown the first signs of getting tired. Quite the contrary. 

Sonja is just intent on collecting a large amount of mazuma. Right now. Without delay. 


For all her income, Hollywood hasn't seen her spend much there but time. Except in the very beginning. She tossed money around a bit then. She rented a pretentious white house furnished in white ; acquired an all-white wardrobe; and drove around in a swanky white open car with red-leather cushions. Then, having captured Hollywood's attention, she rented an auditorium for $800 and put on a skating exhibition that netted $2,500. Out of that exhibition came big movie offers. All of her spending had been in the nature of an investment. Good business, as it were. 

She hasn't had to spend like that since. And she hasn't spent like that since. She doesn't have a home of her own in Hollywood. She rents. Not by the year, but for three-month terms. The three months she is in Hollywood at a time. They aren't magnificent mansions. The last house didn't have a swimming pool. Sonja likes to swim. But no pool, no extra rent. 

Hollywood, seeing little evidence to the contrary, is convinced that Sonja's funds are in the same place as Leif's furs. Cold storage. 

She has a reputation for being generous with the people who do things with her, and overlooking the people who do things for her. She has lavished gifts upon Tyrone Power. She gives things to her directors and fellow-players. During one picture she gave every member of the chorus a sweater to slip on after rehearsals and routines. Yet waitresses in the Cafe de Paris, the studio commissary, relate that "Miss Henie never leaves a tip." They don't say "almost never." 

There are numerous tales of her overlooking tips....too many of these stories for some of them not to be true. 

Not long ago, she told a friend, bewilderedly, "Everybody seems to think I don't think of anything but money." She said she knew how the stories began. When she first came to America, she engaged a lawyer to advise her financially. He put the fear of God into her about income tax. He said she must keep an accurate account of all the money she earned, because she couldn't leave the country at any time unless she had paid her tax in full. With that worry on her mind, she started going around to the box-office after exhibitions, to ask : "How much tonight?" She thought nothing of it, except as something necessary to do. But newspapermen, trailing her around, thought plenty of it. They printed that she asked at the box-office every night, "How much?" that started what Sonja calls a misimpression. 

She would deny until Doomsday that she is money-mad. Yet she holds on to her money as few stars do, and is working tirelessly for more. What other explanation can there be?

The authorized Sonja Henie life story put out by her studio, contains this little revelation: "After Sonja had won her second Olympic championship, she continued her training so she could attempt the highest honor of all time in the sporting world — she was determined to win more championships than any other' person, man or woman, in the history of any sport." 

She carried out that determination. In the world of skating, she became the all-time champion. The undisputed Queen of the Ice. When she turned professional, too "take her dancing on ice to all parts of the world," she didn't intend to be any less a Queen. She felt that she had earned the title for keeps, after all those years of training, all those championships. And she felt that she should rate an income befitting her title. She determined that she would never work for less than anyone else in her profession. 

She determined that she would strive for more. That determination was easily fulfilled. Sonja had to find a new determination. She thrives on working toward a distant, difficult goal. 

And I think that the new determination became : To earn more money than any athlete, or any actor or actress, had ever earned before. To become the all-time champion financially, as well as otherwise. 

Certainly that would explain her constant efforts to increase her already phenomenal income. It would explain her seeming money madness. She has never felt any need, and is never likely to feel any need — except the need for the thrill of being the tops. 

She did get a swimming pool!

Something that makes me feel that my guess may be correct is a remark that someone at the next table overheard Sonja make in a night-club the other night. She was talking with her agent about a radio offer. She wasn't too sold on its terms. Into the club just then walked Barbara Stanwyck with Robert Taylor. Sonja, following Barbara with her eyes, asked her agent, "How much does she get when she goes on the radio?" 

Sonja wouldn't take less.

                        ________________________________________________

Had this article been written just one year later, author Roger Carroll would have changed his tune.....Sonja Henie built a huge white manor across from Sunset Boulevard where she remained in blissful retirement from the film industry till she passed away at the age of 57 in 1969. Henie kept her art collection on display in this palatial abode and not only did the house boast a swimming pool, but a skating rink as well - in the attic! 

* Motion Picture magazine article dated August 1938. 

A special thanks to the Audio/Visual Conservation project of the Library of Congress for scanning past issues of the Motion Picture magazines and to the Internet Archive for making these scans available ( and searchable! ) to the public for reading. 

3 comments:

  1. She owned an ice skating rink in the Westwood area of Los Angeles that I remember - she made appearances there but I don't think I ever saw her in a skate show there. She skated at the Polar Palace in Hollywood with her show and I think I saw her at least a couple times at the old Pan Pacific in Los Angeles as well.She no longer skated herself in the shows by the mid 50s. She was quite the star who seems to be all but forgotten now. Connie Stevens bought that Henie house from Sonja's last husband - it's a famous Paul Williams designed home - it sits on a nice piece of at least 1 acre on Delfern Dr. in Holmby Hills, but I had heard it was at the time she bought it, in bad need of massive repairs. The pool you referred to is still there today. Miss Stevens allowed her home to be used in a few TV shoots and at least 1 film I know of. The home sold again not too many years back now. Sonja had a really extensive, highly valuable art collection that was legendary much of which was in that same home but was parceled out/donated in part before her last husband passed on. That swanky car Sonja is in is a Cord.

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    1. How fascinating that you got to see her skate in person! Connie Stevens believed the house to be haunted by Henie's spirit....owing to the fact that she loved the home so much. I'm surprised she kept the house for so long. Most celebrities switch houses so quickly throughout the years. Thanks for identifying the car. Only a Cord could look that swanky!

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