PROFILES – Wanda Hendrix & Sonja Henie.

PROFILES – Wanda Hendrix & Sonja Henie.

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WANDA HENDRIX (1928 – 81)                            

She was born Dixie Wanda Hendrix in Jacksonville, Florida in 1928. Whilst appearing in her little hometown theatre group, young Dixie was noticed by a talent scout and signed to a contract by Warner Brothers, changed her professional name from Dixie to Wanda, and the Hendrix family promptly moved to California. By 1947, she had switched from Warners to Paramount where she landed one of her best roles in that year’s Ride the Pink Horse. The pretty 19 year-old actress was soon dating 32 year-old Orson Welles but nothing came of it. The following year she starred opposite Tyrone Power in Prince of Foxes and her future in films looked bright.

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She dated businessman Bob Neal for five months early in 1950, then actor Johnny Sands for two months towards the end of the year. By then, however, she was pretty much smitten with Universal newcomer Audie Murphy. Even a few dates with another Universal up and coming leading man by the name of Tony Curtis, nor a November encounter with actor Robert Sterling, failed to dim her enthusiasm for Murphy whom she first met in 1947. America’s most decorated World War Two soldier, the diminutive Murphy spotted her picture on the cover of Coronet magazine and arranged a meeting. After a two-year engagement the couple married in February 1949, but it was not a happy marriage.

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Her husband was a violently jealous man who, nevertheless, had numerous affairs during their brief union. He was also suffering from what we call today post-traumatic stress disorder, due to his horrendous wartime exploits, and always slept with a loaded revolver under his pillow. On at least one occasion he held his young wife at gunpoint. To her great credit Wanda spoke of his condition with sympathy in her later years. Murphy was also an inveterate gambler (mostly horse racing) and lost, not only his own money but all of Wanda’s as well. They parted after a year and divorced 12 months later, yet she would love him for the rest of his life. Wanda was shattered when he died unexpectedly in a light plane crash in 1971.

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Wanda & husband James L. Stack

Robert Boyle was a long-time pal of Wanda’s and most pundits expected them to marry once they became a dating item in 1951, but it was not to be. From July until December 1952, she found comfort in a torrid romance with singer Eddie Fisher who was at the peak of his game, but that did not last either. The negative publicity surrounding her stormy first marriage did little to enhance Wanda’s screen career. In fact, in 1954 she chose to retire completely from acting to marry millionaire playboy/sportsman James L. Stack Jr. He was the brother of actor Robert Stack who would later play Eliot Ness in TV’s hot series The Untouchables (1959-63). She had dated Bob for a month prior to embarking on a much more serious relationship with his brother. The marriage to James ended in divorce in 1958, whereupon Wanda attempted to re-kindle her acting career, but with little success.

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Wanda & the love of her life, Audie Murphy

Handsome American actor Michael Dante met her in 1958 and they saw a lot of each other following her divorce. For two years she was in a relationship with radio personality Johnny Grant but it ended in 1961. There followed a lengthy relationship with Australian Joe Kirkwood Jr, a brief interlude with actor Grant Williams and dates with the ex-husband of Shirley Temple, John Agar in 1963. By then, however, Wanda had developed a drinking problem brought on by the lack of acting opportunities coming her way. ‘Young people are now in casting’, she told an interviewer in 1971, ‘and they don’t know my name or my work. The industry has changed so very much.’ Marriage to Italian oil executive and financier Steven LaMonte in 1969 lasted over a decade until their divorce in November 1980. By February 1981, Wanda was dead from double pneumonia. She was only 52.

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SONJA HENIE (1912 – 69)                         

Sonja was the daughter of a fur wholesaler in Norway. She received her first pair of ice skates at the age of six and by 14 she was Norwegian Skating Champion. At 15 she won the Olympic Gold Medal. Then she won again in 1932 and again in 1936. That year she turned professional and began touring with her own ice show. 20th Century Fox came calling and she debuted in One in a Million (1936) playing an ice skater (what else?). Her movies remained popular through the thirties and mid-forties before interest in ice-skating pictures waned. She retired in 1960.

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Sonja meets Hitler – Berlin Olympics 1936

In 1940, she married businessman Daniel Topping, the heir to millions and part-owner of the New York Yankees. However, her connection to top Nazis caused controversy as she often performed in Germany before the war. A photograph of her shaking hands with Adolf Hitler caused her popularity to plummet, although it is generally accepted that their relationship never progressed beyond friendship. Rumours that she and the other two medallists at the Berlin Olympics greeted Hitler with the Nazi salute are simply not true. However, she did give him the Nazi salute, accompanied by a ‘Heil Hitler!’ during a pre-Olympics event in Berlin, much to the delight of the mostly Nazi audience! Norwegians were unimpressed and more so during WW2 when she refused to donate funds to the Norwegian Underground.

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Sonja with husband Dan Topping

Sonja’s brother Leif described his sister as ‘promiscuous’. In the skating world it was common knowledge that her skating partners often wound up in her bed. ‘I think she slept with them all’, recalled Susan Strong Davis, a former skater in Sonja’s show who described her as ‘the original bitch’. ‘She was always in bed with somebody’, said Ms Davis. Fox screenwriter Milton Sperling put it even more bluntly. ‘She really loved to fuck’, he said. The man had no time for her. ‘This guileless, simple girl was one of the most voracious, sexy broads in town’, he vowed. ‘On the set she was an utter shrew who treated the crew like dirt and was generally detested by nearly everyone.’ Desi Arnaz, Greg Bautzer, Richard Greene were just three of the probable lovers whose names were bandied about. There were many more.

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Dating Tyrone Power

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On the town with Liberace

The studio often sent her out on publicity dates with Tyrone Power. According to Sonja, she and Ty checked the fan magazines to find out if they were still in love or not. Opinions are divided on whether or not they were lovers at all, although taking into account their individual track records, they almost certainly were. Sonja always stayed in the best hotels and threw the most extravagant parties in Hollywood. She made her entrance to one of them on the back of a small elephant! ‘Sonja Henie’s Hollywood Ice Revue’ made her millions, even after her movies tapered off, and she invested wisely in real estate, modern art pieces and restaurants.

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Sonja doing what she did best

In 1941, following Pearl Harbor, she decided to become an American citizen, then offered her services to the USO. In 1946 she divorced Topping and three years later married wealthy aviator Winthrop Gardner who had inherited Gardner’s Island. That union also ended in divorce – in May 1956. A month later she tied the knot for the third and final time – to shipping magnate Niels Onstad. They were still husband and wife when Sonja breathed her last in 1969 after being diagnosed with leukaemia a year earlier. In need of a quick transfusion, Sonja and Niels flew to Norway, but during the flight she took a nap and never woke up. She was 57.

2 Comments

  1. Interesting post, Alan. I had never heard of Wanda Hendrix though I knew of Sonja Henie. Have there been other successful Norwegian actors in Hollywood?

    • The only Norwegian actress who tasted Hollywood success (to my knowledge, Cat) was Liv Ullmann. Wanda married Audie Murphy, of course, but he systematically cheated on her throughout their marriage.

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