Sonja Henie And The Extortionist

Olympic Gold Medallist and World Figure Skating Champion Sonja Henie

January, 1938... the usual pile of fan mail flowed into the Twentieth Century-Fox studio. Some letters were addressed to "Sonja Henie c/o 20th Century Fox", others simply to "Sonja". There were thousands of letters from Oslo, Ottawa and Ohio. Some of them were charming; some of them a little cuckoo. Men were in love with her; women envied her glamour and mystique; little girls wanted to be just like her. 

The Norwegian ice queen didn't sit there in front of a giant pile of letters opening them one by one herself. She had people to do that for her. On March 21, 1938, one of those people finally opened a letter postmarked January 14. When they did, they probably had to pick their jaw up off the floor.

Olympic Gold Medallist and World Figure Skating Champion Sonja Henie
Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection. Used with permission.

The letter in that studio employee's hand warned Sonja Henie that she was being watched. It demanded five hundred dollars in cold hard cash and threatened, "Do not report this to the police." It was signed Joe Cummings. The frightened employee brought the letter to the attention of their superior and the studio's management decided not to tell Sonja or her father about the incident for fear that they would have a hullabaloo on their hands. Instead, the studio executives contacted the Federal Bureau Of Investigation in Washington. It wasn't until that April that Sonja was finally told about the letter's existence. She wasn't a happy camper.

Olympic Gold Medallist and World Figure Skating Champion Sonja Henie

The FBI traced the letter and determined that "Joe Cummings" was actually a twenty-four year old Scottish immigrant named Fred Roger Cunningham. Prior to moving to California, he had previously resided in Plainfield, New Jersey and worked in Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Sneedsville, Tenneseee and Buffalo, New York. The feds further ascertained that Cunningham had been arrested in Tucumcari, New Mexico on January 22, 1938 on suspicion of theft of an automobile near Pasadena... only eight days after the letter to Sonja had been mailed. For this car theft, he was sentenced to a year in the Los Angeles County road camp. When the feds went to 'visit' Cunningham, he was taken into federal custody on extortion changes. He was probably lucky that the FBI found him before he met the end of Papa Henie's cane.

Olympic Gold Medallist and World Figure Skating Champion Sonja Henie

FBI investigator John H. Hanson released the following statement upon Cunningham's arrest: "On April 16, this individual was located by special agents of the Federal Bureau Of Investigation and made a full confession with respect to this case in which he stated that he had written the extortion letter to Miss Sonja Henie and mailed [it]." 

Photograph of Fred Roger Cunningham, a man who attempted extortion against Olympic figure skater and actress Sonja HeniePhotograph of Fred Roger Cunningham, a man who attempted extortion against Olympic figure skater and actress Sonja Henie
Fred Roger Cunningham

Cunningham had told the FBI he had written the extortion letter "as a bit of devilment" but admitted that he was flat broke at the time. He also claimed that at no time would he have ever harmed the three-time Olympic Gold Medallist. The feds ultimately went easy on the young man, allowing bail on his nine-month sentence to be posted if he stayed the hell away from Sonja and her family.

Newspaper clipping about a 1938 extortion attempt against Olympic Gold Medallist and World Figure Skating Champion Sonja Henie

That same spring Sonja and Tyrone Power's 20th Century Fox 1937 film "Thin Ice" was released to British audiences. The film opened at Earl's Court in London in March of 1938 at the exact same time as the film "One Mile To Heaven"... a tale about a career-driven young woman who found herself in the middle of an extortion plot.

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