The 1952 World Figure Skating Championships

Elizabeth II was just beginning her reign as Queen after the death of her father King George VI. Turkey and Greece had just joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. There was a nation-wide protest in what is now Bangladesh, after police opened fire on a procession of students. Millions of film-goers lined up to see Cecil B. Demille's picture "The Greatest Show On Earth" and Kay Starr's "Wheel Of Fortune" blared on record players.

The year was 1952 and from February 27 to March 1, the world's best figure skaters gathered in Paris, France for the World Figure Skating Championships. The post-Olympic Worlds were held at the historic eighteen thousand seat Palais des Sports, known to locals as the Vel d'Hiv because it had been built as a velodrome (cycle racing track). The rink had a morbid history. During World War II, when the Nazis occupied Paris, it had been used to hold Jewish prisoners before they were shipped off to the concentration camp at Drancy and the extermination camp at Auschwitz.

Photo courtesy Elaine Hooper, BIS Archive

Most of the skaters and officials who had been at the Olympics in Oslo flew directly to Paris on commercial flights. Others who hadn't been at the Games trained in Switzerland prior to the event and arrived by train. Notably absent was Jeannette Altwegg. She'd made her mind up to retire long before winning a gold medal in Oslo and was already back in Liverpool sipping tea with her mother by the time the competition got underway in France. Let's take a look back at how things played out on the ice in Paris that year.


Joan Dewhirst and John Slater. Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine.

When the ISU first held an international ice dancing competition in conjunction with the World Championships in England in 1950, an American couple had emerged as the surprise victors. Lois Waring and Michael McGean arrived in Paris as medal contenders but during a pre-event practice, Lois took a nasty fall in practice, hitting her head and spraining her left arm. They were forced to pull out. Their withdrawal paved the way for an interesting showdown between British Champions Joan Dewhirst and Joan Slater and the winners of the international dance event at the 1951 Worlds in Milan, Jean Westwood and Lawrence Demmy. Though Westwood and Demmy were perhaps the favourites, Demmy had stitches in one of his feet.

The draw for the starting order for the compulsory dances divided the ten couples into two groups - one to five and six to ten. Couples one and six started the first dance; couples two and seven the second and so on. As was the fashion at the time, the teams were all on the ice performing the dances at the same time. The formula the ISU used to select the compulsories was to pick an 'easy' dance, a waltz, a fast dance and a slow dance - in this case the Rocker Foxtrot, Westminster Waltz, Quickstep and Argentine Tango. Canada had a judge, Norman V.S. Gregory, even though a Canadian dance team wasn't entered.

Jean Westwood and Lawrence Demmy. Photo courtesy "Skating World" magazine.

All seven judges had Westwood and Demmy first over Dewhirst and Slater in the compulsories, though only four points separated the two British teams. Third went to the American husband/wife team of Carmel and Ed Bodel, who had won the 1951 North American Championships in Calgary.

Jean Westwood and Lawrence Demmy became the first official World Champions in ice dance with a precise and flowing performance befitting of gold. All but the Swiss judge, who preferred Dewhirst and Slater, had them first, though less than two points separated the teams in the free dance. Washington, D.C's Carol Ann Peters and Danny Ryan moved up from fourth to take the bronze over the Bodel's with a jazzy free dance. In fifth were Lydia Boon and Adrian Van Dam of Holland. They were one of two Dutch teams competing in Paris - an unexpected surprise as Holland didn't exactly have a strong dancing tradition. To this day, their finish is the highest ever by a Dutch dance team in a major ISU Championship. Jean Westwood recalled that after winning, she remembered "standing center ice with the Union Jack flying and the anthem playing. It made up for not going to Olympics."

In her report in "Skating" magazine, Theresa Weld Blanchard recalled, "The crowd loved the fact that both British teams bowed to each other after bowing to the crowd, both at the beginning and end the end. Over here, each competitor or couple goes to the center of the rink and bows to the spectators on each side before beginning and again at the finish - girls curtsey. The national flag of each contestant is raised at the end of the rink with a spotlight on it and a fan blowing it out; that is lowered after about two minutes of the program to be ready for the next contestant's flag... The top two couples from Great Britain, who placed first and second, danced with a flowing, undulatory stroke which enabled them to incorporate interpretive characteristics to a great degree. Their compulsory performance, from a standpoint of technique, indicated that they strive to conform with the standards for accuracy and placement which are prescribed under the current dance rules. The unison of the champions was a noticeable feature of their dancing. Their relaxed, free flowing edges and carriage gave them a distinctive and pleasing style... The enthusiastic and prolonged response of the capacity audience which witnessed the dance finals is indicative of the widespread appeal of ice dancing in the world sport events."


Ria Baran and Paul Falk

To the surprise of very few, the West German husband and wife team of Ria (Baran) and Paul Falk received unanimous first place marks from the judges in the pairs, receiving marks ranging from 5.3 to 5.8. They were the defending Olympic, World and European titleholders and were an outstanding couple. Theresa Weld Blanchard remarked, "Some judges think they do not have enough contents but they skate so beautifully and have such marvellous lifts that it is a joy to watch. Ria had on a stunning dress - plain black velvet with lovely lines and a lot of white heavy embroidery and rhinestones on the shoulders and sleeves. Paul is strong, yet graceful, and acts so courteously throughout the pair that it dresses it up a lot." The Falk's started skating in Dortmund at the ages of thirteen and fourteen, and teamed up less than a year later because they both hated doing figures. During the War, the couple trained at the Berlin Sportpalast. Ria worked as a secretary there; Paul was an engineer at the Berlin autobahn. They were unable to compete in post-War international skating events due to a several year ISU ban on German athletes. Ria was skating against doctor's orders after falling on a lift and injuring her back. They were completely self-taught and Ria sewed all of their costumes herself.

Jennifer and John Nicks. Photo courtesy BIS Archive.

American siblings Karol and Peter Kennedy took the silver with five second place ordinals. However, they skated a less than perfect performance, which was reflected in the marks which went as low as 5.0 for manner of performance. Peter stumbled two minutes into the program and they missed one of their lifts. Canadians Frances Dafoe and Norris Bowden had four second place ordinals but the bronze went to British siblings Jennifer and John Nicks because six of the nine judges placed them third or better. The American and Dutch judges had Dafoe and Bowden fifth and sixth. Jacqueline Mason and Mervyn Bower, who placed ninth out of the ten teams, made history as the first Australian pair to compete at Worlds.

Karol and Peter Kennedy. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

The big story surrounding the pairs event in Paris involved Peter Kennedy, his father and a member of the French press. The February 28, 1952 issue of "The Seattle Daily Times" reported, "Dr. Michael Kennedy of Seattle and his son were involved in a fist fight with a French news cameraman tonight at the World Figure Skating Championship and were separated by police. The incident came as Peter and his sister, Karol, had left the ice after finishing their pair-skating routine. As they left the ice, Karol stepped to the side of the rink and sat down to catch her breath. Dr. Kennedy said he asked the photographer not to take her picture because she was crying, but the picture was made anyway. In the melee that followed, the doctor's glasses were broken and the cameraman received a bloody nose. The police stepped in. The Kennedys hurried from the Sports Palace by a rear door and were taken to their hotel. Peter and Karol didn't wait to change to their street clothes." In the months that followed, the ISU had its Congress and the USFSA its Annual General Meeting. It came out that in addition to the incident in Paris, Karol and Peter had also skated an exhibition without a proper sanction in Garmisch-Partenkirchen following the World Championships. The incident in question was a performance for American G.I.'s during a Bavarian skating competition, arranged by the U.S. military. Their father believed the German sponsors had applied for a sanction from the ISU, but they hadn't. Newspapers reported the exhibition as being the reason for their suspension, but the USFSA and ISU also acknowledged the incident in Paris. The story put out at the time was they'd chosen to turn professional.


Twenty two year old Harvard student Dick Button, the two-time Olympic Gold Medallist and reigning World Champion, was the overwhelming favourite in Paris. In his book "Dick Button On Skates", he recalled, "When I flew from Oslo to Paris for the World Championships, I went as a different person. I had taken the Olympic competition much too seriously. To put myself back in proper perspective, to remember how to laugh at myself, was the first job on hand. Aldus Chapin, a roommate from Harvard, had flown over to see the championships, and together we enjoyed all the attractions that Paris had to offer. My training went out the window. I skated only two hours a day, and while Dad was visibly annoyed at the late hours I was keeping only seven days before a World Championship, Mother kept replenishing my ever dwindling supply of funds with a wink of her eye and a gentle warning that the competitions were soon. I needed that relaxation, and when I won the world title, it was with a better performance than would have resulted with consistent training."

On his way to winning his final World title, Dick Button unanimously won the school figures. He was followed by Austria's Hellmut Seibt and Americans Dudley Richards and Jimmy Grogan. Theresa Weld Blanchard remarked, "It seemed that the men did not skate as well as at Oslo, except Dudley Richards, who is the only one 'hot' for this event. It proves that it is practically impossible to keep at a peak. They all trained hard in Oslo and the let down afterwards, doing practically no skating until Paris, where there is very little ice and all had to use it. Jimmy Grogan had an especially bad day and did a poor rocker and loop... The Iron Curtain entries did not show up and neither did the judges so they took off the German judge as the German entry, Freimut Stein, had withdrawn, and used only seven judges."

Dick Button and Jacqueline du Bief

Thirteen thousand spectators showed up to watch the men's free skate, which Dick Button unanimously won. He received seven 5.9's, six 5.8's and one 5.7. Hayes Alan Jenkins and Jimmy Grogan were two-three in the free and overall but over points behind Dick Button, with Hellmut Seibt and Dudley Richards dropping down to fourth and fifth. Canada's only entry, Peter Firstbrook, placed seventh overall - a disappointment considering he'd finished a strong fourth in Oslo at the Olympics.


With Jeannette Altwegg out of the picture, the women's event in Paris was a highly anticipated battle between France's Jacqueline du Bief and three talented Americans - Long Island, New York's Sonya Klopfer, Newton Center, Massachusetts' Tenley Albright and Detroit, Michigan's Ginny Baxter. In Oslo, Albright had won the silver and du Bief the bronze. Klopfer had beaten du Bief in the figures but placed fourth overall. Baxter had finished fifth, but won the free skate.

Tenley Albright. Photo courtesy "Skating" magazine.

In the school figures, twenty year old Jacqueline du Bief had first place marks from five of the nine judges and led by over ten points. Three judges, including the American Alex J. Krupy, voted for eighteen year old Tenley Albright. The Swiss judge had Sonya Klopfer first. Neither du Bief and Albright was perfect - Albright was off axis on the double three-change-double three and Jacqueline's turns weren't all clean. What won it for her was the final figure, the bracket-change-bracket.

Prior to the free skate, the announcement was made that Tenley Albright was forced to withdraw due to a bronchial infection. Albright's withdrawal, coupled with the fact that Jacqueline du Bief had won the figures and that she was stronger in free skating, put a great deal of pressure and expectations on the French star. In her book "Thin Ice", she recalled, "How long that afternoon seemed, waiting for the final test and trying to relax! And how long, too, the performances of the competitors who preceded me before the judges! I had awaited this evening for years; I had imagined it a thousand times - brilliant, luminous and magnificent. It had always seemed to me that 'that day' the world would look different; that my skating, my life, and I, myself, would suddenly become changed in some way. Had I imagined too much - had I expected too much, or was it simply that I was too tired? I don't know, but when the microphone announced that I had won, when a few bars of the Marseillaise fell on a Palais des Sports suddenly become tense and silent, a strange emptiness came over me and I felt disappointed. No - the world was not rocking. No - nothing seemed changed, and in the centre of this shouting and excited crowd, I was still only the young girl of yesterday, only a skater whose legs were heavy with fatigue and whose trembling hands hardly seemed able to hold up the enormous crystal cup that was presented to me. Nothing was different from yesterday. I had not changed my skin!"

Theresa Weld Blanchard called the event thusly: "The rink was well packed with a most enthusiastic crowd, and they cheered just as hard for the last girl as the first - not to mention expressing themselves violently when they did not think a judge had given sufficiently high marks. The girls made a very colourful picture warming up and I have seldom seen a collection of such nice looking young girls - many of them really extremely lovely... Of the middle eight - those on top in figures - Marlene Smith led off and looked lovely in a pale blue dress with sequins, simply cut with lovely lines; it was most becoming with her long blonde hair. She did extremely well. Sonya Klopfer came next; she wore her green chiffon, which must be her lucky dress for she skated as well as I have ever seen her... Sue Morrow wore a white chiffon dress, most striking, with beads on the sleeves and waist. She started very well but caught her toe, it seemed, and fell hard on her chest; she recovered well and got going again only to have another fall at the end, so her total performance was not up to her high standard. Valda Osborn wore a dark purply-red velvet with matching sequins on the skurt and little cap; she skated a nice program. Barbara Wyatt wore plain black and did very well... Jacqueline du Bief skates surely, lightly and gracefully, and is lovely to watch. She has some over-theatrical moves, but being French they seem appropriate. She has an artistic style bordering on the ballet... Ginny Baxter skated right after Jacqueline and did extremely well, with every jump and spin efficiently executed.. She wore her red dress which is so effective with its white underskirt and pants... The French spectators loved every minute of it and cheered and clapped each girl."

Left: Jacqueline du Bief. Right: Dick Button and Jacqueline du Bief. Photos courtesy "Skating" magazine.

Jacqueline du Bief's win came with first place marks from seven of the nine judges, including the American judge. The Italian judge voted for Ginny Baxter and the French judge tied Baxter and du Bief. Because she was only fifth in figures, Baxter had to settle for the bronze. The silver went to Sonya Dunfield, who had placed third in figures. Canada's three entries - Suzanne Morrow, Marlene Smith and Vevi Smith - placed fourth, seventh and tenth. Great Britain's top woman, Barbara Wyatt of Brighton, placed fifth, but received ordinals ranging from fourth to sixteenth in the free skate.


As it happened, Barbara Wyatt's wide-ranging marks in the free skate were nothing compared to the controversy surrounding Jacqueline du Bief's win in her home country. At the Olympics in Oslo, she'd skated brilliantly. In Paris, she had a fall on the double Lutz. Despite this, the German judge (Peter Gross) gave her a perfect mark of 6.0 for manner of performance. Dick Button recalled, "Out of a possible perfect score of six, he gave a six. Despite the fact that this skater had fallen down, he had given her a perfect score. Had he given it to her in contents, the judge could have justified himself by approving her music, the layout of her program and so forth. But to give a perfect mark for a 'performance' in which the skater fell down was just incredible; had the judge merely wished to place her first, he could have done so with almost any other mark by judging the others consistently with the standard he placed on her performance... The crowd was emotional, the judge was a German voting in Paris at a time when political tempers were flaring, and there was no adequate check on his action at that time. Whether or not there was any direct connection between these factors and that mark can be surmised by the reader as well as the writer, but it is interesting to note that the resulting criticism, although directed against that particular judge, also reflected the general dissatisfaction with the system of marking that permitted such an incident."

The closing banquet was scheduled for eleven thirty at night on the closing day of the competition, but it didn't even start until one in the morning. The Champagne Veuve Clicquot and Moët et Chandon had already been flowing for hours, which made the speeches particularly entertaining. The women were all given bottles of French perfume and everyone received a glass vase on a stand marked with 'Paris' and the date. At one point, the lights were dimmed and waiters brought in the pièce de résistance: a block of ice carved into the shape of a skate with lights inside, served with ice cream on the footplate of a real skate. It was a fabulous finale to a fabulous week of skating.

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