Vera Hruba Ralston

Rival to the skater Sonja Henie, on ice and in Hollywood

Vera Helena Hruba, ice skater and actress: born Prague 12 July 1923; married 1952 Herbert J. Yates (died 1966), 1973 Charles Alva; died Santa Barbara, California 9 February 2003.

Sonja Henie is remembered as the Norwegian ice skater who won 10 world championships and three Olympic gold medals before becoming a Hollywood film star at 20th Century-Fox. Virtually forgotten was her Czech skating rival Vera Hruba, who starred in almost as many films for Republic. She never lost her Czech accent, which limited her utility to the studio – in contrast to Henie, who soon adopted the right Hollywood diction. Hruba realised that her Czech name was also a handicap, and when she first went to America she became Vera Ralston or Vera Hruba Ralston – named after a breakfast cereal.

She was born Vera Hruba in Prague on 12 July in a year which has been variously quoted as being 1919, 1921, or 1923. She herself was unsure, but favoured 1923. That would make her a 12-year-old when she competed in the European figure skating championships in Berlin in 1936. Henie won, for the sixth time; Hruba was 15th.

Two weeks later she was one of the Czech Olympic team who marched behind her country's flag at the opening ceremony of the winter games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, reviewed by Adolf Hitler. She refused to raise her arm in the Hitler salute.

She did not take the Silver Medal there, as some reference books state. That went to the British champion Cecilia Colledge, close behind the victorious Henie. The young Hruba divided the judges' opinions. Her Czech compatriot placed her 13th; the Swede put her 11th and the British judge rated her a lowly 20th. In the final reckoning she was 17th.

In 1937 she skated in the St Moritz International Tournament. Colledge won; Hruba was only fourth. She realised that she was unlikely to succeed in the sporting world, so she turned professional to join an ice show in America. There she caught the eye of Herbert J. Yates, head of Republic Pictures Corporation and 40 years her senior. He featured her in two films about the "Ice Capades" revue, and then offered her acting parts. In 1944, as Vera Hruba Ralston, she co-starred with Erich von Stroheim in The Lady and the Monster and also in Storm Over Lisbon, Yates's attempt to rival the 1942 classic Casablanca.

In Lake Placid Serenade (1944), she had a chance to display her skating ability, but most of her future films were off the ice. She twice appeared with John Wayne in westerns (Dakota, 1945, and The Fighting Kentuckyan, 1949), and in 1948 she was a murderess in I, Jane Doe. Perhaps her best film was A Fair Wind to Java (1953) with Fred MacMurray, Victor McLaglen and a climactic volcano explosion. In 1955 she appeared in Timberjack with Sterling Hayden and Hoagy Carmichael. Three years later, Republic Pictures closed down and her acting career came to an end.

In 1952 she had married the man who had faith in her screen skills, Herbert Yates. It was a happy marriage which lasted until his death in 1966. She later married Charles Alva, a Californian businessman.

Dennis Bird

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