Nils Asther was the Swedish-born silent film star that critics and audiences adored as “the male Greta Garbo”. Behind his cool and exotic exterior, however, no one really knew Nils Asther—maybe not even himself. From his secret affairs with “sailors” to his failed marriage proposals, Asther was a Swedish enigma for the ages.
Throughout his career, Nils Asther was a heartbreaker. The New York Times, for example, described Asther as “[handsome] and dark-haired”. Needless to say, given his good looks, he was “generally cast as a lover” in his films. Not to mention, standing at six feet tall, he was irresistible to women—and, perhaps, men.
Nils Asther was born in Sweden in 1897 to Anton Andersson Asther and Hildegard Åkerlund. Technically, his parents weren’t married at the time of his birth so Asther was illegitimate, even though his father acknowledged him from birth. Sadly, Asther would spend the rest of his life seeking legitimacy and acceptance in all the wrong places.
Unmarried parents might be a problem now—but when Nils Asther was born, it presented a devastating problem. Because his parents weren’t yet married, Asther ended up in the Swedish foster care system. He spent the first year of his life with a saddle-maker before, thankfully, moving back in with his real parents and half-brother in Malmö. In spite of their reunion, however, they weren’t exactly one big, happy family. They might not even have been a family.
Some of the accounts of Asther’s early childhood are conflicting. While he certainly ended up in foster care for the first year of his life, the exact reason is less certain. Allegedly, Asther’s time in foster care might have had something to do with uncertain parentage. It’s possible—maybe even probable—that Asther never knew his biological father.
Despite the early hiccups, Asther ended up back at home…but that didn’t mean his ordeal was over. Asther’s father—or, at least, the man, who he called “father”—seems to have disapproved of him from the time that he moved back in. Even as a child, Asther was quiet and reserved and preferred reading books and spending time alone. Allegedly, his father even “scolded” him for “being too focused on reading”. But all of that studying eventually paid off.
It’s not clear what attracted Nils Asther to acting but it’s obvious that his father didn’t approve. Nevertheless, as a young man, Asther escaped his disapproving father and moved to Stockholm to study acting under the Swedish stage actress Augusta Lindberg. But that wasn’t all that Lindberg taught the handsome up-and-coming actor.
According to some sources, Augusta Lindberg’s relationship with Asther was far more scandalous than it seemed on the surface. Allegedly, Lindberg, who was more than ten years older than Asther, was also his mistress. Whatever the nature of their relationship, however, it clearly worked in Asther’s favor because he was about to get his big break as a Swedish star.
Shortly after arriving in Stockholm, Asther made his film debut in 1916’s The Wings. Despite the social stigma against homosexuality at the time, The Wings was an openly gay-themed film about a manipulative countess “coming between” a gay artist and his queer model. It was, indeed, a “queer” choice of film for the handsome Asther.
Author Richard Dryer described the cast and crew of The Wings: “The key personnel were all gay [...]The scriptwriter and designer, Alex Esbensen was gay. Mauritz Stiller, the director, was not only gay but a flamboyant man about town…One of Stiller’s most important relationships was with Nils Asther, the Danish actor who plays himself in Vingarne, his first film”. Was it art imitating life—or was it the other way around?
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Film historians later speculated that Nils Asther only got his role in The Wings because of a romantic relationship with the film’s director, Mauritz Stiller. Given Asther’s later romantic conquests, it’s entirely possible. Following The Wings, however, he became a pupil of Aage Hertel and landed major roles in several Swedish films.
Asther’s easy success in Swedish cinema made him the subject of gossip—but that’s not all it did. It also attracted the attention of Hollywood heavyweights. As Asther recalled, Hollywood literally came knocking on his door. “I had not yet got out of bed and was waiting for morning coffee when there came a knock on the door. Unannounced, it was a Mr. Berman from the U.S.A. Hat in hand[...]‘Hallo, Asther! You are going to Hollywood’”.
Being young, handsome, and adventurous, Nils Asther needed little encouragement to move to Hollywood. Nevertheless, Mr. Berman convinced Asther to make the leap across the pond: “You have a future there. You’re the type that the girls will run after”. But while the girls would be chasing after Asther, he would be chasing after the boys.
Asther arrived in Hollywood just one month later and signed on with United Artists. Right away, he began working with the biggest stars that Hollywood had produced—Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and Norma Talmadge. But there was another Swedish-turned-Hollywood star that Asther reminded audiences of.
Nils Asther was well aware of the effect that his looks had on audiences—and the comparisons that came with it. “Like Garbo, I have been given many labels by the newspapers,” Asther said in one of his rare interviews. “Very nearly as handsome as Valentino,” he said, recounting headlines written about him, “the masculine version of that mysterious fascination with [Garbo]”.
From the moment he arrived in Hollywood, audiences began comparing Asther to the “Swedish sphinx”—but there was something that they didn’t know. Asther and Garbo had in fact been friends while they were both living in Sweden. But, the studios believed that, with the right publicity, they could convince the world that Asther and Garbo were more than friends. And they might have been.
As true Scandinavians, both Asther and Garbo preferred to live quiet and solitary lives. The studios, however, would have preferred less mystery…and more publicity. However, it was becoming increasingly obvious that their two Swedish stars didn’t exactly walk the “straight” and narrow. They were both, in fact, hiding a huge secret.
There was one scandalous thing both Asther and Garbo had in common. And given their close friendship, Garbo knew all about Asther’s secret—and he knew all about hers. The trick was trying to keep their secret from their adoring fans. Years later, however, their secret would come out (and so would they). Both Asther and Garbo were, very likely, attracted to and had relationships with both men and women.
In the 1920s and 30s Hollywood, the stigma against non-heterosexual relationships was at an all-time high. So it was important that, for Asther—even more so than for Garbo—the true nature of his sexuality remained an industry secret. But that didn’t stop Asther and Garbo from jokingly calling Asther’s male companions “sailors”.
On the set of 1929’s The Single Standard, Asther and Garbo shared a few intimate scenes. During the filming, Asther accidentally manhandled Garbo—and he nearly paid a dire price for it. The actress became irate. Allegedly, someone on set overheard Garbo reprimanding Asther for the mishap, shouting, “I’m not one of your sailors”. Just like that, his secret was nearly out.
Even as a boy, Nils Asther kept to himself—not exactly the outgoing personality that usually makes a Hollywood star. On his 13th birthday, for example, Asther wrote himself a note, “Congratulations on the birthday, you old rascal! Not that you deserve it, but may your future become light and fun, with great success. Well, why not world renown to satisfy your vanity?” But the strange letter gave even more insight into what Asther really had going on…
Asther’s ramblings in that letter further confused film historians as to the nature of his sexuality. “Beautiful girls, a thousand of them,” he continued writing, “and coins in large quantities, and good health so that you can enjoy these creature comforts. May all your dreams come true, even the idiotic ones”. Sadly, only one his dreams came true.
Nils Asther never really wanted to be actor—his devilishly good looks simply made him irresistible. What he really wanted was an artist’s life. “And when you’re drinking in a villa in Italy or Spain,” he wrote to himself, “where you can live in peace and with peace of mind, free from ambitions and desires, may you finally get your easel, canvases, brushes, and paints. Cheers to you, old boy”.
Asther’s quiet reserve made him an unlikely star. The Hollywood media preferred outgoing and extroverted personalities who gave breathy interviews and posed for the cameras. Suffice to say, that wasn’t Asther’s nature. However, he made the best of it. His publicist used his quiet reserve as a way to market his “mysterious edge and make him seem foreign”.
Asther’s success in Hollywood became a careful balancing act. On the one hand, he had to appear to be somewhat “cool and aloof”. On the other hand, he had to portray the life of a family man to avoid rumors surrounding his sexuality. In order to achieve this balancing act, the studio came up with a devious plan.
Despite knowing their actual romantic preferences, the studios became obsessed with the idea of a Nils Asther and Greta Garbo power couple. So, likely on the advice of his publicist, Asther proposed to Garbo. But the “Swedish sphinx” was even more opposed to the idea of living a lie for publicity’s sake and rejected the “lavender marriage”. But there was more to it than meets the eye.
Asther’s feelings for Garbo might actually have been somewhat genuine. He recalled the moment he met her, saying, “Suddenly she looked up and into my eyes. It felt like I was hit by a thunderbolt. I stared bewitched at her. But it seemed like she did not notice me. Her girlish face seemed to me wonderfully beautiful”. Despite any feelings he may have had, he didn’t let Garbo’s rejection get to him.
Despite his quiet reserve, Nils Asther was something of a drama queen. On an apparent whim, he bought a cabin in the middle of nowhere for himself and Greta Garbo. It was likely intended to be some kind of engagement present. But Asther forgot to buy furniture for the place, so the two Hollywood stars had to sleep on the floor.
Film historians believe Asther was gay—but that wasn’t the only secret he was keeping. Despite the ups and downs, he seemed to genuinely love Garbo. “My whole body was carried by a pleasant springing sensation, which I never before experienced, and the effects of which I could never completely free myself from. Something strange had happened inside me. It insisted that I must join with her forever”. However, you can’t always get what you want…
On paper, Asther and Garbo were the perfect match. Not only would the marriage have turned them into Hollywood’s most unstoppable power couple, but it would have provided cover for their true sexuality. “I am rather like Greta,” Asther mused, “in that I like to be alone. I love peace and quiet”. He wouldn’t get much of either.
Asther ultimately proposed to Garbo twice more before finally giving up. Perhaps we’ll never know what his true feelings for her were given that the marriage would have been a career convenience for them both. Nevertheless, the two remained friends throughout their lives—maybe more, maybe less. But Asther found a way to move on.
At the core of Asther’s and Garbo’s friendship was a deep sadness and homesickness. He said, “When she laughs, it's a silent, breathless kind of laugh, that shakes her whole person but makes very little noise. She likes to be led and is easily influenced by anyone she admires. [She] probably isn't very happy”. Neither was he.
Even after Garbo’s rejection, Asther still needed a marriage to keep up appearances. So, right after his last proposal to Garbo, Asther entered a “lavender marriage” with Vivian Duncan, his co-star from Topsy and Eva, his first Hollywood film. Shortly into the marriage, Duncan gave birth to their only child, Evelyn Asther Duncan.
Because of his private nature, the details of Asther’s marriage to Duncan are mostly lost to Hollywood history. But, from the little that they could see, the media gathered that the marriage was “stormy” and splashed what little they had across the tabloids. But, even with his secrecy, Asther couldn’t keep up appearances forever.
Just two years into the marriage, Asther and Duncan called it quits. The media immediately began speculating as to why Asther, a supposed family man, would abandon a mother and child. Eventually, with or without his permission, his publicist permitted a journalist to publish an article outing Asther as not entirely straight. But how would it affect his career?
Amidst the growing controversy of his sexuality, Asther played the role of General Yen in 1932’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Even by the standards of the day, however, he was a controversial casting choice. The film’s director said, “General Yen was a big casting problem. I knew what I did not want—a well-known star made up as [a Chinese man]”. One word: Yikes.
Despite the news of his sexuality, Asther still maintained an air of mystique. Frank Capra, the director of The Bitter of General Yen, explained, “After many interviews, we settled on[...]Swedish actor, Nils Asther. He was tall, blue-eyed, handsome; spoke with a slightly pedantic “book” accent; his impassive face promised the serenity and mystery of a centuries-old culture”. Whatever you say, Frank…
Asther’s thick Swedish accent and subtle exotic charms didn’t always work in his favor on set—and the tides were turning against him. Once the “talkies” became popular, more often than not, his Swedish heritage was a hindrance. So, in early in the 1930s, Asther began taking voice lessons to minimize his accent. But there was more career trouble ahead.
In 1935, seemingly without explanation, Asther picked up his life in Hollywood and moved to London. Allegedly, the reason for Asther’s sudden move was an undisclosed “breach of contract” that landed him on the studios’ blacklist of actors. However, there’s another scandalous explanation for Asther’s sudden departure from Hollywood.
Nils Asther had problems with the studios, for sure—but not for the reasons that people thought. Asther wasn’t exactly “out and proud” but, by 1935, his sexuality was common knowledge in Hollywood. The film studios who had once supported him could no longer market his suave good looks to female moviegoers. It’s entirely possible that the studios blacklisted Asther for “character” or “moral” violations of his contract. And things didn’t get much better after he left.
There aren’t many records of Asther’s time in London. From what little we know, however, it seems like Asther struggled to get roles even there. In the five years that he lived in London, he only appeared in six films. Worst of all, he sounded lonely as there are no records of any romantic relationships—either with men or women.
Nils Asther returned to Hollywood in 1940, hoping that his time on the blacklist had come to an end. However, if Asther expected the attitudes towards his orientation to have changed, he would have been sorely disappointed. Between 1941 and 1949, Asther only received small and supporting roles. But that’s not the worst part. He even went uncredited in his last Hollywood film.
By 1950, Asther had given up on his film career. Instead, he turned to the new medium of television, hoping that it would provide him with the roles he desired. Sadly, even on the small screen, Asther only ever managed moderate success at best. Worst of all, his declining career meant that he was living in relative poverty.
Despite his many years of success in Hollywood, Nils Asther never felt that it was his home. Certainly not when he could barely afford a home. “Hollywood is really no place for me,” he lamented one time. “I stagnate here[...]I only feel awake when the air is fresh and crisp as in my native Scandinavia”. Home was calling him back.
Finally, in 1958, Asther gave up on Hollywood—not that he had ever really liked it there anyway. He returned to his homeland of Sweden, only occasionally appearing in Swedish and German films. However, by that time, there was a bright side to it all. It seems like Asther had found his true calling—the childhood dream that he had forgotten about in the haze of fame.
Nils Asther spent his later years in relative obscurity as an artist and painter, moving in more socially liberal circles, just as he had dreamt of as a child. Before his passing in 1981, Asther wrote parts of a memoir in which embellished some aspects of his life, including an alleged engagement to Countess Linde Klinckowström-von Rosen.
Sadly, there was a dark side to the very thing that put Nils Asther on the map. He never enjoyed his time in Hollywood and regretted pursuing fame and film. “There is nothing that I more bitterly regret than leaving Sweden and giving myself to the violence of film. Above all, I let myself be caught by the untruthful Hollywood dream factory, where I experienced my life’s most terrible nightmares”.
Tragically, it’s not clear that Asther was ever happy about his life because he always suffered in solitude and silence, saying he was “not a pleasant person. I am not gay and amusing and social. I am ingrown, introspective, and analytical. To speak of things that affect me deeply and to speak of them honestly is a burden”.
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