Nils Asther

Nils Asther

Nils Asther by Alexander Binder (before 1929)
Born Nils Anton Alfhild Asther
(1897-01-17)17 January 1897
Copenhagen, Denmark
Died 19 October 1981(1981-10-19) (aged 84)
Farsta, Sweden
Nationality Swedish
Occupation Actor, painter
Years active 19161963
Spouse(s) Vivian Duncan (1930-1932) (divorced) 1 child
Children Evelyne Roseta Duncan Aster (b.20/03/1931 - d. 26/11/2011)

Nils Anton Alfhild Asther (17 January 1897 – 19 October 1981)[1] was a Swedish actor active in Hollywood from 1926 to the mid-1950s, known for his beautiful face and often called "the male Greta Garbo". Between 1916 and 1963 he appeared in over 70 feature films, 16 of which were produced in the silent era. He didn't seek publicity, choosing instead to be alone. He is mainly remembered today for two silent films he made with his fellow Swede, Greta Garbo, and the pre-code interracial love affair in The Bitter Tea of General Yen.


Born in Denmark in Sankt Matteus parish, Copenhagen, son of Swedish couple Anton Asther and Hilda Åkerlund. Nils spent his first year as a fosterchild in Limhamn, Sweden, because his biological parents were unmarried. That is also the reason Nils was born in Denmark. At that time unwed mothers went to Copenhagen for a discreet birthing. After their marriage in 1898 Nils moved in with them in Malmö, where he grew up. As a young man he moved to Stockholm, where he received acting lessons from Actress Augusta Lindberg, and through her he received his first theatrical engagement at Lorensbergsteatern in Gothenburg, and in 1916 Mauritz Stiller cast him in The Wings (Swedish: Vingarne), a gay-themed Swedish silent film from 1916, directed by Mauritz Stiller, based on Herman Bang's 1902 novel Mikaël. In Copenhagen, one of Sweden's best known actors, Aage Hertel of the Royal Danish Theatre, took Nils under his wing. This soon lead to a number of film roles in Sweden, Denmark and Germany between 1918 and 1926.


In 1927 he left for Hollywood, where his first film was Topsy and Eva. The film also featured the Duncan Sisters, and in 1930 he had a brief marriage of convenience, a so-called lavender marriage, with one of them, Vivian Duncan. They had one child Evelyn Asther Duncan, nicknamed in the media as "the international Baby" due to her Swedish father, American mother and Bavarian birth. Their daughter's nationality was debated and Nils Asther offered to apply for American citizenship if it would help the process of getting their daughter in to America. Right from the start, their marriage "proved stormy and became fodder for the tabloids... [they were] married in Reno, Nevada on August 2, 1930 - a few days after a very public brawl involving Miss Duncan's former fiance, cowboy actor Rex Lease, was said to have punched his Vivian in the face."[2]

By 1928 his good looks had made him into a leading man, playing opposite such stars as Pola Negri, Marion Davies and Joan Crawford. He grew a thin mustache which amplified his suave appearance. One of his most popular films was Our Dancing Daughters, the second time he was paired with Joan Crawford, and also starring John Mack Brown, Anita Page and Dorothy Sebastian. Although Crawford and Brown are the true leads in the story, Nils has an excellent part as Beatrice's husband, Norman, who becomes very jealous and angry when she continues her friendship with her wild, partying friends following their marriage. Cast opposite Greta Garbo as the Wild Orchids, he had a meaty role as the tempting Javenese Prince De Gace. Adapted from a story aptly entitled "Heat" by John Colton. Photoplay said, "Here is a role that will push the young Swedish actor up close to stardom. To it he lends something of the charm and poise of Valentino." The reviewer's comparison to Valentino is on target. Actually, Asther exuded a sophistication that was never associated with Valentino. Nils and Greta had known each other in Sweden, and finding themselves relatively new to a foreign land obvious spent a great deal of time together, visiting a friend's ranch outside Hollywood where they could relax and ride horses together, climbing, or swimming at Lake Arrowhead.[3]


With the arrival of sound in movies, Asther took diction and voice lessons to minimize his accent, and was generally cast in roles where an accent wasn't a problem, such as the Chinese General Yen in The Bitter Tea of General Yen.[1] Between 1935 and 1940 he was forced to work in England after an alleged breach of contract led to a studio-based blacklist.[4] He made six films there. He returned to Hollywood in 1940, and although he made another 19 films up until 1949, his career was never the same, appearing mostly in supporting or smaller roles. In the early 1950s he tried to restart his career in Television, but managed only to secure roles in a few episodes of minor TV series.[1]

In 1958[5] he returned to Sweden, almost destitute. He managed to get an engagement with a local theatre and had four film roles in Sweden and Denmark before finally giving up on acting in 1963 and devoting his time to painting.[1]


During Nils lifetime it was a stigma to be gay. He grew up in a deeply religious Victorian home, thinking homosexuality was a sin and society viewed homosexuality as a disease. In Sweden it was called "unnatural fornication." While sexual relations between adults of the same sex were legalized in 1944, the medical classification of homosexuality as a form of mental disorder persisted until 1979.

The theatrical community and the film industry in the 1920s accepted gay actors with little reservation, always provided they remained discreet about their sexual orientation and there was no public suggestion of impropriety.[6] Nils Asther was unabashedly gay, to the point where he proposed marriage to Greta Garbo to hide the true nature of his sexual preferences. "Sailor” was a favored term for Greta Garbo's male, gay/bisexual friends. In 1929 during filming on location in Catalina filming The Single Standard with Nils Asther, she was overheard berating the actor for grabbing her so roughly. “I'm not one of your sailors,” she reminded him.[7]

Rumors exist from the early 1930s that Nils had relationships with Swedish director Mauritz Stiller and Swedish writer Hjalmar Bergman and with male colleagues. Nils mention some of this in his memoirs..

He had a long term relationship with actor/stuntman and World War II navy soldier Ken DuMain. (Birth: Sep. 14, 1923, Rylie, Dallas County, Texas, USA, Death: Aug. 21, 2001, Los Angeles County, California, USA, Inscription: PHM1 US NAVY). According to Ken DuMain, he met Nils Asther on Hollywood Boulevard in the early 1940s and enjoyed a long term relationship.[7]

"Oh, you're an actor? What have you been in?" Asther said "I starred with Greta Garbo in The Single Standard". "I didn't see it." He said, "Then I did Wild Orchids opposite Garbo". "I said, I didn't see that one either." "And then we ended up in bed together. When I left, he slipped a bill in my hands - fifty dollars. I felt like a hooker, but then he said "I would like to see you more often. Here is my number. Call me whenever you're in town".

The response of Asther to Ken DuMain is unusual in that, out of fear of being "outed", Hollywood performers were leery of being identified by their pickups. Asther probably felt safe with DuMain in part because his career was virtually over and also because his pickup was from out of town.[7]

The road of the jester

His memoirs, Narrens väg (The Road of the Jester), were posthumously published in Swedish.[8] The book was put together with foreword by Uno ”Myggan” Ericson, who had met Asther only once, when he arrived in Gothenburg in 1958. The afterword was written by Iwo Wiklander. The midpart of the book, written by Nils Asther, covers the years between his birth and his arrival back in Sweden in 1958. The book is repetitive and badly written, filled with scandalous gossip and self-hatred.

Iwo Wiklander claimed in later interviews that Nils Asther was intent on destroying parts of his life before his death and much material in his autobiography was exaggerated or completely made up to make a more interesting story. Countess Linde Klinckowström-von Rosen claimed their "engagement" was a practical joke while filming together. She did however, introduce Nils to her family and the Swedish painter Nils Dardel and his freethinking artistic circle.[3]


Nils Asther died on Tuesday¨Oct. 13, 1981, at a hospital in Farsta, Stockholms län, Sweden. He is buried in Hotagen, Jämtland, Sweden.[9] For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Nils Asther has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6705 Hollywood Blvd.

Partial filmography


Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day (1941) Uncredited performer: "Ride of the Valkyries" and "Tableau Russe"" (Symphonic Suite Composed by Lionel Barrymore) [10]

Storm at Daybreak (1933) Performer: "Roses From the South"[10]

Selected Stage


  1. 1 2 3 4 Swedish Film Database - in Swedish only
  2. Bradley, Edwin M.. The First Hollywood Musicals
  3. 1 2 Nils Asther: Narrens väg - Ingen gudasaga, (Carlsson Bokförlag, 1988)
  4. Nils Asther page on "Golden Silents"
  5. 78:or och film - in Swedish only
  6. Anthony Slide, Silent topics, essays on undocumented areas of silent film, Scarecrow Press, 2005
  7. 1 2 3 Silent Topics: Essays on Undocumented Areas of Silent Film by Anthony Slide ISBN 0810850168
  8. Nils Asther page on
  10. 1 2 Nils Asther at the Internet Movie Database
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