Nils Anton Alfhild Asther (17 January 1897 – 19 October 1981) was a Swedish actor active in Hollywood from 1926 to the mid-1950s, known as “the male Greta Garbo”. Between 1916 and 1963 he appeared in over seventy feature films, sixteen of which were produced in the silent era. He is mainly remembered today for two silent films – The Single Standard and Wild Orchids – he made with fellow Swede Greta Garbo, and his portrayal of the title character in the controversial pre-Code Frank Capra film The Bitter Tea of General Yen.
Asther, born Nils Anton Alfhild Asther, was the son of Swedish nationals Anton Andersson Asther (born February 21, 1865, Caroli, Malmö) and Hildegard Augusta Åkerlund (born November 3, 1869 in Södra Sallerup, Malmöhus County). Although Anton Andersson Asther had promised Hildagard Augusta Åkerlund aka Hilda Åkerlund marriage, she however was unwed when she gave birth to Nils in Sankt Matthæus parish in the Copenhagen borough of Vesterbro where she stayed very briefly. Thus, due to the marriage promise, technically, Nils was not an illegitimate child. (Also: when the parents married, a note was made of Anton´s official acknowledgement of the boy.)
He spent his first year as a foster child in Hyllie, Sweden with saddlemaker Rasmus Hellström and wife Emilia Kristina Möller. He was christened in Hyllie on February 26, 1897 before moving in with his biological parents who had married on May 29, 1898 in Malmö.
His half-brother Gunnar Anton Asther (born March 4, 1892 in Caroli, Malmö) was his father’s child from a previous marriage to Anna Paulina Olander, who had died in July 1895.
As a young man Asther moved to Stockholm, where he received acting lessons from Augusta Lindberg. It was through Lindberg that Asther received his first theatrical engagement at Lorensbergsteatern in Gothenburg, and in 1916 Mauritz Stiller cast him in The Wings (Swedish: Vingarna), a gay-themed Swedish silent film from 1916, directed by Mauritz Stiller, based on Herman Bang’s 1902 novel Mikaël. In Copenhagen, actor Aage Hertel of the Royal Danish Theatre took Asther under his wing. This soon led to a number of film roles in Sweden, Denmark and Germany between 1918 and 1926.
In 1927, Asther left for Hollywood, where his first film was Topsy and Eva. 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, starring Joan Crawford, Johnny Mack Brown, Anita Page, and Dorothy Sebastian. Asther was cast opposite Greta Garbo in Wild Orchids as the tempting Javanese Prince De Gace. 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 was not a problem, such as the Chinese General Yen in The Bitter Tea of General Yen.
Between 1935 and 1940, Asther was forced to work in England after an alleged breach of contract led to a studio-based blacklist. Asther 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, and he appeared mostly in small supporting roles. In the early 1950s, Asther tried to restart his career in television, but managed only to secure roles in a few episodes of minor TV series. In 1958, he returned to Sweden, almost destitute. There he managed to get an engagement with a local theater and had four film roles before finally giving up on acting in 1963 and devoting his time to painting.
Asther was a homosexual in a time when it was a dangerous social stigma, both personally and professionally. He grew up in a deeply religious Lutheran home, believing 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 continued 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. Asther was closeted. He proposed marriage to Greta Garbo to hide the true nature of his sexual orientation. Asther and Garbo had known each other in Sweden, and finding themselves relatively new to a foreign land they spent a great deal of time together. They often visited a friend’s ranch outside Hollywood where they could relax, ride horses, go climbing, or swim at Lake Arrowhead. “Sailor” was a favored term for Greta Garbo’s male, gay/bisexual friends. In 1929 during filming on location in Catalina 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.
Rumors exist from the early 1930s that Nils had relationships with Swedish director Mauritz Stiller and Swedish writer Hjalmar Bergman and with other male colleagues. Asther mentions some of this in his memoirs. He had a long-term relationship with actor/stuntman and World War II Navy sailor Ken DuMain. According to Ken DuMain, he met Asther on Hollywood Boulevard in the early 1940s, and they enjoyed a long-term relationship.
In August 1930, Nils entered a lavender marriage with Vivian Duncan, one of his Topsy and Eva co-stars. 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 Asther offered to apply for American citizenship if it would help the process of getting their daughter into America. Right from the start, Asther and Duncan’s marriage proved stormy and became fodder for the tabloids. They divorced in 1932.
Nils Asther died on October 13, 1981, at a hospital in Farsta, Stockholm. He is buried in Hotagen, Jämtland.
In 1960, Asther was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame with a motion pictures star at 6705 Hollywood Boulevard for his contributions to the film industry. (Wikipedia)
Take a look at these vintage photos to see portrait of a young and handsome Nils Asther in the 1920s and 1930s.