Nils Asther's autobiography was published in Swedish in 1988 (1), seven years after his death. It has been described as a "very honest" book by Hans Wollstein, the film critic, and by one Swedish blogger, Rävjägarn, as "a somewhat strange book... no one is more bitter than Nils Asther, and no one brags more about their promiscuity."

Rävjägarn continues
[Asther] seems to have slept with at the very least, Mauritz Stiller and the Swedish-born superstar Anna Q Nilsson... there is a lot in the book about his friendship with Greta Garbo. How close their friendship was and whether they really were lovers is hard to tell. He writes very well about Linde Klinchowström, to whom he was briefly was engaged to. If I remember correctly, she tells a very different story about their relationship.
Anna Q Nillsson, the Swedish silent film star
Nils Asther and Anna Q Nillson, as son and mother 
in Sorrell & Son, 1927
Mauritz Stiller, Swedish director, in 1919.
He gave Nils Asther his first film part.
Greta Garbo and Nils Asther in a publicity still, 1929
The book is well written but really not very good. But you can not help but read onbecause you become curious about [Asther's] self-absorbed, and sometimes even titillating stories. That he also seems a bit crazy, and was constantly making ​​enemies with everyone around him, does not make the book any the less interesting(translation mine)
Néstor G. Acevedo:
In the early 1920's, [Nils Asther] started appearing in European films, working with acclaimed directors such as Victor Sjostrom and Mauritz Stiller. Asther met director Stiller in a Stockholm restaurant. The director approached Asther, whom at the age of nineteen was almost too beautiful to be real, and inquired if he was interested in acting in motion pictures. It is rumored that Stiller and Asther were lovers after Asther was cast in a small role in Stiller's Vingarna. He quickly became Stiller's “Darling favorite,” the actor wrote in his autobiography.
The young Nils Asther
Nils Asther in a scene from Vingarne (The Wings) 1916
directed by Mauritz Stiller

After making several films in Sweden, Asther went to Denmark where he acted in a number of films including Himmelskibet, an early science fiction film, and Hittebarnet.

Nils Asther in Hittebarnet  (Foundling of Fate), 
1917, Denmark, dir Holger-Madsen.
Himmelskibet (Ship to the Stars) 1919, Denmark
Nils Asther is second from left
But Asther didn't stay in Demnark for long. In search of greater challenges, he ended up in Berlin, then the centre of a thriving film industry. After a few years  Asther had already become so successful that he was even able to name his own price for starring roles. However, he was increasingly becoming stuck in the genre of light romantic comedy.

Photoplay, interview 1929:
"I scoffed at comedy. I was a great dramatic actor and would have none of it, so I put my services at such a high figure that I knew they would not take me."(2)
However, Asther's tactic did not work. He continued to be offered romantic parts, including in Der Goldene Schmetterling (The Golden Butterfly), 1926,  a visually splendid German romance directed by Michael Curtiz, with spectacular costumes and one memorable striptease sequence.

Lily Damita, starring in Der Goldene Schmetterling, 1927

But Der Goldene Schmetterling had made it all the way to Hollywood where the studios took notice. Asther told Photoplay:
"A few days later came an offer from United Artists. I explained that I was already signed and they bought the first contract. Other studios offered me contracts, as well."
Before Asther had set foot in Hollywood, he was already wryly noticing how his new-found fame worked: 
There was much talk in the papers when I arrived in America because Imogene Wilson [also known as Mary Nolan, infamous for an affair] was on the same boat as me. They said I was brought here by her. We had played in a film together in Berlin, but I did not know that she was on the same boat until after we set sail." (2)
Asther's first film in Hollywood was Topsy and Evaan adaptation of the book Uncle Tom's Cabin. It was on set that he met Vivian Duncan, the star of the film, and whom he married in 1930. 

Nils Asther in Topsy and Eva, 1927, starring the Duncan sisters
A scene from Topsy and Eva with Nils Asther and Vivian Duncan
Asther told Photoplay:
"My first months in Hollywood were beautiful, because I then met Vivian Duncan. charming, intelligent, sprightly Vivian. I loved her devotedly. I love her now but...
Our names were linked together for the sake of publicity and that cheapened our love in our eyes. What right had the papers to mention our names together?
She was a social little creature who knew many people and who loved to be amusing. I have very few friends; I want no more. People, just collections of people, bore me."(2)
Nils Asther and Vivian Duncan married in 1930
Nils Asther with the Duncan Sisters, Vivian and Rosetta
Nils Asther, Vivian Duncan and their daughter Evelyn, 1933

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, who, in a fit of jealousy, was said to have punched his former girl in the face." (4)

Vivian Duncan was part of the successful Duncan Sisters vaudeville musical comedy duo.

If the orchestra is taken out by Miss Duncan on the road as an act, she will, as a director, imitate the famous directors of history... One serious obstacle stands in the way of Miss Duncan’s leaving home, it seems, and that is the small Evelyn. Nils Asther is not in favor of his wife traveling and objects strenuously to her taking their baby along.(3)
The marriage ended in divorce in 1932 and Vivan Duncan rejoined her sister on the road.

This had been Asther's second marriage. His first  had already ended in divorce in Sweden. In addition to this, he had been engaged and entered into other well-known affairs. 

One engagement was to Countess Klinkowström, "who according to Asther, 'painted the story of our love'. Nothing came of the liaison, however, nor did he marry the daughter of the Romanian ambassador to London, with whom he was rumoured to have had a lengthy affair." (4)

Back in Stockholm, as an aspiring young actor, Asther had become the mistress of local theatrical star Augusta Lindberg, although she was almost 30 years older than him. Known as 'the Sarah Bernhardt of Sweden', Lindberg gave him acting lessons, helped him get theatrical parts, and introduced him to her family connections.  Later, together with her son and other actors, Asther set up an art theatre in Stockholm. Then, when Asther went to Russia, according to his account to direct films there, he travelled with the Lindberg family, and Augusta Lindberg's son-in-law, the playwright Hjalmar Bergman.(4)

Victor Sjostrom directing Vem domer, 1922, in which Asther had a minor part.
Mauritz Stiller, who gave Asther his start in Vingarne, is in the foreground.
Hjalmar Bergman, son-in-law to Asther's former lover, was the writer for the screenplay.

Rävjägarn notes: 
There's a reason why they say ‘empty barrels rattle the most’... In [Asther's autobiography, Narrens Väg(1),] he curses Stiller and Hjalmar Bergman, the ones who helped him with his film career. He considered himself destined to become an artist. So they should have been grateful. (translation mine)
Greta Garbo in 1925 with Mauritz Stiller, her close friend and mentor. 
Mauritz helped both Garbo's and Asther's careers.
Greta Garbo and Nils Asther in Wild Orchids, 1929

 Néstor G. Acevedo:
In late 1924, Nils Asther met Greta for the first time at Dramatiska Teatern. “I didn't notice anything special about her except that she had a wonderful voice, dark, almost plaintive. She lowered her eyes and when she finally raised them I was thunderstruck. I stared, bewitched and bewildered,” Asther recorded.
"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."
The fascination turned into an obsession and, a few days later, he got up the courage to propose to her. “ Without mercy, she turned me down. She said the definitely would not marry me or anyone else for that matter. She had decided to dedicate herself to her art, to film and the theater."
Greta Garbo and Nils Asther in The Single Standard, 1929
Asther and Garbo starred together in two productions filmed during 1928 - Wild Orchids and The Single Standard. They spent time together on and off set.

Greta Garbo, Nils Asther, Wild Orchids, 1929
In his autobiography, Nils Asther wrote about a weekend trip he took with Greta to Lake Arrowhead, northeast of Los Angeles (ca. late 1928). Arrowhead is a man-made lake, but the mountain setting disguises its origin (a great dam prevents the annual spring thaw from being lost to the desert below). Greta and Nils, genuine Nordic spirits bound by their moods as well as their restlessness, fantasized about building “a Swedish log cabin high up on a hill, where we could withdraw from the rush of the film city.” Without inspecting it in advance, Asther selected a small house in the woods surrounding Lake Arrowhead and invited Garbo to join him in inaugurating it.

After a long ride along the narrow, winding roads of the San Bernadino Mountains, they found the cabin –unfurnished. Greta slept on the floor in the downstairs parlor; Nils commiserated with the lumber in the attic. It was a confusing weekend.  Asther, on the rebound from an on-again, off-again romance with Vivian Duncan (one-half of the vaudeville team of The Duncan Sisters), had determined to propose to Garbo “for the third and last time.”  The next evening, after a romantic walk in the moonlit woods, he did – and for the third and last time, she said no. “To myself, I cursed Mayer [Louis B Mayer, head of MGM studios, to which both actors were tied] because I was convinced that he restrained his stars from marrying and bringing children into the world with all the means at his disposal,” the actor wrote in his memoirs. He began to quarrel with Greta, who became sad, not knowing how to put a stop to it, and their weekend ended on  this bittersweet note.
Greta Garbo and Nils Asther in The Single Standard, 1929
Acevedo also records:
"Sailor” was a favored term for [Garbo's] male, usually bisexual friends. On location in Catalina with Nils Asther, she was overheard berating the actor for grabbing her so roughly. “I'm not one of your sailor friends,” she reminded him.
Nils Asther, publicity still for The Single Standard, 1929
Anthony Slide writes:
A number of biographers have recounted an incident that supposedly took place during the filming of The Single Standard in 1929. During a love scene, Nils Asther kissed Greta Garbo rather roughly, and she pushed him away, asserting (to the amusement of the crew), “I’m not one of your sailors.” In repeated telling, this anecdote has come to reflect badly on Garbo. She appears to be angrily turning on her leading man, deriding him for his homosexuality. 
The source of the quote was Ken DuMain, a former WWII sailor who became a ‘bit’actor and extra (and was later the lover of the well-known film collector, sometimes director and discoverer of Charlton Heston, David Bradley.) DuMain met Asther on Hollywood Boulevard in the 1940s and enjoyed a long term relationship with him. As Asther originally told the story to DuMain, Garbo felt that he was playing the scene in too physical a fashion, with too much aggression; her comment was not directed at his sexual orientation.
As DuMain recalled of his meeting with Asther, “I said, ‘Oh, you’re an actor? What have you been in?’ [Asther] said, ‘I starred with Greta Garbo in The Single Standard.’ I said, ‘I didn’t see it.’ He said, ‘Then I did Wild Orchids opposite Garbo.’ I said, ‘I didn’t see that one either’. And we ended up in bed together. When I left, he slipped a bill in my hands – fifty dollars. I felt like a hooker. But he said, ‘I would like to see you more often. Here is my number. Call me whenever you’re in town.’”
The response of Nils Asther to Ken DuMain is unusual in that, out of fear of being “outed” Hollywood performers were leery of being identified by their pickups.(7)

Slide suggests that another reason Asther had to be less wary was that by the 1940s, his career was already past its peak. Nils Asther also had a long-standing reputation for bluntness. He had railed for years publically against the studio system and his film parts.

"I am not a pleasant person," he told Photoplay in 1929. "I am not gay and amusing and social. I am ingrown, introspective, analytical... I want to do character parts, to put on a beard, if necessary, and line my face. As a star I would never be allowed that. No I must be romantic. I must receive fan letters."(2)

Cedric Belfrage wrote:
All the time he remained a suspicious character as far as Hearty Hollywood was concerned. He was too learned, too intelligent and too frank to become the idol of the studio personnel. And they laughed when he spoke to the waiters in French.(5)
 Asther became even more of a suspicious character for Hollywood with the coming of the1930s and the Hayes Code. The Hayes Code banned all portrayal of sexual relations outside marriage, which meant that, indirectly, all references to homosexuality were strictly forbidden. Studio heads hastened to get rid of their gay actors, or those who were had been the subject of damaging rumours, or even just not sufficiently manly for the new era.

Anthony Slide writes:
Just as with the theatrical community, 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.
Producer/director Andrew Stone, who began his career in 1927... was of the opinion that Hollywood had fewer prejudices in the 1920s... “I don’t think there was that much discrimination in those days. Only later.”(7)
Closeted actors were forced by their studios to enter into marriages of convenience by the imposition of morality clauses into their contracts. MGM mogul Louis B Mayer reportedly tried to coerce Naverro into one such 'lavender marriage'. However, he refused. Nonetheless, Navarro's image was handled so tightly by the studio that it was not until he died in the 1960s that his homosexuality was widely acknowledged.

Willam (Billy) Haines, Joan Crawford's friend and star of 'Tell it to the Marines'  was one of the very few actors of the time who was publically out. As a result, he was blacklisted, and ended up making his career as an Hollywood interior designer.

Joan Crawford, Nils Asther, Dream of Love, 1928
Asther worked with Joan Crawford on Our Dancing Daughters, 1929, and in Dream of Love, 1928. Crawford is said to have believed Asther to be gay, like her friend Billy Haines.(6) 

Asther told Motion Picture Magazine:
"Joan Crawford - what an extraordinary woman. I like her very much. When I was acting with her, all the time her Douglas Fairbanks Jnr [her then husband] stand watching; he too is charming!"(5)
Joan Crawford described Asther as a:
“Sensitive, self-destructive type. Considering his accent, I’m surprised he lasted as long as he did in talkies."(6)
Dorothy Sebastian, Nils Asther, Joan Crawford, Our Dancing Daughters, 1929
The Single Standard with Greta Garbo was among the last of Hollywood's silent pictures. Garbo's managers had kept her from talkies for as long as possible, fearing her Swedish accent might damage her career. Asther was in a similar situation. He, along with many other European silent film stars, suffered with the change to talking pictures. 

Asther took lessons to minimise his accent but was increasingly cast in bit parts or roles where a foreign accent wasn't a problem. Although actually Scandinavian, during this time Asther played a whole planetful of nationalities: Chinese in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), Spanish in Behold We Live (1933), French in Letty Lynton (1932) and Washington Masquerade (1932), German in Madame Spy (1934), Austrian in Love Time (1934), Hungarian in Storm at Daybreak (1933), Turkish in Abdul the Damned (1935). 

In the 1940s, he was even to don a turban and become an Indian mystic in Night Monster.

Nils Asther playing Chinese. With Barbara Stanwyck in
The Bitter Tea of General Yen, 1933, dir Frank Capra

As Agor Singh in Night Monster, 1942 (pictured bottom right)

Playing a Turk in Abdul the Damned, 1935
The studio system in Hollywood at the time meant that each studio controlled a stable of actors and actresses and used them solely for their pictures. The actors themselves had little say in which films they were in, who they worked with, even the public image the promotional department came up with. If the star fell out of favour, they could find their film parts dried up, or were of low quality, but they were unable to seek parts elsewhere as they were still bound by their contract.

Asther in particular was vocal in his hatred of this system. In 1930, after playing in an undistinguished South Seas adventure, he confided to Photoplay (Why Nils Did Not Go Back, Janet French, August 1930):
Just to finish my contract [with MGM], I did a part in The Sea Bat. I hated it, but I wanted to leave amicably, so I took it.
They wanted me to do a part in The Eyes of the World (1930). I thought I would like it at first. I read the script. I thought it was bad. It was not my type of thing. I will never again play a role I don't like.
The Sea Bat, 1930. Raquel Torres and Nils Asther as South Seas sister and brother.
Asther also does underwater battle with a special effects manta ray.

Yet after freeing himself from his studio contract, and taking a break, which included a ten week personal promotion tour in vaudeville, Asther found he did not care for the alternatives either, and renewed his MGM contract. 

Immediately, he found himself playing light romantic parts again, such as in the drawing-room drama But the Flesh is Weak. 

With Nora Gregor in But the Flesh is Weak, 1932
Occasionally, however, stars were loaned between studios for one-off films. It was while on loan from from MGM, to Columbia, that Asther starred in The Bitter Tea of General Yen,1932, probably the most artistically complex role of his career. This Frank Capra film received mixed reviews at the time, due in part to its controversial mixed-race romance, but has come to be valued more highly in retrospect. In his autobiography, Capra considered it to be one of the best movies he ever made.

Light years away from the homespun, small-town Capracorn for which the director is best known, this exotic, erotic melodrama is by far his finest achievement....Where Capra's other films are largely stolid, prosaic and talky, this is sensuous and profoundly cinematic.
Nils Asther, Barbara Stanwyck in The Bitter Tea of General Yen, 1932, dir Frank Capra

Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther, Toshia Mori

During the same year, Asther also starred with Joan Crawford in Letty Lynton.

Joan Crawford and Nils Asther, Letty Lynton, 1932

In the early 1930s, Asther continued to live in Hollywood.

Nils Asther in Hollywood with his convertible

Nils Asther at his Hollywood home, 1932

Meanwhile, Asther was still finding himself offered, to him, unsatisfactory roles. More often than not, he was not often required to do any more than to stand around looking exotic, make eyes at  the leading woman, and then to perhaps occasionally die, while the woman ultimately ran back to her husband for the safe Hollywood ending.

In 1933, Asther filmed Storm at Daybreak, yet again a love triangle. The background was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which gave wardrobe the excuse of dressing Asther up as a dashing Hungarian officer while he dallies with the local mayor's wife. 

The New York Times, 1933:
"Storm at Daybreak" is a dull entertainment... Mr. Asther has a romantic manner that is pleasantly suave...  It is also possible to enjoy the ironical spectacle of the Serbs dashing gallantly to battle against the Germans in comic opera uniforms.
Storm at Daybreak was apparently enough for Asther, and he left MGM. According to a later statement, he "quit because I couldn't stand making those 'pretty boys' films in uniform any more."(4)
Kay Francis, Walter Huston, Nils Asther, Storm at Daybreak, 1933
Walter Huston, Kay Francis and Nils Asther confer with 
director Richard Boleslawski on Storm at Daybreak, 1933

With his MGM contract broken, Asther went freelance. However, the next few movies he made in 1933 were yet again lightweight romances - The Right to Romance, If I Were Free and By Candlelight.

Nils Asther as Dr Helmuth 'Heppie' Heppling, Ann Harding as Dr. Margaret 'Peggy' Simmons, 
The Right to Romance, RKO 1933

Nils Asther as Irene Dunne's dastardly husband Tono Casanove, If I Were Free, RKO 1933

By the next year, Asther was playing in his first real B-movie, The Love Captive, for Universal. He played a Svengali-type hypnotist who preys on women. Asther made one more film, Love Time, Fox 1934, a syrupy Schubert biopic which was well publicised but poorly received. 

In 1935 Asther found could no longer get jobs in Hollywood after he was put on a studio-based blacklist after an alleged breach of contract and dogged by persistent rumours of homosexuality. (4) He went to England to seek better fortunes.

 Nils Asther hypnotises in The Love Captive, Universal 1934

Magazine publicity for Love Time, Nils Asther, Pat Paterson, Fox 1934

1935 England

Asther wrote in his autobiography:

Once upon a time I arrived at the Hollywood dream factory. An image of me was created and they sold that for good money for as long as they could manage it. Now I was obviously not profitable anymore, and if I managed to get a living for myself by any other honest work it was a disgrace, a humiliation.(1)

The title of the book,  Narrens Väg, is usually given in English as 'The Road of The Jester'. It can be more literally be translated as 'Fool's Way', as referenced in the Shakespeare quote in Swedish at the end of the book:

En skugga blott som går och går är livet,
en stackars skådespelare som väsnas och
gör sig till på scenen. Och sedan glöms bort.
Det är en saga berättad av en dåre.
Larm och lidelse som ingenting betyder
har lyst narrens väg till stoft och evighet.

The original English verse, from Shakespeare, Macbeth Act V Scene 5
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player 
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage 
And then is heard no more. It is a tale 
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, 
Signifying nothing...

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools 
The way to dusty death.


(1)  Asther, Nils (1897-1981), Narrens väg : ingen gudasaga : memoarer, Stockholm; Carlsson, 1988
I am looking for a copy of this book if anyone has one for sale.

(2)  Nils Asther with Katherine Albert ,'Something About Myself', Photoplay, January February and March, 1929

(3)  p51, Jeannie Gayle Pool, Peggy Gilbert and her all-girl band, Scarecrow Press, 2008

(4)  Hans J WollsteinStrangers in Hollywood, Nils Asther: The Male Garbo, Scarecrow Press, 1994 
(A brilliant book and the main source for the information on this page.)

(5)  Cecil Belfrage, 'Home, Swede, Home', Motion Picture Magazine, March 1929

(6)  p39, Quirk, LJ, Schoell, W, Joan Crawford, The Essential Biography, University Press of Kentucky, 2002

(7) Anthony Slide, Silent topics, essays on undocumented areas of silent film, Scarecrow Press, 2005