Happy Halloween, ghouls and boils! A treat for patrons: a very strange experience I had a year ago + the 1930s tragedy I only found out about last night = the reason I was too spooked to go to bed.
I have most of my baby teeth in a box somewhere. One of them took too long to wobble its way out of my mouth, so I used my mum’s car keys to gouge it out. I was a very metal seven-year-old. One by one, they ended up under my pillow in exchange for 20p from the Tooth Fairy, who was a tightfisted little madam in my household.
I don’t really know why I still have my teeth. I keep thinking I’ll make some jewellery out of them. You can’t just bin your own bodyparts, you know? But I’ve always liked teeth. The shape, the various colours, the way they feel, like little irregular pearls. And if you have a pearl, how do you tell if it’s real? Rub it against your tooth.
Teeth and the state of them are badges of age, class, and beauty. Our first tooth may end up in a keepsake box, and our last may help to identify us after death.
At the Wellcome Collection’s recent Teeth exhibition, I got up close with Victorian dental teaching dummies like eyeless Cenobites,1940s toothpaste ads featuring cheerful squirrels, and ancient hand-cranked drills reused in the power cuts of the ’70s. What big teeth you have, grandma. It’s little wonder that, as objects, teeth take on special qualities in the anxious netherworld of folklore.
Western dream dictionaries usually say a dream of losing one’s teeth is a manifestation of the fear of losing control, whereas the Chinese interpretation is that the dream heralds a sad event in the family. But in Maori folklore, if someone grinds their teeth during sleep, it is an omen of abundance for the community. To make a child’s teeth grow and put an end to teething pains, a charm would be recited:
An eel, a spiny back,
True indeed, indeed: true in sooth, in sooth.
You must eat the head
Of said spiny back.
One 1856 source tells of another Maori charm for teeth:
Growing kernel, grow,
Grow, that thou mayest arrive
To see the moon now full.
Come thou kernel,
Let the tooth of man
Be given to the rat
And the rat’s tooth
To the man.
And then there’s tooth worms. That pain in your gums, up until the 18th century, could be explained away by the presence of evil little worms. And it isn’t surprising when so many death historical certificates will simply list ‘teeth’ as cause of death that so many people – there are accounts of this even up until the 20th century – believed hideous burrowing monsters could sneak inside their mouths. Tooth worms could be smoked out with henbane, excised with a hard poke from a literal chopstick, or just yanked out. After all, exposed nerves do look a lot like worms.
Positioning of teeth in the mouth can denote character, a la physiognomy. Norweigian folklore has it that someone with teeth packed close together will never stray far from home. The USA took it one step further, that a man with teeth overlapping would always live with his mother.
Of course, if your teeth are bothering you and you wish to ask for help from someone other than a dentist, you could take a tin effigy of your offending peg to the local church. In South America and southern parts of Europe, you may come across churches festooned with these tiny offerings in the shapes of different body parts hanging from ribbons. More folk custom than strictly Christian, the sight of scores of these glistening Milagros is something you won’t forgot.
Teeth make good amulets. Queen Victoria kept a collection of tooth-set jewellery. Most of the pearly whites came from her children, but some were hunting trophies, including a gold necklace set with forty-four deer teeth, inscribed with dates of death and the words ‘all shot by Albert’. In nineteenth-century Bavaria, deer teeth on watch chains or pinned to the brim of hats were said to bring good luck to aspiring hunters.
These are a few of the toothy tidbits I collected while writing Pseudotooth. Throughout the novel, Aisling carries with her a rotted tooth she finds in her aunt’s cellar. It’s a talisman of sorts, tied to her fate as much to its previous owner’s. When we first meet Aisling, she is fully immersed in the sterile medical world. Aisling’s internal landscape is all wanderlust and scrapbook anthropology. She’s muddled; banished from her own body and her place in the world. The tooth felt like a fitting motif to take along with her. Teeth store information on our pasts. They can be weapons in times of desperation. But most of all, teeth – a single tooth – are incredibly intimate objects.
When Aisling feels the urge to tell the doctor about the witchdoctors of Tahiti who would take a shark’s tooth to release bad blood, of course, she doesn’t dare. She doesn’t exactly believe in it… but she doesn’t exactly not. Nothing in Aisling’s life is as simple as physical cause and effect. Like the tooth worms, the Milagros and the strange destiny of physiognomy, there are anxieties beneath the surface, bargains to be struck, and rhymes to be whispered when the road ahead is unclear.
Hej! Välkommen till min blogg. I’ve been haltingly translating movie star Nils Asther’s memoirs from Swedish, because who needs a social life, really? The fact that I understand only extremely basic Swedish hasn’t stopped me, as I’ve been going page-by-page with the surprisingly good Scan&Translate Pro app and the help of a few very patient Swedish friends.
When we last saw the lovely Nils, he’d been having a gay old time in Hollywood. Though the roles required little more than standing around looking gorgeous, the money was pouring in, the fan mail was piling up, and the press adored his mysterious, intellectual, possibly-an-aristocrat-or-a-spy-who-cares-which persona. It was shallow and dumb, and as much as he sneered at it, it was fun.
Enter Eddie Mannix, Hollywood fixer and all-round sentient turd. ‘A thug in a suit’, Mannix cleaned up the messes stars left behind: rapes, murders, suicides, and everything in between. If you were a 1930s Hollywood luminary and you’d just found a body in your swimming pool, you called Mannix, not the police. Mannix ran with the Mob, and he had a hand in more than a few suspicious deaths, including his own wife’s. He controlled press, police and coroners alike. If you defied him, you not only risked your career, but your neck.
Is this the face of a man with a soul? Nay. Nay and fie.
Part of Mannix’s job was to conceal the private lives of homosexual stars. During the 1920s, attitudes were more liberal within Hollywood, but as the thirties moved in, once successful and beloved figures began to disappear. Ferociously bisexual Nils was being watched.
Mannix was tasked with marrying Nils off. Early in his career, Nils had been in an Uncle Tom’s Cabin spinoff, Topsy and Eva, starring the vaudeville twins Vivian and Rosetta Duncan. The twins were wildly popular, but there was a snag – Rosetta was a known lesbian. The neat fix would be to hitch her to Nils, but Rosetta was not considered a beauty. The next best thing was Vivian. Tiny, blonde, and dimpled, Rosetta’s pretty twin would dispel the aura of scandal around the Duncans as well as their mysterious one-time co-star. If it was good enough for Mannix, it was good enough for the studio – if the actors complied.
As we’ve seen, trying to tell Nils to behave was… a daring choice. He resisted the marriage for as long as he could. Years, in fact. The studios spun his stubbornness as an on-again-off-again love affair, a clash of American exuberance and Scandinavian… well, fjord-pining. Vivian joked they intended to keep the engagement chugging along until 1940. She held up her side of the bargain valiantly, no doubt concerned for her sister.
The studio responded by withholding roles. Fine, Nils said. He had enough money saved to support himself for years. He could open a grocery store if he felt like it. But going without work drove him slowly crazy. He found himself lying around, sketching self-harm fantasies all day. If he could disfigure himself, he thought, the studio would leave him alone.
But Nils was terrible with money. Having enjoyed the attentions of sugar daddies for so long, he took his attitude from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (which was incidentally one of his aliases): live life to the full and have no regrets. Which is fine, unless you’re living right after the great stock market crash of 1929. Nils’ savings bank was one of dozens who folded, losing him over $30,000. Without work, there was no way he could support himself in any meaningful sense. Mannix simply had to wait for who would blink first.
It was during this strange standoff that Louis B. Mayer paid for a spell in an upmarket psychiatric clinic for reasons Nils was not willing to write about. One wonders if it was one of the early twentieth century’s gay ‘cures’. Whatever it was, he came out just as depressed as ever. Might as well marry.
Before his wedding, Nils went on one last romantic retreat with Greta Garbo. Garbo was bisexual but discreet, so Mannix was happy to treat her with fond tolerance. They walked through the woods together by moonlight. For the third time, he expressed his deep regard for her. Perhaps as an official couple they could find some sort of happiness, or, more importantly, freedom – intellectual and artistic. But it wouldn’t work. Greta’s own marketing shtick was aloneness. When he took himself off to bed alone, saddened and silent, she crept in and gave him a cuddle. Soon they were giggling again like old comrades, but the situation was bleak. They both knew they were at the mercy of Mannix.
Vivian Duncan wasn’t having fun either. In public, her ex-boyfriend Rex Lease punched her in the face. The open secret of lavender marriage carried a stigma akin to prostitution. She had tried to get to know Nils – he taught her to ride horses, she dragged him to parties he hated – but they were fundamentally clashing personalities.
They married in Reno.
Garbo found the whole thing grimly hilarious. “You don’t even know which one you’re married to, do you?”
Then in 1931, to the studio’s relief, along came a beautiful baby. No one could deny who her father was.
Look how pretty and desperately unhappy they all are.
Little Evelyn grew up to raise guide dogs and horses in California. As a child, she was wheeled out as ‘The International Baby’, singing in vaudeville skits with her mum and aunt. It looks like she had no relationship with her father. In his autobiography he simply says “we had a child”. That’s it. Of Vivian he said “she only married me for the money”. He never mentions either of them again.
Having done his part by spawning an infant, Nils was no longer keeping up any pretence of being happy, stable or straight. The press were fed quotes about him adoring his vivacious wife while loathing the media’s interference. “It cheapens our love,” said someone who sounds nothing like Nils. “I love her still, and yet…I am a bad character…”
Okay, that last bit does sound like him.
By 1933, pretty boys were going out of style. Leading men needed to be ‘rugged’, ie) straight-coded, and Nils’ refusal to hide his dalliances with men rankled the wrong people. Eddie Mannix gave the press the go-ahead to drop unsubtle hints about Nils’ private life. Why did he not live with his beautiful wife? What secret was he hiding? All the gossip columnists knew what that meant. They’d rooted out queers before, here was the latest.
The punishment continued. The studio passed him over for all but the lousiest roles (fighting a mutant sting ray – a mutant sting ray – being one of them), forcing him to go on a vaudeville tour with the Duncans out of sheer poverty.
“But I am not mysterious,” he protested in Screenland Magazine. “I have not a secret in the world. I come, I do my work, go home. I have my friends. I never hide anything I do. I think people make up things to guess about me, then say I am mysterious when it is a really they. I am just a young Swede trying to get along.”
By the end of 1933, he all but vanishes from the movie magazines that once praised his every move. He was blacklisted for ‘breaking contract’, ‘unacceptable foreign accent’, and ‘visa problems’ variously. He and Vivian divorced.
And then General Yen happened.
(If you don’t already know the film, here’s an advance warning for yellowface.)
Their forbidden love wrecked an Empire! Frank Capra had a vision. A love story like no other, smashing taboos and shaking up the audience as much as the characters. War, sex, religion, race, and downright double-crossing peril. There was one problem:
Cinematic code of the time meant you couldn’t depict a love story between two people of different races. However – there was a loophole. The rule only stipulated actors, not characters. An interracial love story was permitted so long as both actors were white.
Capra wanted a tall, imposing Chinese actor to play the General, but that wasn’t possible. In Nils’ tranquil disposition, Capra said he could see the wisdom of an ancient empire. (Steady on, Frank). As for the rest, Nils already had slightly slanted eyes and high cheekbones, so the makeup artists only had to enhance these features*. There’s a short documentary showing the transformation here. They trimmed his long eyelashes, resulting in painful surface burns from the studio lights. He was in real danger of losing his sight, but he never complained. He was just pleased to be doing something that didn’t involve a mutant sting ray.
Yes, it’s uncomfortable to watch. Though they did their best to avoid the grotesque charactures that had come before – and there were many – it’s still yellowface. Barbara Stanwyck’s character, a respectable Christian missionary, realises she holds deeply racist beliefs incompatible with her faith. Worse, she – a married woman – is in love with a foreign warlord. Instead of fighting her attraction, she accepts it, returning to her life among white people changed, disturbed, bereft. Yen himself is charming, cultured, and challenges his leading lady on her hypocrisy. Capra expected an Oscar for what he saw as his magnum opus, but it wasn’t to be. Can love survive such ground-in prejudice? A significant portion of the audience couldn’t care less. Complaints came rolling in.
Young women, however, were into it. The press silence was broken by letters demanding to know when they would see Mr Asther again. Interviews followed, some openly accusing the Duncan sisters of blowing their chances with this ideal piece of husband material. It was their fault he’d disappeared from public life.
He seemed so healthy, so happy, so pleased to chat, said reporters. Was he in love?
You need to remember that smirk. Because so did Eddie Mannix.
* Quick note: Nils actually claimed he came up with the makeup techniques for General Yen. Take it with as big a pinch of salt as you wish, but he wrote how he’d spend his days off in Chinatown, making sketches of his acquaintances there. Then, at home, he’d try to modify his eyelids in a more realistic manner than Hollywood’s usual ‘just tape them up, who cares’ method.
Hello, and welcome to my continuing dive into the world of 1920s and ’30s Hollywood with Nils Asther’s memoirs. It’s all getting a bit out of hand, because I’m deliberately learning Swedish now.
When we last saw Nils, he was heading for Hollywood for either the time of his life or an unmitigated nightmare, depending on who you believe; Nils, or the people who sent him there.
Crafting a persona for a new star must have been terrific fun, because you could pluck any old rubbish out of the air and just go with it. Fresh off the boat, Hollywood took one look at Nils Asther and said “SPY!”
Nils was given a history of daring missions to Russia, flying over Finland under cover of darkness for tea with his best buddy, Lenin. He was an international skiing champion (that was how he was spotted by Mauritz Stiller, definitely not a creepy pickup in a bar) and his father, far from being just another sadistic businessman, was the scion of one of the oldest aristocratic houses of Sweden. The American press were keen to point out Nils struggled with English (he was fluent in four languages, but foreigners, am I right?) and new fans were warned they may have to look up Stockholm on a map. He had never been in love. Being in love was incompatible with Nordic self-control, so he only let his passions fly in front of the camera. This description, from a 1929 edition of Photoplay, is really something: “Nils Asther, as melancholy as a Swedish herring and about as animated as the Rock of Gibraltar, has no use for the average woman. He is not one to flit (imagine Nils flitting) from flower to flower.”
Hjalmar Bergman would have wet himself.
Behind the scenes, things were less dramatic. His first meeting with an exec was an experience for everyone involved. Nils wasn’t as thin as he looked in his photographs. “Very probably. On the way here, I spent all your money on sweets.” His hair was too long. American men didn’t have long hair. Nils had already guessed that – he let his eyes travel openly over the American’s bald head. His expenses reciepts were unacceptable. Nils sprinkled them on the floor.
There were no singing children there to greet him, Nils noted wryly. Hollywood was boring. Studios were like contained towns, housing thousands of people, all equally unhappy. Outside, it was a cultural desert. Hardly any theatres, no concert halls, and definitely no opera houses, though there was a building in the shape of a giant teapot. Worse, everyone was unrelentingly cheerful. One culture shock for Nils was that when someone said “How are you?” he wasn’t expected to respond with something along the lines of “I’m unhappy and hungover and I hate this place, how do you stand it?”
It’s no surprise he earned a reputation as difficult. And when a waiter was French, he would speak to him in French. Highly suspicious.
When you have a star who calls a spade a spade and then hits you with it, you can’t allow him to speak for himself in the press. So you get ‘interviews’ like this:
The town was tedious, waiting around for a role was frustrating, and when a film did come along, it was a sentimental romance where Nils was expected to stand there looking pretty while the Duncan sisters capered around in blackface. He looked at ships back to Sweden. But then he was offered the role of Kit in Sorrel and Son. Anna Q. Nilsson, a fellow Swede once called the most beautiful woman in the world, would play his mother. The shipping timetable went in the bin. He’d never been able to resist an older woman.
Their open relationship was the longest and probably the healthiest Nils ever had. But when he suggested they marry, Anna was already wise to him. He wasn’t husband material. For one thing, in his own words, he would jump into bed with any man or woman who asked nicely. But she loved him all the same. The ring you see on his little finger in most photographs is an emerald from Anna, engraved ‘a sign you are my lover’. Throughout his tumultuous time in Hollywood, Anna would comfort Nils, rescue him, and even understand him. Not many did.
Sorrel and Son was a hit. Two films opposite Garbo followed: Wild Orchids and The Single Standard. You can watch them here – just search for Nils Asther. And they really are great fun. The chemistry between the leads is real, and The Single Standard explores some surprisingly feminist issues, like independence and integrity and falling in love with someone with a really silly name.
Roles came pouring in. Most were the ‘pretty boys in uniform’ bits Nils found dull, but they were alongside hugely famous leading ladies (and Lon Cheney), and the fans lapped them up. Charlie Chaplin admired his comedy turns and wanted to collaborate. He was receiving literal crates of fan mail, which he endeavoured to respond to personally until it became impossible. Take that, Dad.
Nils was defiantly indiscreet about his love life. At one point, he was literally on call for liaisons. Kay Francis, frustrated with her ailing marriage, comforted herself by visiting Nils in his dressing room for kisses. Joan Crawford wanted a baby – guess who she turned to for help. This was all manageable for the studio, who wanted family-friendly, clean-cut leading men and would do anything to preserve that facade. They’d already crafted a persona for Nils that was mysterious, intellectual and impenetrably foreign. But when he was happy to joke with Garbo in front of entire film crews about roughing it up with sailor boyfriends, he garnered the wrong sort of attention.
Enter Eddie Mannix, Hollywood fixer, gangster, and all-round sentient turd.
I’m not looking forward to this.
My novella Beauty Secrets of The Martyrs is two years old, which in human terms means it’s toddling around, screaming, and sticking its fingers into electrical sockets. Happy birthday, Silvan. Raine Szramski has made this gorgeous picture of him at work, prettifying the revered dead.
To celebrate Saturnalia, Silvan’s least favourite Roman holiday, I’m giving away a copy to UK readers. It’s just a couple of clicks to enter. Good luck!
The Garrick Club of Covent Garden is one of the oldest members’ clubs in the world, playing host to such artistic luminaries as Laurence Olivier, Charles Dickens, A.A. Milne, and my own dear Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who generally couldn’t be bothered to turn up until everyone else was half-asleep. Today, the waiting list is supposedly seven years long. New members must be proposed by existing ones. Objectionable men may be admitted, but no bores.
I was lucky enough to come across a stained old member’s list, compiled by the Reverend R.H. Barham and printed privately in 1898, long after his death. Why was it only published after his death, you wonder?
The name Reverend Barham may not ring a bell, but his pseudonym Thomas Ingoldsby might. Ingoldsby was the author of a collection of myths, ghost stories, and poems based on – and often parodying – real medieval tales.The Ingoldsby Legends were hugely popular from the late 1830s, and Barham became one of the original members of the Garrick Club, where “actors and men of refinement” could mingle and connive into the wee hours.
Even half a century after his death, Barham’s family did not wish for the Reverend’s private list of Club members, their foibles and indiscretions to ever be published. Indeed, the eventual publishers printed only 240 copies in New York, because to publish in Britain would be “an offence against good taste”.
So without further ado, here are a few notable Club members, from Barham’s own private burn book.
Adolphus, John, Esq., F.S.A., Barrister
He was a man full of anecdote, but occasionally very rude, which made him, although very eloquent, also a very unpopular member at the Bar, and unquestionably prevented his rising to the highest rank in his profession.
Commonly called ‘Cantankerous Allen’ from a slight twist in his temper.
A regular scamp. Having spent every shilling he was worth while Captain Anstruther, he was at dinner on bread and cheese with half a pint of porter, at the Brown Bear, a flash house in Bow Street, when he saw in the paper the death of his cousin, the young baronet, who was killed by some accident while a boy at Eton. This event gave him a baronetcy and an entailed estate of several thousand a year, all of which that he could touch was gone in less than two years.
Arnold, Samuel James, Esq.
I saw him the morning after his theatre was burnt down, by which he lost £60,000, and never saw a man meet misfortune with such equanimity. He was one of the leading members of the Beef Steak Club, where he was called The Bishop and used to say a mock (but not profane) grace in a large white mitre. Latterly he took to drinking spirits and water till he became quite a sot.
Beazley, Samuel, Esq.
He was the only bearable punster I ever knew.
Beloe, William Rix, Esq.
In 1834, while preparing for a day’s pheasant shooting at the country house of Cartwright the dentist, and drying his gunpowder, an officious servant with a candle ignited it and blew him up, in consequence of which he was obliged to submit to the amputation of his right arm.
Bidwell, Woodward, Esq.
A gentlemanly, good-humoured man, but ultra Tory in his politics, which he was always talking about.
Blood, Michael, Esq.
A surgeon of Mount Street, Gosvenor Square and one of the sweetest as well as most scientific amateur singers I ever heard.
Braham, John, Esq.
The celebrated singer. I more than once met Braham at his house, and once had nearly offended him by a villainous pun. He had drank too much and began boasting of his amorous successes. “I must be candid,” he said. “I am always hunting the girls.” “No wonder you have so fine a voice, as by your own account you are candied horehound personified.”
Calcraft, Granby, Esq., M.P.
He married Miss Love the actress, but it is said he was never admitted to the privileges of a husband by his wife, who very soon after the wedding eloped with Lord Harborough, by whom she afterwards had two children.
Carlton, The Hon. R.
A clergyman, and apparently half-crazy.
Darby, Elde, Esq.
The brother-in-law of Lord Allen, with whom he was at feud. He was much abused by he Satirist newspaper and taxed with having been a government spy receiving douceurs from both parties. He had lived long in France and in conversation frequently affected to have forgotten his English.
De Roos, Lord
A man very much liked and very popular, but being convicted of cheating at whist and marking the cards got out of society. Lord Chesterfield saying after the trial that he had called upon him nevertheless and left his card, “Did he mark it?” asked Hook. “No!” said my Lord fiercely. “Of course not,” said Poole, “he did not consider it an honour.”
Douglas, Joseph, Esq., Barrister
A member of the Committee and a very gentlemanly man, but fond of the bottle. Used to go to the Northern Circuit and sing Northern songs – after a fashion.
Feb 15th, 1833. Mr Duncombe was behind the scenes at Drury Lane when Mister Westmacott, the proprietor of the Age, Sunday paper, came up to him and asked him how he did. “I am surprised, sir, that you should think of addressing me when you are abusing me constantly in your paper, and I desire that when you do speak to me you will take off your hat.” At the same time he himself removed W’s hat from his head and threw it on the ground. W drew off his gloves on which D clenched his fists and struck him twice on the face, when the persons present interfered
Ellis, Charles, Esq.
A half mad attorney, who was constantly drunk and as constantly quarrelsome, though very good natured during his few intervals of sobriety.
A low scribbler, without an atom of talent and totally unused to the society of gentlemen. He narrowly escaped expulsion from publishing an account of a dinner at the Garrick in a newspaper to which he was a reporter. The Committee wrote him a letter on the occasion expressive of their disgust which would have caused any other man to retire. About a year after, he got beastly drunk and was sick in Sergeant Talfourd’s pocket. Tom Duncombe got drunk at the same time, but behaved so differently that Poole observed one was the real gentleman drunk and the other the ‘spewrious’ gentleman drunk.
Gaspey, Thomas, Esq.
Proprietor and editor of the Sunday Times newspaper. A low-bred, vulgar man brought in by Jerdan.
Gordon, Robert, Esq., M.P.
Commonly, B–m Gordon.
The celebrated duellist.
Mulgrave, Earl of
President of the Club. In 1834 he went Lord Lieutenant to Ireland, having previously been Governor of Jamaica, whence he sent the Club a turtle.
Osbourne, Frederick K., Esq., Barrister
A very disagreeable, overbearing, rude man, and generally cut on the Circuit.
Sheridan, Richard Brinsley, Esq.
Ran away with Miss Grant, daughter of Sir Colquhon Grant.
When he wasn’t yelling at him and making threats, Mauritz Stiller liked to tell Nils he was his favourite. He probably told Greta Garbo that too.
Stiller helped the teenage Greta Gustafsson come up with a new name and a new look. He had her lose weight and fix her teeth, chose shoes to make her feet look smaller (Stiller had a complex about the size of his own feet, so hey, why not everyone else’s?) and began to cultivate the special something that would make her a star. Rumour had it, her beat her. There was plenty of whispering about Greta Gustafsson. The girls at the Royal Dramatic Theatre called her untalented and ugly, but Stiller believed in Greta with his characteristic possessive fervour, and she adored him.
There was plenty of whispering about Nils, too. He was getting decent reviews for his stage work, plus plenty of film roles, but his fellow students were sure he was only tolerated because he was sleeping with the great Augusta Lindberg. Augusta’s exhibitionism wasn’t doing much to dispel the gossip. On one occasion, he was forced to climb out of a window mid-session to preserve her honour. She was perfectly happy with her quota of honour, but it was nice of him to make the effort.
When Nils met Greta, they were both students. Their first encounter would haunt him for the rest of his life. She wasn’t anything special to look at, not at first, but then…
“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. 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. The peculiar theatre student had lit a fire of love in me, bordering on bliss. It insisted that I must join with her forever.”
Within three days of setting eyes on her, Nils proposed for the first time.
This was typical Nils. Where Greta Garbo was supposed to fit alongside Augusta, Hjalmar, Stiller, Lutzy, the twins, and the estranged mother of his child, I don’t know. She wasn’t sure either. With grace, she told him she was married to her craft.
Anyway, there was Linde Klinckowström to consider. Linde was a Swedish countess who would become known for daring solo trips across Europe on horseback. She was intelligent and artistic, and Nils being Nils, he couldn’t help but flirt with her. They met when she was appearing as an extra in a film, dressed in men’s breeches. He said he had a way of falling in love with girls in trousers. Well then, she said, she said she ought to wear them more often. Somehow, “Ooh, I might have to propose”, came out of someone’s mouth, maybe even hers. At last, said his friends, a nice, relatively normal girl to keep him on the straight and narrow. Straight and narrow were new concepts to Nils, and he wasn’t sure what to do with them. Linde presented him to her parents, half-joking about a romance. She was nobility, after all, and though he looked the part, he had a commoner’s accent. But Linde’s brother was an artist, a good one, and he counselled Nils to leave the acting world and follow his dreams of painting. He and Linde were astute enough to see Nils’ self-destructive nature. Film would only encourage it, as would mad love affairs.
It was sound advice, so naturally he didn’t take it. Linde and her aura of calm would appear to him in dreams for years to come, begging him to slow down. Gently, she broke off their brief, strange relationship, leaving him free to pursue… more brief, strange relationships.
Oh My God, Stop Falling In Love
The Linde hangover was over. Now Greta Garbo was his one true love.
Where did this alluring creature hang out? Where could he loiter in the hope of bumping into her? There was her house, of course, but any idiot can lurk outside someone’s home address (and he did). You’ve got to think creatively. You have to go somewhere you’ll have something to talk about, things to do.
Her father’s grave, for instance.
And so he hung around in the snow amongst the headstones. Looking forlorn had always worked on Hjalmar, but it wasn’t going to cut it with Greta. What was this ‘just friends’ concept she was talking about? Nils thought he was losing his mind. Perhaps Mauritz Stiller had threatened her too?
He and Greta actually had a lot in common. They had the same sense of humour and ability to see through bullshit. And Greta had a similarly horrible childhood to Nils, only far poorer:
“It was eternally grey—those long winter’s nights. My father would be sitting in a corner, scribbling figures on a newspaper. On the other side of the room my mother is repairing ragged old clothes, sighing. We children would be talking in very low voices, or just sitting silently. We were filled with anxiety, as if there were danger in the air.”
This was something they could bond over. Post-divorce, Anton Asther had settled down with his new wife and was producing more children. According to rumour, he hadn’t told his new family that his old one even existed. But Nils was becoming well-known in Sweden, and the Asther name was uncommon enough that surely someone would start asking questions. Nils decided to contact Anton one last time. For what, who knows? Maybe acceptance. But Anton refused to meet. Nils had brought the shame of ‘sawdust’ onto their name, he said. He was nothing but a simple clown.
But like Greta Garbo, the clown was going places. Friedrich Zelnick, one of the most important director-producers of the day, called Nils his ‘darling’. Bidding wars started up between directors determined to have him. Nils pretended not to care. He liked to see how far he could push it. “It’s all just so boring,” he shrugged, which only made the directors hurl more cash at him. Greta was in Turkey, making movies with Stiller. Nils was filming in Berlin, Vienna, and Sicily – doing what? He couldn’t remember.
“I have a peculiar talent for forgetting the names of all the bad films I’ve been in. Guess I’m just lazy.”
This may have been more down to his lifestyle than the quality of the films. Depressed by the chaos of his personal life, pining for Greta, he threw himself into further hedonism. Deciding that Lutzy Doraine was now the one and only woman for him, he went AWOL from the theatre to go on a mad dash across Europe to see her while she went travelling. The pursuit of his beloved consisted of a few months of daylight drinking in public spaces, romantic encounters with people who didn’t speak any of the languages he knew – none were as bewitching as Lutzy, of course, even the lady with the lovely ankles – and further day drinking. If he could just get all the way to Egypt, maybe he could become like a romantic knight, riding a camel to the pyramids. But Egypt turned out to be full of honking cars and strewn with rubbish. And it wasn’t really Lutzy he was after. He only ever seemed to want to run away.
In Nils’ own estimation, he was “totally deranged” at this point. Hjalmar Bergman, besotted as ever, lamented the behaviour of his “little idiot”. Keeping up with Nils was killing him. When Hjalmar wasn’t face-down in a mountain of cocaine, he was taking his feelings for his foster son to the brothels. Nils had begun to talk about America. It was the logical next step for his career, and Greta Garbo was already there, making a mark. Hjalmar couldn’t bear to lose the handsome youth he had idolised for so long.
After a night of heavy drinking, the writer broke down on Nils’ shoulder. Why had nature cursed him with such a repulsive face? Nils did his best to console the older man. Hjalmar had no need of something so trivial as good looks. He had been blessed by the Muses, and Nils admired and loved him for it. But he was missing the point. Bless him, he was quite good at missing the point. In four more years, Hjalmar would die alone in a Berlin hotel, wrecked by alcohol.
Mephistopheles Doesn’t Care About Your Hangover
On the 17th of January 1927, Nils spent his 30th birthday alone. He composed himself this message:
“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? Beautiful girls, a thousand of them, 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. And when you’re drinking in a villa in Italy or Spain, 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.”
Despite drowning his loneliness in champagne, it was a pretty good birthday. Paramount had noticed this Scandinavian heartthrob and were sending a representative over to Sweden to talk to him right away. But they were beaten to his door by rival company United Artists. Literally. They just barged in.
“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, an extinct cigar hung from the corner of the mouth. ‘Hallo, Asther! You are going to Hollywood. You have a future there. You’re the type that the girls will run after.’ Uninvited, he had thrown himself down in an uncomfortable chair. He mistook my silence for awe, for he galloped in with a bunch of promises of life in Hollywood. He represented the prominent United Artists and told me what I already knew, that it was owned by Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Norma Talmadge with Joseph Schenk as the Director. I would stay at the finest clubs and a Cadillac would be the only car for me, etc. Where the hell was the coffee…?”
Very politely, for someone hungover in his pyjamas, Nils explained he was flattered but had an appointment to keep with Paramount. To Hell with Paramount, said Berman. United Artists would beat any offer from those shmucks. Also, how do you feel about pretending to be twenty-five?
By the end of the month, Nils would be in America, having the time of his life.
“There is nothing that I more bitterly regret than leaving Sweden and giving myself to the violence of film,” he wrote, years later. “Above all, I let myself be caught by the untruthful Hollywood dream factory, where I experienced my life’s most terrible nightmares.”
It’s going to be so much fun, guys.
Popcorn? Check. Ice cream? Check. Unholy masses of gummy worms teeming with e-numbers? Shovel that filth into your face. It’s Halloween, and as I’m on a bit of a silent film binge at the moment, I’ve put together a list of early horror for your perusal.
All these have had soundtracks added by creative Youtubers. Maybe you can substitute your own? ‘Tis the season for Rob Zombie, after all…
Auguste and Louis Lumiere’s Le Squelette Joyeux (1897)
Segundo de Chomón’s The Red Spectre (1907)
Georges Méliès’ The 400 Tricks of The Devil (1906)
Segundo de Chomón’s The Haunted House (1908)
Georges Méliès’ The Devil In A Convent (1899)
Dan Carpenter kindly invited me onto his Paperchain Podcast to talk about Pseudotooth, The Mighty Healer, hilariously inappropriate names for warships, and how witches can’t reverse.
I also read a new ghost story called The Fireman. I hope you like it.
I’ve been translating Nils Asther’s memoir from Swedish because I apparently have nothing better to do. Catch part one here.
It’s fair to wonder what would have happened to Nils Asther had he not attracted the attention of Mauritz Stiller that evening. The teen had no money, no qualifications, no home to go to, and in his mind at least, no family.
Stiller was born in Helsinki in 1883, and fled to Sweden to avoid being drafted into Czar Nicholas II’s army. He was a pioneer of silent films, writing and directing more than thirty-five features in his lifetime. The night he laid eyes on Nils, Stiller was eating out with a fellow screenwriter, Sam Ask. Stiller ushered Nils and his companion over to Ask. “Doesn’t this one look like an actor?”
(Nils’ friend was ignored for the rest of the evening. Poor boy, he was lovely, but he had a face like the back of a tram.)
Soon they were joined by a hefty gentleman with thick curly hair. He looked out of place in the noisy eatery, standoffish and over-eager at the same time. This was Hjalmar Bergman, a respected author. Having established himself as highly literary and intellectual, the death of his father brought about huge debt, and Bergman was forced to write more crowd-pleasing works. This required research, such as drinking, snorting cocaine, and fraternising with gorgeous young men.
Tonight was Bergman’s lucky night.
“He looked at me as if I were an angel fallen from the skies,” Nils wrote. “It took a while before he sobered up. He asked me my name and what I did. I told him that I was kicked out of my adoptive parents’ house and from the Spyken school in Lund. Now I had decided to become an artist. Hjalmar Bergman reacted negatively. Not many artists could live on their jobs. Such fancies! Movie actors made big money. I was assured that all the artist dreams would be beaten out of my mind.”
Debt be damned, Bergman was besotted. He rented an apartment for Nils, with a little kitchenette and a big bed with red curtains. Unaccustomed to older men being kind to him, Nils wondered if Bergman was his true father. When he asked him this, the writer became tearful. He only wished it were so! Trying to shrug off the emotion, he said if he were Nils’ father, he would pack him off back to school – even if he had to bribe the teachers to put up with him. From now, on Nils would be Bergman’s ‘foster son’, along with a young German lad who was coincidentally also a gorgeous actor who liked to do uppers on trains. Bergman had a type.
Bergman isn’t widely known outside of Sweden, but in 1919 he published a drama based on his relationship with Nils: God’s Orchid. In it, an oafish father watches his beautiful son grow up and wonders how anything so perfect could have been created by him. The boy is compared to Christ, but he’s full of guile, always with his eye on the next opportunity to escape his low upbringing. They bicker and make up and bicker again, with the father’s obsessive love always verging on something more unhealthy.
In Bergman’s letters, he says of Nils, “It’s not his fault he’s a degenerate, nor mine”. But they encouraged each other. Nils doesn’t talk about cocaine in his memoirs, but Bergman joked that if he ever wanted anyone killed, he’d just send them out to party with his foster son.
After drinks, Bergman sometimes liked to arrange Nils where he could sit and stare at him, which isn’t at all skin-crawlingly weird. “You are Jesus to me,” he said on one such occasion. “I will love you as long as I live.” He dared to kiss his cheek. Another time, he gifted his ‘foster son’ with a copy of Death In Venice, which is a bit like handing someone a neon sign blinking “RUN AWAY”.
Aschenbach Off, Hjalmar
But Nils had nothing to run away to. His behaviour seems deliberately coquettish – at one point, he describes undressing in front of Bergman before inviting him to stay over. He always protested their relationship was never more than platonic. “He never tried to rape me,” he wrote, nevertheless describing all the awkward caressing as if that’s just what writers are like. It seems his need for a father figure meant he was willing to put up with almost anything.
Strange men started coming up to the apartment, seeking Nils’ company. That some of these men were publishing professionals makes me suspect Bergman deliberately fed rumours that he was getting more for his money than he really was. Everyone knew what was going on. Or thought they did. The artist Nils von Dardel teased Asther about it. “I know very well Bergman likes you, the pederast.”
Mauritz Stiller paid close attention. In 1916, he got Nils into the Royal Dramatic Theatre for tuition. “Try not to get expelled,” he said. Next came a film role, in Stiller’s The Wings. It’s a strangely post-modern piece, a film within a film, and you can see what remains of it here.
The Wings was a film about gay desire. At 19, Nils was too young for the lead, but Stiller couldn’t resist writing him a part to keep him close.
“He opened me to the art of loving and enjoying my own sex,” Nils wrote. Again, their relationship was one of power imbalance. Stiller was liable to fly into rages if his demands were not instantly obeyed. “The man had a demonic power over us actors. If he said that we must obtain and drink a teaspoon of piss every day […] I assure you that we would have done it.”
But threats and tantrums were nothing new to Nils. He was getting small film and stage roles, and as soon as he had enough money, he could quit and become the artist he longed to be. Acting was like worshipping a monstrous pagan god, he thought. Fame and decadence were fun, but he was astute enough to see they wouldn’t lead to happiness.
Speaking of unhappiness, Hjalmar Bergman’s wife was less than pleased with her husband’s obsession with this wayward boy. To comfort her, he suggested they have a baby. Isn’t that nice? But Nils had to be the father. Hjalmar only wanted a pretty baby.
Her reaction? “Get some class, deadbeat!” and a slap in the face. Not for Hjalmar. For Nils. Which seems slightly unfair.
Drug use and hectic living eventually killed Bergman. But jealousy put pay to his relationship with Nils, at least in Bergman’s eyes.
Triangle Pyramid Dodecahedron
Augusta Lindberg was Bergman’s mother-in-law. She was in her fifties when she first encountered Nils. As a veteran actor and mother of the director Per Lindberg, Bergman and Stiller thought she was a suitable mentor for their new discovery.
He was deposited in front of her with the script for Ibsen’s Ghosts. The play is a typically Norwegian nightmare about syphilis and incest, but Nils flipped through it and remarked Ibsen could have had the decency to throw some actual ghosts in. Like, yawn, am I right?
Augusta was tickled. Surprise-surprise, their weekly private acting classes didn’t involve much acting. Augusta had a taste for exhibitionism. A neighbour complained she had to pour herself a large brandy whenever Nils showed up at the door. At a party, Augusta decided to show Bergman he didn’t own Nils by dragging him into an adjacent room for loud, obnoxious understudying. Nevertheless, Augusta saw the wounded child in Nils and could always sense his anxiety. She mothered him, made sure he ate properly, and helped to keep him in school despite the cocaine and the all-night adventures with Bergman.
Nils saw all this in his unique and adorable fashion: “It has been claimed that there was a tug of war between him and his mother, Augusta Lindberg, and that she emerged victorious. It’s not true. He was merely amused to hear me talk about our games.”
Amused, devastated? One of those.
Stiller also had opinions on Nils’ love life. As well as Augusta Lindberg, there were the actresses Linde Klinckowström and Lutzy Doraine, another fellow student, and a set of twins he could just about tell apart. Over dinner one night, Nils confided in Stiller that he was worried one of the twins might be pregnant. Stiller went ballistic.
“You fucking idiot. Is it not enough that you’re riding that hag Augusta?”
No one would ever buy into a movie star who was saddled with a wife and kids. Was that what he wanted? To be domesticated? If he went ahead with these relationships, Stiller would dump him completely. Worse still, Bergman was withdrawing his affection. It came as no surprise when Nils had a breakdown.
The Real Reason Visiting Hours Are Restricted
“I was an ambitious hunchback not worthy of anyone’s love. No one has ever loved me, and it’s certainly my hideous failure. Why was I such a vindictive and obnoxious person? Was it perhaps my hideous childhood filled with hymns, beating and screams that characterised me?”
Nils retreated to a sanatorium at Saltsjöbaden where he was the youngest by about seventy years. Whether he was off the magic fairy dust at this time was unclear, but he still managed to make another of his trademark disastrous decisions by having a girlfriend over to visit. They conceived a child on the ward.
She miscarried, much to their mutual relief, and they celebrated… by getting pregnant again. They fell out and she went to Switzerland to give birth alone. If he was remotely interested in his child, he doesn’t let on.
If you’re thinking it’s about time his mother gets involved, you’d be right. He arranged to meet with Hilda Asther for the first time since running away. The poor woman looked broken. Anton had set up with another lady and was raising a new family. Nils urged Hilda to divorce him, and promised to support her for the rest of her days. To prove it, he handed her a wad of banknotes. Probably Hjalmar Bergman’s banknotes, but the sentiment was sound. He still couldn’t bring himself to ask her about his adoption. In his mind, she was his foster mother, and she loved him in a distant way that was the best he could hope for. With all his relationships, Nils seemed to have seen himself as someone merely passing through. He never imagined anyone could truly become attached to him.
But where could Hilda go? The Asther house in Malmö wasn’t hers. And Nils surely couldn’t put her up in his sugar daddy’s apartment.
Nils knew just the place.
[Cut to the freshly-divorced Hilda Asther setting up home with Augusta Lindberg.]