Best known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, Karen Christenze Dinesen was born on April 17, 1885, near Copenhagen, Denmark, into an affluent family. Throughout her life she enjoyed the support of her family, both emotionally and financially. She was known for her delightful personality and lively conversational skills, for a fashionable style in dressing, her hospitality and flair for entertaining guests. Most importantly she was recognized for her mastery of telling a story, through her writings and also socially.
Schooled at home, Karen Blixen began writing stories and telling stories to her sisters by the time she was eight years old. fShe is best known for Out of Africa, not a fiction work, rather a mesmerizing compilation of short pieces about her life on her Kenyan coffee plantation. Africa, in this age of British and other European colonization, was an exotic place and the author is recognized for bringing the literary world’s attention to the magical qualities of land and nature, and of the native people, especially the Kikuyu and Masai. All of her writings are remarkable for their poetic, almost fairy tale lyricism of language.
Chafing against her lifestyle, that although privileged was overshadowed with Victorian era limitations, Karen Dinesen left home in early 1914, at age 26, to marry her second cousin, Swedish Baron Bror Blixen-Fineke. Her marriage conveyed an aristocratic title to her married name, Baroness Karen Blixen-Fineke.
All aspects of life in Africa thrilled her; from the sense of freedom from social constraints to the farm’s highland location near the equator and the Nygong Hills. Unfortunately, her marriage showed signs of doom by the end of its first year when Karen Blixen was diagnosed with syphilis, contracted from her unfaithful husband. Later, this diagnosis was questioned if not refuted, but at the time the psychological effect was devastating, as were the ensuing treatments of arsenic and mercury which contributed to her health problems in later years. Years before her own diagnosis, Karen Blixen’s father, Wilhelm Dinesen had been diagnosed with syphilis and for that reason he committed suicide when Karen was only 10 years old.
Karen Blixen officially divorced her husband in 1925 after some years of separation. Before her divorce she met Denys Finch Hatton, of British nationality, who was in Africa as a safari guide. Their romantic relationship was enormously important to her, and is included in Out of Africa. It was following his death in a plane accident in 1931 that she returned to Denmark.
In Denmark she settled into a routine of regular writing. Seven Gothic Tales, published in 1934, Out of Africa published in 1937 and Winter Tales, published in 1942, are her best known works along with Babette’s Feast, first published in 1958. All of these were written in English and published under the pen name Isak Dinesen. In her earliest works, written in Danish, she had used the pen names Pierre Andrezel and Osceola. Socially she preferred the name Tania during her adult life.
Although famous for her years spent in Kenya, Africa, after 1931 she lived for the rest of her life in Denmark, at the family estate called Rundstedlund where she had spent her childhood. On her one trip to the United States in 1959, she was regaled by many prominent wealthy and artistic New Yorkers. An often recounted luncheon was set up by Carson McCullers for Karen Blixen to meet Marilyn Monroe. Karen Blixen entertained the group with colorful stories such as shooting her first lion and sending the hide to the King of Denmark. Monroe reparteed with a story about cooking for a dinner party, running out of time and finishing off her pasta entree with a hair dryer. Karen Blixen’s wit is evident in her comments on M. Monroe whom she described as “incredibly pretty,” with radiating innocence. Blixen said, “I have met the same in a lion cub that my native servants in Africa brought me. I would not keep her.”
Twice nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1954 and 1957, it was awarded instead to Ernest Hemingway and to Albert Camus, respectively. Her importance in Denmark is evidence by her portrait on the 50-krone banknote between 1999 and 2005. Her health deteriorated during her last years and the cause of her death on September 7, 1962, was attributed to malnourishment.