Karen Dinesen was born in the manor house of Rungstedlund, north of Copenhagen, the daughter of Ingeborg (nee Westenholz 1856-1939), and Wilhelm Dinesen, a writer and army officer .She was also the older sister of Thomas Dinesen. Her mother Ingeborg came from a wealthy Unitarian bourgeois merchant family. Ingeborg's mother was Mary Lucinde Westenholz. From August 1872 to December 1873, Wilhelm Dinesen had lived among the Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin, where he fathered a daughter, who was born after his return to Denmark. Wilhelm Dinesen hanged himself on 28 March 1895 after having conceived a child (Else Ulla Elida Spange) with handmaid Anna Rasmussen, out of wedlock and thus being unable to fulfill his promise to Mama Mary to stay faithful to Ingeborg, when Karen was ten. He suffered from syphilis which resulted in bouts of deep depression.
Karen spent some of her early years at her mother's family home, the Mattrup seat farm near Horsens. She was later schooled in art in Copenhagen, Paris, and Rome. She began publishing fiction in Danish periodicals in 1905 under the pseudonym Osceola.
Life in Kenya
In 1913, Karen Dinesen became engaged to her second-cousin, the Swedish Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, after a failed love affair with his brother. The couple moved to Kenya, which was at the time part of British East Africa. In early 1914, they used family money to establish a coffee plantation there, hiring local workers; predominantly the Kikuyu people who lived on the farmlands at the time of their arrival. About the couple's early life in the African Great Lakes region, Karen Blixen later wrote,
Here at long last one was in a position not to give a damn for all conventions, here was a new kind of freedom which until then one had only found in dreams!
The two were quite different in education and temperament, and Bror Blixen was unfaithful to his wife. She was diagnosed with syphilis toward the end of their first year of marriage in 1915. According to Dinesen's biographer Judith Thurman, she contracted the disease from her husband. She returned to Denmark in June 1915 for treatments for the illness. Although Dinesen's illness was eventually cured (some uncertainty exists), it created medical anguish for years afterward. The Blixens separated in 1921, and were divorced in 1925.
During her early years in Kenya, Karen Blixen met the English big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, and after her separation from her husband she and Finch Hatton developed a close friendship which eventually became a long-term love affair. Finch Hatton used Blixen's farmhouse as a home base between 1926 and 1931, when he wasn't leading one of his clients on safari. He died in the crash of his de Havilland Gipsy Moth biplane in 1931. At the same time, the failure of the coffee plantation, as a result of the worldwide economic depression and the unsuitability of her farm's soil for coffee growing, forced Blixen to abandon her beloved farm. The family corporation sold the land to a residential developer, and Blixen returned to Denmark, where she lived for the rest of her life.
Life as a writer
On returning to Denmark, Blixen began writing in earnest. Her first book, Seven Gothic Tales, was published in the US in 1934 under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen. This first book, highly enigmatic and more metaphoric than Gothic, won great recognition, and publication of the book in Great Britain and Denmark followed. Her second book, now the best known of her works, was Out of Africa, published in 1937, and its success firmly established her reputation as an author. She was awarded the Tagea Brandt Rejselegat (a Danish prize for women in the arts or academic life) in 1939.
During World War II, when Denmark was occupied by the Germans, Blixen started her only full-length novel, the introspective tale The Angelic Avengers, under another pseudonym, Pierre Andrezel; it was published in 1944. The horrors experienced by the young heroines were interpreted as an allegory of Nazism.
Her writing during most of the 1940s and 1950s consisted of tales in the storytelling tradition. The most famous is "Babette's Feast", about a chef who spends her entire 10,000-franc lottery prize to prepare a final, spectacular gourmet meal. The Immortal Story was adapted to the screen in 1968 by Orson Welles, a great admirer of Blixen's work and life. Welles later attempted to film The Dreamers, but only a few scenes were ever completed.
Blixen's tales follow a traditional style of storytelling, and most take place against the background of the 19th century or earlier periods. Concerning her deliberately old-fashioned style, Blixen mentioned in several interviews that she wanted to express a spirit that no longer existed in modern times, that of destiny and courage. Indeed, many of her ideas can be traced back to those of Romanticism. Blixen's concept of the art of the story is perhaps most directly expressed in the story "The Cardinal's First Tale" from her fifth book, Last Tales.
Though Danish, Blixen wrote her books in English and then translated her work into her native tongue. Critics describe her English as having unusual beauty. Her later books usually appeared simultaneously in both Danish and English. As an author, she kept her public image as a charismatic, mysterious old Baroness with an insightful third eye, and established herself as an inspiring figure in Danish culture, although shunning the mainstream.
Blixen was widely respected by contemporaries such as Ernest Hemingway and Truman Capote, and during her tour of the United States in 1959, writers who visited her included Arthur Miller, E. E. Cummings, and Pearl Buck. She also met actress Marilyn Monroe with her husband Arthur Miller. The socialite Babe Paley gave a lunch in her honour at St.Regis with Truman and Cecil Beaton as guests, and Gloria Vanderbilt gave her a dress by Mainbocher. The photographer Richard Avedon took one of his famous pictures of her during her stay in New York. She was admired by Cecil Beaton and the patron Pauline de Rothschild of the Rothschild family.
She was awarded the Danish Ingenio et Arti medal in 1950. In 2012, the Nobel records were opened after 50 years and it was revealed that Blixen was among a shortlist of authors considered for the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature, along with John Steinbeck (winner), Robert Graves, Lawrence Durrell and Jean Anouilh. Blixen became ineligible after dying in September.
Illness and death
Although it was widely believed that syphilis continued to plague Blixen throughout her lifetime, extensive tests were unable to reveal evidence of syphilis in her system after 1925. Her writing prowess suggests that she did not suffer from the mental degeneration of late stages of syphilis, nor from cerebral poisoning due to mercury treatments. She did suffer a mild permanent loss of sensation in her legs that could be attributed to chronic use of arsenic in Africa.
Others attribute her weight loss and eventual death to anorexia nervosa.
During the 1950s Blixen's health quickly deteriorated, and in 1955 she had a third of her stomach removed because of an ulcer. Writing became impossible, although she did several radio broadcasts.
In her analysis of Blixen's medical history, Linda Donelson points out that Blixen wondered if her pain was psychosomatic even though she blamed it in public on the emotive syphilis: "Whatever her belief about her illness, the disease suited the artist's design for creating her own personal legend."
Unable to eat, Blixen died in 1962 at Rungstedlund, her family's estate, at the age of 77, apparently of malnutrition. The source of her abdominal problems remains unknown, although gastric syphilis, manifested by gastric ulcers during secondary and tertiary syphilis, was well-known prior to the advent of modern antibiotics.