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Great European Lives: Karen Blixen

Writer, April 17, 1885 – September 7, 1962

In New York in the spring of 1959 Karen Blixen danced on a table with Marilyn Monroe and fellow novelist Carson McCullers. At least, that was according to McCullers’ version of events: while the three certainly met it’s unlikely the frail, sickly Blixen would have been tapping her toes on the Formica even if she’d been inclined to.

The 74-year-old Danish author of the classic memoir Out Of Africa would have happily endorsed the tale, however. It would have appealed to her love of a good story, her taste for the unconventional and her innate antipathy to the commonplace. Indeed, the current fashion for Danish hygge, the state of contentment engendered by fireside cosiness and conviviality, would have appalled her.

Karen Blixen lived her life as the antithesis of hygge and there was no better illustration than the four months she spent in the US in the early part of 1959, ostensibly to make educational films and give talks for the Ford Foundation and the Encyclopaedia Britannica but also to have a hell of a good time.

Blixen, who wrote mainly under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen, was at the height of her fame. Out Of Africa, an account of the years she spent running a coffee plantation in Kenya, had been a worldwide bestseller for more than two decades and the previous three years had seen the publication of two successful short story collections.

Within days of her arrival in New York, Life magazine ran a feature about her visit. She dined with socialite Gloria Vanderbilt, John Steinbeck threw a cocktail party in her honour, Maria Callas sang for her, Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon photographed her. E.E. Cummings, Arthur Miller and Aldous Huxley all paid calls on the painfully thin Danish aristocrat in the black robes, her heavily-powdered face framed by tight-fitting turban-style hats.

In return she ramped up the European aristocratic eccentricity for them, insisting on eating only oysters and grapes and drinking nothing but champagne. It was vintage Blixen, working up her life into a much better story, always seeking the greater narrative.

‘I am not a novelist or even really a writer; I am a storyteller,’ she once said. ‘One of my friends said about me that I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them, and perhaps this is not entirely untrue. To me, the explanation of life seems to be its melody, its pattern. And I feel in life such an infinite, truly inconceivable fantasy.’

It was a trait she’d inherited from her aristocratic father, Wilhelm Dinesen. A born adventurer and romantic, Dinesen, a land-owning relative of the Danish king, had fought in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and, disillusioned by life as an army officer, set sail for America where he spent two years living in remote northern Wisconsin among native Americans. He wrote a memoir, Letters From The Hunt, that became a minor Danish classic.

Blixen’s mother, Ingeborg Westenholz, came from a family of serious, high-minded Unitarian merchants – Karen’s grandmother’s reaction on hearing of the engagement was to ask, ‘How shall we reckon with an erotic element among us?’ – and while Karen was home schooled at the family’s manor house at Rungstedlund by a stern, religious aunt it couldn’t dampen her unconventional side that was pure Dinesen.

Karen adored her father, feeding off his panache and vibrancy, and she in turn was his favourite of the five Dinesen children. Hence Karen was more devastated than most when Wilhelm, a long-term sufferer from depression, committed suicide shortly before her tenth birthday.

The adventurous spirit he’d fired in her would never be extinguished, and it seems she recognised something of her father in the man who was the love of her life as well as her muse. Denys Finch Hatton, son of the Earl of Winchelsea, was a dashing pilot and adventurer with whom Blixen fell in love on meeting him in Kenya in 1918. Unfortunately she was married to somebody else at the time.

Karen had become Baroness Blixen in 1913 when she married the Swedish Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke. With a typical storyteller’s flourish she had originally been in love with Bror’s brother Hans, but the combined appeal of an aristocratic title and a new life in Kenya, where Bror was to set up a coffee plantation, led initially to a happy union. The couple married in Mombasa and set off for their new home in the Ngong Hills, a few miles south-west of Nairobi.

The plantation was never likely to be a success: the soil and altitude were far from ideal and Bror was much more interested in big game hunting. Eventually he left the running of the business to Karen while he went off on lengthy safaris with a string of aristocratic visitors.

His absences allowed Karen to indulge her infatuation with Finch Hatton. Dashing and handsome, he was the perfect stimulus for the exiled Danish Baroness landed with the running of a failing business and they would lay together watching blood-red Kenyan sunsets, listening to Rachmaninov and talking late into the night.

Her marriage ended in 1921 but Finch Hatton was far too much of a free spirit to be husband material. After a decade their relationship reverted to a deep friendship shortly before his death in a plane crash while stalking elephants in 1931.

Later that year, with a broken marriage, a dead lover and a failed business venture behind her, Blixen arrived back at Rungstedlund after 17 years in Africa. She was in her late 40s, in constant pain from the syphilis she’d caught from her husband in the first year of their marriage and her future was distinctly uncertain.

Although she’d passed the endless days of the Kenyan rainy season writing early drafts of the gothic tales that would form her first book, it wasn’t until she’d returned to Denmark that Blixen decided she would write seriously. She had a great deal to draw on. ‘No-one came into literature more bloody than I,’ she mused.

She set up the Corona typewriter she’d used in Africa on her father’s old desk in a room by a window that looked out along the Jutland coast towards Sweden – and, a short way along the coast, the castle at Elsinore where Hamlet was set – and began work.

Her Seven Gothic Tales, a collection of supernatural romances set in the 19th century and originally rejected by publishers on both sides of the Atlantic, was eventually published in the US in 1934 and became a huge bestseller. Out Of Africa followed three years later, cementing her literary reputation and legacy to the extent that when he accepted his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 Ernest Hemingway said that he would have been far happier had it gone to Karen Blixen.

Her health was a constant concern throughout her life but especially in her final years. Although she’d overcome her syphilis its legacy was painful and permanent: she’d treated the condition with mercury in the early days and continued to take doses of arsenic for most of the rest of her life, which may explain the constant stomach pains she endured. These pains doubtless contributed to her spartan diet (her official cause of death when she passed away in 1962 in her simple, narrow wooden bed in a small attic room was ’emaciation’) although in characteristic style she attributed this to a desire to ‘achieve greatness through hunger and suffering’.

It was all part of the story. It was as if, back in the country where she never really felt appreciated her and in her childhood home, she was coming up with stories to entertain her father just as she had as a child. She wrote for his ghost, and for the ghost of the man who had picked up the baton from Wilhelm, Denys Finch Hatton.

In Rome in 1956 Blixen gave an interview in which she discussed one of the lectures she gave regularly to Danish national radio.

‘I planned a talk on how easy it was to die,’ she said. ‘Not a morbid message, I don’t mean that, but a message of, well, cheer, that it is a great and lovely experience to die.’

It might even have been a message intended for her father and lover, releasing her words into the ether where they might catch them and be reassured.

‘I don’t feel I really belong to this life,’ she continued. ‘I am hovering like a seagull. I feel that the world is happy and splendid and goes on but that I’m not part of it.’

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