Born Karen Christentze Dinesen in Rungsted, Denmark, Isak Dinesen published her first book, Seven Gothic Tales (1934), at the age of forty eight. Now considered one of her masterpieces, the work originally had difficulty finding a publisher; however, once published, it immediately established Dinesen’s relationship with American readers.
Influenced by the Gothic and decadent traditions, Seven Gothic Tales differs considerably from Dinesen’s next book, the autobiographical Out of Africa (1937). Employing a more realistic style, Out of Africa chronicles the seventeen years that Dinesen spent running a coffee plantation in Africa. By turns a lyrical expression of her affection for Africa, an exploration of her failed marriage to Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, and a declaration of love for the Englishman Denys Finch Hatton, Out of Africa met with great success in both America and England. Glenway Wescott wrote, “Out of Africa is ravishingly written; it is like a love potion, strengthening us in our enthusiasm about our life, whoever we are, whenever or wherever it may be.”1 When accepting the Nobel Prize in 1954, Ernest Hemingway is said to have stated that it should have gone instead to “that beautiful Danish writer Isak Dinesen.”
Van Vechten’s response was equally strong. On September 9, 1955, he wrote to George George, “I have never enjoyed anything more than Out of Africa. . . . I’ll never get over it & I am already very different!”2 Van Vechten then sent a letter to Dinesen herself, writing, “Why I have waited so long to read you, I’ll never know, but from the very first words in Out of Africa, I understood that I had found an important friend & ally. Never before have I been made to feel so deeply the personal power of the written word.”3
During a 1959 visit to New York, Dinesen sat for several famous photographers, including Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, and Carl Van Vechten. Though he had photographed her the previous year, both photographer and subject particularly enjoyed this session. In a letter to Fania Marinoff of January 29, Van Vechten wrote that the Baroness had been over the night before and stated, “She permitted endless pictures and left only at 10.30. She was excited to be photographed in color, an experience she had never had before.”4 In April, Van Vechten photographed Dinesen again and wrote, “She comes here for MORE photographs tomorrow. There are certain aspects I have missed. I prefer her with her hair showing and in BROWN. Also I think gloves improve her scandalously thin arms. This time I hope that Saul [Mauriber] can catch us together in a fond embrace. I did not manage that in black and white last time, but the color pictures of this sexy scene are magnificent.”5
Interest in Dinesen later surged with the appearance of the films Out of Africa (1985) and Babette’s Feast (1987), based on her work. Critics have alternately praised Dinesen as a feminist and criticized her as a supporter of colonialism. However, the beauty of her writing and her lasting influence have endured. After her death, Van Vechten wrote, “The impression she made was so deeply indelible that something of her spirit will always endure, even to eternity. This is a belief that I will never lose.”6