It’s always exciting to hear the insider story about a famous person you admire. I’ve written about the Danish author Karen Blixen on earlier blogs. I’ve read all her books (and books about her friends and lovers), and many times I have seen her biography, ‘Out of Africa’. But now I have a more vivid picture to add to a scrapbook of memories of Karen.
Last month I trekked over to the Alameda Point Antiques Fair with my friend Suzanna. Joining us was Suzanna’s longtime friend, the San Francisco decorator Dorit Egli.
I was so excited to meet Dorit. She’s a very elegant woman, and a legend in the design world here.
I had recently posted my blog feature on Karen Blixen (who write ‘Out of Africa’ under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen) and so many readers and friends commented on this ‘valiant’ and ‘bewitching’ author.
Suzanna informed me that Dorit, from a noble Danish family, is a distant cousin of Karen’s. Dorit’s father was a cousin of Karen’s father (or something like that.)
I told Dorit I had visited Rungstedlund, the Dinesen family house just north of Copenhagen, several times, and had walked through the beautiful estate. I’d visited Karen’s grave beneath a beech tree there.
“What was she like?” I quizzed Dorit as we drove across the Bay Bridge, with Alameda in the foggy distance.
“Karen went out to Africa as a pioneer, hoping to start a coffee farm. She was daring and brave and had great spirit. But she was not lucky in this adventure. She had one disaster after another,” said Dorit. “Her family persuaded her to come home. She loved Africa. It was a tragedy. When she returned to Denmark at the age of forty-six, she wrote ‘Out of Africa’”.
Dorit, Danish to her fingertips and therefore against any showiness, reflected a certain disdain that Karen soon became world famous, and hob-nobbed with the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Aldous Huxley (now that would have been a conversation to overhear), European royalty, and authors and creative types around the world.
Dorit’s memory of this tiny, frail, but impressive woman are still vivid.
“She was beloved in the family, and we called her The Sorceress,” said Dorit, who is always dressed, as Karen was, with great elegance and polish, even for the flea market. “She drew you close. As a young child I was enchanted.”
Karen was tiny but powerful. Her voice was very low and mysterious and husky, said Dorit, and she was fascinating to everyone. She fascinated children and adults, famous people, photographers, the gardener, and her beloved and very loyal housekeeper.
“She had a life that could have seemed tragic—illness, betrayal, divorce, the death of her beloved Denys—and yet life for her was a wonder and she conveyed that,” said Dorit.
Dorit recalled that it was known in the family that in 1872 Wilhelm traveled to Wisconsin where he lived among and studied Native Americans. (He committed suicide when Karen was aged ten.)
On his return to Denmark in 1879 he wrote several books about his experiences hunting. He purchased three properties along the coast north of Copenhagen, one of them being Rungstedlund, where Karen Blixen was born.
“When I was a young girl, we would go to Rungstedlund for family gatherings,” recalled Dorit. “Karen was always called Tanne among the family, not Tania as is often misreported. She was quite famous towards the end of her life, and there might be a photographer taking photos of her or her house. She always had admirers around, young writers, or young aspiring writers. It was very convivial. She was happy to be the center of attention.”
And so we embarked at the flea market and set off to find treasures.
I’d already found mine, in Dorit Egli’s vivid recollections. Thank you, Dorit. And thank you, Karen. You continue to inspire me.
Karen Blixen’s Flowers
One elegant feature of Karen Blixen’s house was the style of flowers she a arranged. She kept a cutting garden (still visible today) just across the lawn and over a bridge behind the house. She grew her favorite lilies, tulips in usual colors, old-fashioned roses, foxgloves, delphiniums, and old-fashioned flowers. She cut them throughout the year, along with grasses, herbs, branches and twigs.
Her arrangements were not grand. She would cut flowering fennel, dandelions, Queen Anne’s lace. Some arrangements were brief poems of grasses and seedpods. Others were rococo bouquets, and extravagant and complex compositions inspired by Dutch flower paintings or Della Robbia studies.
Karen had studied art as a young girl, visited the Louvre, the National Gallery in London, and the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, and knew the formal traditions of flower arrangements painted by the Dutch masters.
It was said that she was influenced by the flowers Vita Sackville-West grew and arranged at Sissinghurst. Gertrude Jekyll’s gardens influenced the gardens of the mother of Queen Ingrid of Denmark around this time, and English aristocratic floral ideals crept into Karen’s consciousness, no doubt.
In ‘Out of Africa’ Blixen tells of planting peony tubers she has brought from Denmark, a fragrant white ‘Duchesse de Nemours’. There on her remote farm, she would cut the first white peonies for a dinner party, and pour the finest Champagne in elegant crystal flutes. (She was, after all, the author of ‘Babette’s Feast’.) Toward the end of her life, in 1963, Cecil Beaton photographed her with a superb English-style arrangement of hydrangeas and roses.
For one special guest, or many, she would pick pink dahlias, phlox, helenium, roses and delphiniums, as well as marguerites in a complex but somehow natural arrangement. It’s a style I’ve seen at Rungstedlund in late summer. The house today is always filled with flowers.
She disliked formal commercial-looking arrangements—those floristy styles I call ‘flowers in bondage’ —and Karen’s flowers always had an unpretentious feeling.
I was told by one of the docents at the house that Karen did not like what she called ‘florists’ bouquets’ she was often given at events. As soon as she returned home she would dismantle them and rearrange them in monochromatic groupings in small vases.
These opulent gatherings and bouquets of blowsy roses were created at a time when strict and spare Danish modern was in full bloom, and the bare-bones concepts of rigorous Japanese Ikebana were its beloved accompaniment.
Instead, Karen created country arrangements of cabbage leaves and flowering elder, tall leeks that had gone to seed.
Just inside the door leading to the garden was a cutting room. It was there that she would spend many happy hours, dreaming up beauty, before going back to her writing, weaving webs of enchantment.
“I think that flowers themselves are one of the miracles of life, and that it is wonderful in every way to occupy oneself with them, but you will know that I have a special passion for arranging them. Every time it is as if you were painting a flower picture.” – Karen Blixen
Some years before her death, Karen Blixen left instructions that her property near the coast should become a preserve for songbirds. She maintained her house there in order that it, too, could be opened as her museum.
When I was last in Copenhagen, I walked slowly through the rooms of her house, looking through drifting lace curtains at the well-kept garden, peering into her study, and examining all of the fresh flower arrangements on tables, chests, in the flower-arranging room, and on her desk. The style is totally Karen— elegant but with a simplicity that is very Danish.
I walked out into the garden, down the path, and through the trees, past the stream and over w wooden bridge. The fragrance of fennel and roses drifted through like a memory of simpler, uncomplicated days.
The beech trees rustled softly and the light faded. Is that a nightingale I hear high overhead in the twilight air?
For more information on Karen Blixen:
Karen Blixen’s Flowers: Nature and Art at Rungstedlund. Christian Eilers Publishers, 1992. Flower photography by Steen Eiler Rasmussen.