September 7, 2007

September 7 | Karen Blixen

April 17, 1885 - September 7, 1962: Age 77

Better known today by her pen name Isak Dinesen, Karen Blixen contracted syphilis from her first husband, Baron Blixen, whom she married in Africa in 1914. Syphilis was at the time widely considered an incurable disease, although it wasn’t really, and for the rest of her life Blixen attributed her considerable health problems to it, although her doctors could find no trace of it in her after the 1920s.

The treatments for syphilis in early 20th century Africa included mercury and arsenic. It is likely that these treatments are what caused a permanent mild loss of sensation and reflex in her legs. She also suffered from chronic, intense abdominal pain. Nobody really knew or knows to this day what was causing the pain, but it plagued Blixen for her entire life. Her pain was so intense and frequent that by 1945 she had some of her spinal nerves severed surgically. It didn’t help; her symptoms returned.

In 1953 Blixen’s most famous short story, Babette’s Feast, was published in the Ladies Home Journal. It’s beautiful story whose climax describes in deep, sensuous, loving detail the preparation and consumption of an extraordinary meal, and the profound, magical effect the meal has on a community. It is a beautiful story and if you haven’t read it, go find it now and do so, or at least watch the 1986 film — best do both. This story the most vivid and soulful description food I have ever read.

By 1955 she had a third of her stomach removed to treat an ulcer. She visited America in 1959 and spent part of her 3 months there having in intravenous infusions. In her final years she was able to eat almost nothing, and weighed less than 80 pounds. She died of malnutrition.

Sources: Karen Blixen - Isak Dinesen Information Site, Wikipedia

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