She started out as a pretty socialite from an extroverted, aristocratic Danish family, but one afflicted, at times, with a Nordic streak of melancholy.
She moved, daringly, to Kenya, following a feckless husband and a dream to have, as she later wrote, "a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills." That turned out to be a very mixed blessing; it meant years of work, financial ruin - and the genesis of her great career.
For in Africa she found both passion of the physical kind (in the arms of a dashing British aviator/hunter) and the stimulation - artistic, intellectual, natural - that she had needed to blossom. She returned to Denmark in 1931, a failure as a farmer, but with the idea that she might write.
She became one of the most celebrated authors of the twentieth century, considered a kind of Scandinavian Sibyl for her ornately sardonic tales and, especially, for her romanticized but very beautiful memoir, Out of Africa.
She made the most of it, traveling in lavish style throughout Europe and to the United States, fêted everywhere. Despite failing health exacerbated by more than a touch of hysteria, she had a marvelous time.
She turned her excessive thinness - variously caused, depending on whom you believe, by anorexia, by the lingering effects of syphilis, or simply by her iron will - into a very individual kind of chic. And she recognized fabulousness in others:
When giants meet: Miss Monroe and the Baroness (and mortals)
I am afraid she is not as much read as she might be - in danger of becoming an artist more famous for her life (and for the mostly egregious film, despite the presence of Miss Streep, made of it) than for her work.
That is a shame, for her best tales are gripping, moving, magnificently shaped and written with the assurance of a scholar, the humor of a woman of the world, and a kind of boundless tolerance for even the greatest of human follies.
She was, as has been eloquently chronicled over at An Aesthete's Lament, a connoisseur of flowers.
Although perhaps, after the flame trees of the hills outside Nairobi (where a neighborhood of faded colonial pretension, named for her, sits on the erstwhile fields of coffee trees) and her own brilliant, variegated tulips, it might seem a little pale.
If one wants to turn to film to capture her, much better to start with the exquisite Babette's Feast, from one of her stories, than with the Streep-Redford lovefest. Better still to turn to the books themselves, and to Judith Thurman's marvelous biography, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller.
She adored, in her own life, mottoes by which to live. My favorite of these is this, taken from the French poet Alfred de Musset (himself no stranger to formidable female writers; he was a lover of George Sand):
"Il faut, dans ce bas monde, aimer beaucoup de choses / Pour savoir, après tout, ce qu'on aime le mieux." Meaning: We must, in this world, love many things - so that we can know, after all, what we have loved the most."
She lived her last years, I've read, almost exclusively on Champagne and delicacies like oysters and asparagus. I think of her, and of what I have loved the most, every time I have a glass.