She was born into a Unitarian aristocratic family in Rungsted in Denmark on 17 April 1883, and studied art in Copenhagen, Paris, and Rome. She began publishing fiction in various Danish periodicals in 1905 under the pseudonym Osceola.
In 1914 she married her Swedish cousin, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, after a failed romance with his brother, and the couple relocated to Kenya where they operated a coffee plantation where they mainly hired African workers.
During the first year of her marriage, she was diagnosed with syphilis, which although eventually cured, caused medical problems throughout her life. She separated from her husband in 1921 as a result.
After several infidelities on the husband’s part the couple divorced in 1925. Karen subsequently fell in love with English large gamehunter Denys Finch Hatton whom she had met during her first years in Kenya.. She remained in Kenya and continued to operate the plantation for numerous unprofitable years until Hatton’s death, which occurred in 1931 when his de Hallivand Gipsy Moth Bi Plane crashed.
She returned to Denmark and began writing in earnest, publishing ‘Seven Gothic Tales‘ in English in 1934 under her pen name Isak Dinesen. It was more metaphoric than gothic and received great critical acclaim. This was followed by her most famous book ‘Out of Africa‘ which told her story of life in Kenya in 1937.
This firmly established Blixen as an author and she was given the Tagea Brandt Rejselegat in 1939. This was Denmark’s highest accolade for women in the arts or academic life.
During World War II, when Denmark was occupied by the Nazis, Blixen started to write her only full-length novel, the introspective ‘The Angelic Avengers‘, which was published in 1944. The horrors experienced by the young heroines are seen as an allegory of Nazism.
During the 1940s and 1950s she wrote stories such as ‘Babette’s Feast‘ and ‘An Immortal Story‘. Throughout the 1950s Blixen’s health was deteriorating, and writing became impossible. However, she did do several radio broadcasts.
She also took part in a tour of the US in 1959, during which she met Arthur Miller, E E Cummings and Pearl Buck who admired her writing skills. Despite being Danish, Blixen wrote her stories in English first and then translated them into her native language.
She died at her family’s estate, Rungsted, at the age of 77 in 1962, apparently from malnutrition. However there have been claims that she was still suffering from syphilis or anorexia.
Much of her work was published posthumously. Karen, the suburb of Nairobi, where she made her home and operated her coffee plantation, was named after her. It is there that there is a Karen Blixen Coffee House and Museum, set in one of her former homes.
In 1985, her best-known book ‘Out of Africa‘ was transformed into a film, with Meryl Streep playing Karen and Robert Redford portraying her hunter lover Denys.