Isak Dinesen

April 17, 1885:

Isak Dinesen is born

Karen Dinesen, Baroness Blixen-Finecke, better known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, is born in Rungsted, Denmark. Dinesen’s memoir, Out of Africa, helped demystify the Dark Continent for millions of readers.

Dinesen was born to an upper-class Danish family. Her father committed suicide when Dinesen was 10, ending the happiest period of her childhood. She began writing plays and stories and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, where she developed an interest in art.

When her family sent her to Oxford to study English, she rebelled and went to Paris and Rome to study painting. In 1914, she married her cousin Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, and the couple moved to what was then British East Africa (now Kenya), where they owned and operated a coffee plantation. While the unhappy marriage dissolved in 1921, Dinesen fell passionately in love with Africa and remained to manage the plantation for a decade. In Africa, she was a lively and extravagant hostess, fond of throwing lush dinner parties for her friends-parties which laid the basis for her 1949 story, Babette’s Feast, which was filmed in 1987.

Drought and a crash in coffee prices forced Dinesen, penniless, back to Denmark in 1931. She began publishing short story collections with Seven Gothic Tales (1934), followed by Out of Africa in 1937, which brought her recognition and respect. She published several other story collections before her death, in 1962.

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Happy Birthday

April 4, 1928:

Maya AngelouMaya Angelou is born

On this day poet and novelist Maya Angelou-born Marguerite Johnson-is born in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents divorced when she was three, and she and her brother went to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. When she was eight, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. When she revealed what happened, her uncles kicked the culprit to death. Frightened by the power of her own tongue, Angelou chose not to speak for the next five years.

From this quiet beginning emerged a young woman who sang, danced, and recorded poetry. After moving to San Francisco with her mother and brother in 1940, Angelou began taking dance lessons, eventually auditioning for professional theater. However, her plans were put on hold when she had a son at age 16. She moved to San Diego, worked as a nightclub waitress, tangled with drugs and prostitution and danced in a strip club. Ironically, the strip club saved her career: She was discovered there by a theater group.

She auditioned for an international tour of Porgy and Bess and won a role. From 1954 to ’55, she toured 22 countries.

In 1959, she moved to New York, became friends with prominent Harlem writers, and got involved with the civil rights movement. In 1961, she moved to Egypt with a boyfriend and edited for the Arab Observer. After leaving her boyfriend, she headed to Ghana, where a car accident severely injured her son. While caring for him in Ghana, she took a job at the African Review, where she stayed for several years. Her writing and personal development flourished under the African cultural renaissance that was taking place.

When she returned to the U.S., she began publishing her multivolume autobiography, starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Four more volumes appeared during the next two decades, as well as several books of poetry. In 1981, Angelou was appointed Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. She has been nominated for several important awards and read a poem written for the occasion at President Clinton’s inauguration.

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