Although he was born in Budapest, Austria-Hungary (on the Pest side), Felix Salten’s Jewish family moved to Vienna just weeks after his birth on 6 September 1869, as Siegmund Salzmann. (Many Jews immigrated to the city during the late 19th century because Vienna had granted full citizenship to Jews in 1867.) Of course, at the time of his birth Budapest and Vienna were both part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Felix Salten in 1910. Today his most famous work is Bambi, a Life in the Woods(1923), later adapted as an animated film by Walt Disney. Looking at Siegmund Salzmann’s early life, one would never have predicted that he would become a well-known writer and the source of at least four Disney feature films. Siegmund was one of seven children. Although little is known about his life before 1890, the family was in financial difficulty and Siegmund had to leave school early in order to provide financial support. Salten later described his engineer father as an assimilated Jew and a dreamer.
At 16 Salten took a job at an insurance company (Versicherung Phoenix) in Vienna. In his spare time he began submitting poems and book reviews to journals. In 1885 he began submitting articles to the art magazine Kunstchronik, and soon he was writing for various literary periodicals. Around 1890 Salten became part of the “Young Vienna” (Jung Wien) movement, joining in a circle of authors – Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Richard Beer-Hofmann, Hermann Bahr and Karl Kraus – who met regularly at the Café Griensteidl. He wrote short stories and newspaper features under the pseudonym of Felix Salten, which would later become his legal name. In 1896 Salten became the head of the editorial section of one of Vienna’s leading newspapers, the Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung. By the early 1900s he was writing for all of Vienna’s major newspapers and also commuted to Berlin to work as an editor for the Berliner Morgenpost.
Germany’s BAMBI Media and Television Award
“The BAMBI” (der BAMBI) is an annual film, media, and TV award in Germany first issued in 1948, now sponsored by Hubert Burda Media (since 1962). The original award trophy was a white porcelain fawn (Rehkitz). Since 1958 the deer statuette has been made of gold-clad bronze. The award’s name was inspired by Felix Salten’s Bambi book.1902 proved to be an eventful year in Salten’s life. In April of that year he married the actress Ottilie Metzl (Metzeles). Soon the couple had two children, Paul Jakob (1903–1937) and Anna-Katherina (Katja, 1904–1977). To support his new family, Salten continued to write, now at a more intense pace. In September 1902 he wrote an obituary for the French novelist Emile Zola. It somehow touched people to an extent that brought Salten to the literary forefront and helped advance his career. He wrote on topics ranging from the arts and theater to politics and literary criticism. Besides novels, he also produced plays, screenplays, and even opera librettos. As a critic Salten was a supporter of the painter Gustav Klimt and writers Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Later, from 1927 to 1933, Salten served as president of the Austrian PEN-Club, an office he gave up following the Nazi book burnings in Berlin on 10 May 1933.
But today Felix Salten is best known for two very different works of literature. The first was a fictional account of the life of a Viennese prostitute. Considered pornographic, the novel Josefine Mutzenbacher was published anonymously in 1906 and banned by the Austrian government soon thereafter. Although many people believed at the time that it had been written by Arthur Schnitzler, the real author was Salten. Had he revealed his identity as the Mutzenbacher author in those days, he would have been kicked out of the social and professional circles he so enjoyed. The spicy book was rediscovered in the 1960s and became a bestseller in German and several other languages. In 1990 Salten’s heirs sued the book’s German publisher for back royalties, without success.
BAMBI: EINE LEBENSGESCHICHTE AUS DEM WALDE by Felix Salten was first published in 1923. Copies like this 1923 first edition are very rare. The American English translation by Whittaker Chambers, published by Simon & Schuster appeared in 1928. IMAGE: Wikimedia CommonsIn 1923 Salten, an avid hunter, published a very different work of fiction, a novel about a baby deer that the author called “Bambi,” based on the Italian word for baby, bambino. In 1936, Salten sold film rights to the novel to MGM producer Sidney Franklin, who passed them on to Walt Disney for the creation of a film adaptation. (The amount paid ranges from $1,000 to $5,000, depending on the source.) Salten’s heirs fought in vain for years in an attempt to get what they felt was more fair compensation for the rights to the Bambi film that earned millions in box office revenue. Later Disney also used another 1923 Salten novel as the source for the film The Shaggy Dog (1959). It is based on Der Hund von Florenz/The Hound of Florence, the story of a man who turns into a dog every other day. There have been two remakes of the “Shaggy Dog” films, including The Shaggy D.A. (1976). The Disney film versions differ in many ways from the original source material. Salten’s Bambi is far more grim than the Disney film version, even though many consider the animated film one of Disney’s darkest.
In 1930, at the invitation of the Carnegie Foundation, Salten and some fellow journalists traveled to the United States. He published his impressions of America and southern California as Fünf Minuten Amerika (America in Five Minutes) in 1931.
Bambi in English was a bestseller after its publication, becoming a “book-of-the-month” selection and selling 650,000 copies in the United States by 1942. However, it had been banned in Nazi Germany in 1936 as “political allegory on the treatment of Jews in Europe.” The Disney animated movie version, released in the US in 1942 during WWII, did not do that well at the box office, failing to fit into the American mindset at the time. With time, however, following re-releases and home video, the Disney film became a classic.
BAMBI in English from Amazon.com.While living in exile in Switzerland, Salten wrote the Bambi sequel Bambis Kinder (Bambi’s Children), published in 1940. He did this more out of necessity than desire, since he was forbidden to work as a journalist in Switzerland. His main source of income was his book royalties from the United States. He also published several other children’s books: Renni, der Retter. Das Leben eines Kriegshundes(1941), Die Jugend des Eichhörnchens Perri (1942), and Djibi das Kätzchen (1945).
Felix Salten was still living in Zurich when the Bambi movie premiered at the Rex Cinema (Kino Rex) there, and it is said he attended a showing of the film he helped create. But he died in October 1945, just a few months after the end of World War II. When the animated film became a worldwide success, Salten’s wife and later his heirs waged a campaign to get the Disney Studio to share more of the Bambi profits, an effort that Disney resisted until a court finally ruled in the family’s favor in 1996.
Salten, a confirmed Zionist, as demonstrated by his 1925 book about Palestine and his friendship with Zionism’s founding father Theodor Herzl, was buried in Zurich’s private Israelite Unterer Friesenberg Cemetery operated by the Israelitische Cultusgemeinde Zürich (ICZ), founded in 1862. In the same Jewish cemetery lies the grave of a fellow Jewish writer, Richard Beer-Hofmann (1866-1945), who also left Austria in 1939 for Zurich. But Beer-Hofmann went on to New York City, where he died in 1945.