This Day in Jewish History, 1869

The Man Who Wrote Bambi and Didn't Make a Dime From the Movie Was Born

Bambi learned of life's perils, observed the judge; pity Salten didn't know of the danger lurking in copyright protection.

Ferdinand Schmutzer

On September 1869, Felix Salten, an Austrian writer and critic, was born in Budapest. Salten’s most well-known work would be the coming-of-age tear-jerker “Bambi, a life in the Woods,” the story that would become the basis of Walt Disney’s cross-generational animated classic. The tale of a deer’s life from birth to adulthood, struggling for survival in the face of the harshness of nature and the cruelty of humans, is loved worldwide. Salten, however, made close to nothing from the movie.   

Bambi’s creator was born as Seigmund Salzmann in Budapest, on the Pest side of the Danube. When he was just a few weeks old, Salzmann’s family moved to the Austrian capital, Vienna. 

Many Jews were moving there at the time: in fact Vienna became home to the largest Jewish community in the Habsburg Empire in the late 1800s, after Jews were granted full citizenship rights in 1867.

The family was poor. Salten’s father went bankrupt and the boy left school as a teenager to work at an insurance company. It was at this time that he began submitting poems, letters, essays and stories to newspapers and journals.

By 18, he was writing full-time for the press.

With Herzl in Vienna, over coffee Salten became part of the “Jung Wien” or  "Young Vienna" movement, wiling away the hours over coffee and ideas at the Café Griensteidl. He counted among his friends the writers Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Arthur Schnitzler.

Zionism’s founding father, Theodor Herzl, was also one of the café’s regulars. Salten was a Zionist as well, and wrote a regular column in Herzl’s Zionist newspaper, “Die Welt” - “The World”  - when it first came out in 1897.  In fact, scholars have suggested that "Bambi" itself has “Zionist overtones”.

In 1901, he published his first book of short stories under the pen name Felix Salten, and the following year, he married the actress Ottilie Metzl. They would go on to have two children, Paul and Anna-Katharina. Writing for publications in Austria and in Germany, Salten became an influential theater critic. He was prolific, writing all manner of literary forms - books on theater, plays, screenplays and even librettos for operas. In 1927, he became head of the Austrian chapter of PEN International, the global association of writers, succeeding his friend Arthur Schnitzler. 

He had also begun writing novels. “Bambi,” the book that brought him international fame, was published in 1923. It sold well in Austria and was translated into English in 1928.  The translator, incidentally, was Whittaker Chambers, the man who would testify against suspected Communist Alger Hiss in the U.S. in 1950.

In English, Bambi also became a bestseller and a Book-of-the-Month-Club success in America.

'Potential dangers everywhere he turned'

In 1933, Salten sold the film rights for a mere $1,000 to director Sidney Franklin, who ended up selling them on to Disney. The movie came out in 1942. It became an enduring success, but Salten made bupkes. In 1996, a California judge hearing an appeal from a copyright infringement claim brought by the book’s copyright holder against Disney wrote, “Bambi learned very early in life that the meadow, where his mother took him to graze and play, was full of potential dangers everywhere he turned. Unfortunately, Bambi's creator, Mr. Salten, could not know of the equally dangerous conditions lurking in the world of copyright protection.”

With the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, life became increasingly dangerous for a successful Jew. Salten’s books were banned by Adolf Hitler in 1936. After the Anschluss in 1938, when Austria was conjoined with Germany, Salten fled to Zurich, Switzerland. He carried on writing for children, penning, among other titles, another Bambi book in 1939, entitled “Bambi’s Children: The Story of a Forest Family.” He died in Switzerland in 1945.

Salten may not have been all innocent inspiration and Zionist fervor, however. The man who created Bambi is also widely credited with being the anonymous author of a pornographic classic, “Josephine Mutzenbacher - The Life Story of a Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself.

This erotic bestseller, first published in 1906, has been in print for over 100 years and was translated into a number of languages, and – like "Bambi" - has also inspired films, plays and parodies.