Salten: Deer Bambi
He was part of the Viennese coffeehouse culture that transformed
the Austrian literary aesthetic, yet he was largely self-taught.
He arrived in Austria during Vienna's Jewish renaissance and
fled during the Nazi Anschluss. He made a splash with an obituary
of Emile Zola. He was journalist and theater critic, writer of
historical fiction and of animal allegories. His name was Felix
Salten, and he wrote Bambi.
Felix Salten (real name: Siegmund Salzmann) was born in Budapest,
Hungary, on September 6, 1869. When he was only three weeks old,
his family moved to Vienna, Austria--part of the first wave of
Jewish immigrants who flocked to Vienna after Jews were granted
full citizenship rights there in 1867. The Jewish population
of Vienna grew from about six thousand in 1860 to over forty
thousand in 1870, and increased another hundred thousand by the
turn of the century, a population explosion that engendered a
backlash of anti-Semitism.
Because of his family's poverty, Salten had
little formal education. A cousin offered him a menial job in
an insurance office, and to alleviate his boredom there, Salten
began to write, sending letters, poems, essays, and short stories
to newspapers, using various pseudonyms. But it was an impassioned
obituary he wrote following the death of French novelist Emile
Zola in 1902 that brought him real public attention.
Also in 1902, Salten had married actress Ottilie Metzl; they
eventually had two children. He continued to write for newspapers
and periodicals in both Vienna and Berlin, including the progressive
Neue Frei Presse; he was editor of Berliner Morgenpost
and theater critic for Wiener Allgemeinen Zeitung. He
wrote several books on theater, as well as plays and screenplays.
Another obituary he wrote brought him additional notoriety. When
Karl Lueger, the five-term mayor of Vienna, died in 1910, Salten
attacked the popular Christian Socialist politician as an anti-Semitic
demagogue (Adolf Hitler, who was then living in Vienna, considered
Lueger a role model).
Salten had become part of the so-called Jung Wien (Young Viennese)--a
coterie of Viennese artists, mostly Jewish, who were habitués
of the Café Grienstedl and part of the so-called
coffeehouse culture; their number included operetta composers
Franz Lehar and Oscar Straus; tenor Leo Slezak (father of actor
Walter Slezak and grandfather of soap opera actress Erika Slezak);
literary lights Karl Kraus, Hugo von Hofmannstal, and Hermann
Bahr; and Zionist Theodor Herzl.
Salten began writing novels in 1910. In 1923, he published The
Hound of Florence, a fantasy about a man who turns into a
dog every other day (this was the source material for Walt Disney's
1959 film The Shaggy Dog). That same year, he wrote the
story for which he is best remembered: Bambi: A Life in the
Immediately popular in Austria, the book reached the United States
in 1928, in a translation by Whittaker Chambers (who twenty years
later was the chief accuser in the Alger Hiss case, which brought
Richard Nixon to national prominence).
Bambi is a classic coming-of-age novel, following a deer
from birth (the name is based on the Italian bambino,
meaning baby) to adulthood, realistically depicting the danger
and harshness of nature and, especially, the looming cruelty
of man the hunter. The story has been interpreted as both paean
to nature and political allegory about the treatment of Jews
In addition to a sequel to Bambi (Bambi's Children: The Story
of a Forest Family, 1939), Salten penned two other noteworthy
animal stories: Fifteen Rabbits: A Celebration of Life
(1929), about a year in the lives of rabbits Hops and Plana,
and Florian the Emperor's Horse (1933), about a Viennese
Lippizzaner stallion after World War I.
The Nazis banned Bambi in 1936. In March 1938, Germany
annexed Austria, and in May, the Nazis rescinded civil liberties
for Jews and shut down Jewish institutions. On Kristallnacht
(November 9, 1938), Jews were targeted for terror throughout
the German Reich, and thousands were rounded up and sent to concentration
camps. Salten and his wife had been able to flee to Zurich, Switzerland,
before the Nazi onslaught.
In the United States, German novelist Thomas Mann had brought
Bambi to the attention of Walt Disney, who spent five
years painstakingly refashioning Salten's novel into a memorable,
heartrending animated film that premiered in London on August
8, 1942 and in the United States on August 13, 1942. The story
has minimal dialog--only nine hundred words--relying mostly on
visuals to advance the story of the young deer. Though some critics
felt the film was guilty of over-sentimentalization, Disney retained
Salten's focus on the primitive beauty of nature and the cruelty
of man--indeed, the American Rifleman Association vociferously
protested the film's depiction of hunters.
Because Salten had sold his rights to the book in 1933, he did
not see much financial gain from the success of the film, which
has had several theatrical re-releases and has been made available
for home viewing.
Felix Salten died in Zurich on October 8, 1945, having given
the world a beautiful, compassionate story that indelibly etches
itself in the minds of its readers.
© 2001. All rights reserved.
Read more about Felix Salten:
Felix Salten (1869-1945)
Biographical sketch from the Feuchtwanger Memorial Library of
the University of Southern California.