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The Women Who Founded an Industry

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With the end of Women’s History Month approaching, the Library’s Recorded Sound Section would be remiss if we failed to mention the remarkable accomplishments of Barbara (Cohen) Holdridge and Marianne (Roney) Mantell, founders of Caedmon Records.  

Photo of the owners of Caedmon records receiving a wheelbarrow of records
Barbara and Marianne transporting newly pressed record to the office, 1953.

These two Hunter College graduates with degrees in Greek wanted careers in publishing, but weren’t particularly excited about starting at low level jobs in the industry.  Instead, they cobbled together $1,500 (some accounts give $1,800), and started Caedmon Records, a label that would pave the way for the audio book industry.

Holdridge and Mantell had originally hoped to release conventional books in addition to recorded books, but when in 18 months five of their titles had earned $42,000 (a far larger amount in 2020 dollars), they decided to focus on records. Chief among these briskly selling discs was Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, and the flexibility and creative thinking with which Holdridge and Mantell booked the session with Thomas would serve them well when working with future artists. In early 1952 the Welsh poet had been touring the US and filling lecture halls with young enthusiastic listeners.  Early attempts to contact the poet had failed, until Holdridge and Mantell learned that Thomas was a notorious drinker and night owl. Risking the poet’s ire, they called his hotel room at 5:00 AM.  Happily the ploy worked, and at a lunch appointment the next day they scheduled a recording session. In fact, the record was so successful that it sold over 250000 copies according to a 1959 profile of Caedmon in New York Herald Tribune (page F7 November 29, 1959). Inic

Colette, half-length portrait, facing right, holding cat.
Colette, 1932.

Quick reflexes account for Caedmon’s success recording Colette, the Parisian author of Gigi. Initial attempts to schedule a session had been plagued by delays, but the women eventually contacted Colette’s husband and agent.  His urgent reply via telegram read, “If you want Collette, you had better hurry.” A Parisian audio engineer was contacted, who rushed to the author’s apartment, hauled his heavy equipment up several floors, and secured the recording. Within six weeks Colette was dead the age of 81.

While flexibility and creative scheduling helped immensely when working with authors, the high quality of Caedmon’s readings must also be attributed to the women’s manner in the recording studio. Early on the team resolved to memorialize “the great living authors, recording their own work in order to capture the author’s own interpretation and recreation of the emotions felt when the work was first set down.”  While other record producers might attempt to control every aspect of the recording session, Holdridge and Mantell adopted the pose of intent, interested listeners, allowing their subjects to proceed with their readings in a natural way.  The poets they recorded appreciated the approach: W.H. Auden said it “made me do my best,” while e. e. cummings, as recounted by Barbara Mantell, “felt the people pressing the buttons [on the recorder] understood the poems.”

This light touch in the studio was ideal for recording an eager Frank Lloyd Wright, a point emphasized on the record jacket’s notes:

The time was 1956, shortly before his 87th birthday in June.  At the recording session were Ben Raeburn of Horizon Press and the Caedmon contingent, consisting of Marianne Mantell and Barbara Holdridge.  The place was a suite at the Plaza Hotel, where Mr. and Mrs. Wright customarily stayed while in New York.

The questions asked were meant simply to draw the architect out, but very few were needed.  Without notes or pauses, he talked for very nearly two hours, dwelling on his conception of architecture, describing some of his buildings, philosophizing on the human condition in our century and beyond, and expressing hope for civilization.  At length, when he was finished, he said so, the recording ended, and Mr. Wright went back to his rolled-up blueprints for tomorrow.

By the time Mantell and Holdridge sold the label in 1970, they had been recording for 18 years and had released more than 500 recordings. In addition to recording a large selection of contemporary writers they had also presented the public with great talents reading Shakespeare and the classics. Among the latter were John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, and Richard Burton. Women writers were also well-represented on the label, Edith Sitwell, Lorraine Hansberry, Marianne Moore, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter are among the writer’s in the company’s catalog. Thanks to these two resourceful women and their unique approach to the record business, we can enjoy a wealth of spoken-word records which honors the artistry of some of the finest writers in history.

Interested in searching the Library’s catalog for recordings on Caedmon or other spoken-word record labels?  Have a look in the Library of Congress online catalog.  For assistance with  these recordings or any of the Library’s sound recordings contact the Recorded Sound Research Center.



Comments (2)

  1. Nice post, Bryan. Thanks!

  2. Great to learn who was behind Caedmon! I always loved hearing the Dylan Thomas hit — your blog leads me to picture the man whose house was ablaze: “Mr. Prothero, who always slept there after midday dinner with a newspaper over his face. But he was standing in the middle of the room, saying, ‘A fine Christmas!’ and smacking at the smoke with a slipper.”

    Well, a fine Christmas indeed!

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