He mocked the idea and then rejected it.
Mrs. Mantell was not deterred. She was still pondering the possibilities of recorded poetry when she went to lunch early next year with her classmate Barbara Holdridge, a fellow 22-year-old who was also disillusioned with her job at a publishing house. The two friends struck up a conversation about the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, whose recent piece “In the White Giant’s Thigh” had shocked some readers – but not them – with its provocative images of “butter-fat goose girls”.
It turned out that Thomas was speaking that night at 92nd Street Y in New York. “We should go,” Holdridge suggested.
Mrs. Mantell went one step further. “We have to take him in,” she said.
Over the next few weeks, the friends scraped together about $1,500 to launch Caedmon Records, widely regarded as the first major label to specialize in spoken word literary recordings. The name honored one of the first Old English poets, a 7th century cowherd who is said to have awakened from a dream with the gift of verse and song.
After hearing Thomas at the Y, Mrs. Mantell and Holdridge met the poet for drinks at the Chelsea Hotel, persuaded him to sign a record contract (a $500 down payment for the first 1,000 sales, then a royalty of 10 percent on the rest) and brought him to Steinway Hall, where he recorded some of his most famous pieces. To fill the B-side of the record, they also included a largely forgotten Christmas story he had published in Harper’s Bazaar.
“What we heard was like a bolt of lightning, transforming with its electricity,” Ms Mantell recalled.
The resulting album, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales and Five Poems”, served as the foundation of their company, selling over 400,000 copies by 1960 and emerging as a Yuletide favorite with its lilting memory of presents, music, snowball fights and wood fires . . In 2008 it was selected for the National Recording Registry.
In the two decades since its release, Ms. Mantell and Holdridge have recorded many of the world’s most renowned writers, including WH Auden, TS Eliot, William Faulkner, Robert Frost, Lorraine Hansberry, Ezra Pound, and Eudora Welty. Their recordings laid the foundation for what is now a multibillion-dollar industry, with audiobook sales totaling $1.6 billion by 2021, according to the Audio Publishers Association.
“Caedmon proved that spoken word recordings can be both culturally important and commercially viable,” says literary scholar Matthew Rubery, who chronicled the company’s history as part of his 2016 book, “The Untold Story of the Talking Book.”
In an email, he added that the label “succeeded in making ‘elitist’ literature accessible to a mass audience,” with a special appeal to listeners “who longed for a more direct and intimate connection with authors.”
Ms. Mantell, who passed away on January 22 at the age of 93, has spent years trying to deepen that bond. As she saw it, Caedmon’s recordings were an enhancement to the literary experience, not a diminution. Her mindset that was summed up by the company’s slogan: “A third dimension for the printed page.”
“Our aim was literary: to record on tape what the poet heard in his own head as he wrote,” she wrote in a 2004 essay for AudioFile magazine. “We tried to take contemporary poetry away from the literary critics and give it back to the public. We were looking for a new original source, the voice of the poet himself.”
Poetry has been part of the recorded sound since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 and showed off his creation by recording “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on aluminum foil. But it took decades to realize the potential of spoken word recording, using technological innovations like magnetic tape and the long-playing record, or LP, that allowed Caedmon — and competitors like Listening Library and Spoken Arts — to record longer. texts without interruption.
In the early days, Caedmon was based on a dilapidated attic with no more than two chairs, a telephone and a wheelbarrow, which the founders used to move records from the manufacturer to their offices. Ms Mantell later told Newsday that music industry veterans advised the two women to get out of the business “before we lose the ladylike equivalent of our shirts”.
But by 1966, Caedmon had annual sales of $14 million and occupied an entire floor in a Manhattan office building, according to a report by the Women’s News Service. The co-founders attributed their growth in part to a regional theater boom that sparked interest in classical literature, as well as federal funds that helped schools and educational groups buy their records, which were more expensive. Some albums sold for nearly $20.
The company’s releases include readings of Broadway plays such as Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, texts by African-American writers such as Langston Hughes, and a series of Shakespeare’s collected works, for which they invested and recruited more than half a million dollars. British theater stars such as Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Vanessa Redgrave.
If the company’s releases were groundbreaking, so was the management team: Caedmon, which today operates as the HarperCollins imprint Caedmon Audio, was one of the few female-owned record labels in its day.
The company tried to counter misogyny from the start. In a 1960 interview with Time magazine, Mrs. Mantell recalled that when a messenger blocked her and Holdridge from meeting Thomas at the Y, they sent the poet a note requesting a meeting, but only signed it with their initials and surname. he wouldn’t know we were unbusinesslike women.’
(If they had known Thomas better, Holdridge told Canada’s National Post, they would have signed only their first name and the poet would “come running.” Coincidentally, she added, they had a “nice” first meeting: incredible prankster, but so were we. We ended up knocking him under the table, so he agreed to answer for us.”)
Caedmon’s other clients were more persuaded and occasionally dissatisfied with the way things were going. John Cheever complained that he sounded like a moldy fig, and Ernest Hemingway was disappointed “because his voice was a light tenor,” said Mrs. Mantell, “and did not at all fit the raw, raucous, macho image he wanted.” projects.”
Caedmon gave literary lions a chance to roar
Behind the scenes, she and Holdridge were aided by a staff that included recording engineer Peter Bartók, a son of composer Béla Bartók, and a young Mike Nichols, who served as the company’s ship’s clerk before rising to fame as a comedian and director. A promising artist named Andy Warhol provided the cover art for a Tennessee Williams record, while playwright and screenwriter Howard Sackler served as the company’s dramatic director.
Sackler was given free rein to record whatever he wanted, with few exceptions. One of these was Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita, which was refused by Mrs. Mantell. The book was banned in Britain and polarized reviewers with its descriptions of childhood sexual abuse. According to her co-founder, she believed the book would likely be forgotten within 20 years. Instead, it has earned a reputation as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.
For the most part, however, Mrs. Mantell had a keen eye for Anglophone literary excellence. That trait that was all the more striking considering she grew up speaking German.
Marianne Roney, as she was first known, was born in Berlin on November 23, 1929. Her family was Jewish and fled the country after the rise of Hitler, traveling through Europe before going to New York in 1941. Her father was a mechanical engineer, and her mother was a bookkeeper who became an importer of household goods.
Mrs. Mantell played the violin and attended the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan before receiving a bachelor’s degree from Hunter in 1950. Six years later, she married Harold Mantell, a public relations executive who went on to make documentaries, including about Frost and other authors who have worked with Caedmon.
In the early 1970s, Mrs. Mantell and Holdridge sold their business to Raytheon-owned publishing company DC Heath. Holdridge started a small press and Mrs. Mantell joined her husband in running Films for the Humanities and Sciences, later known as the Films Media Group, a distributor of educational documentaries.
Part of the company’s proceeds financed her travels around the world, including to North Korea and to both the North and South Poles.
Her son Michael said she died at her home in Princeton, NJ, from complications from a fall. He outlives her, as does a daughter, Eva; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 2006, and she was predeceased by two sons, Stephen in 2009 and David in 2011.
Ms. Mantell and Holdridge were honored in 2001 with the Audio Publishers Association’s Audie Award for Outstanding Achievement.
In interviews, they often marveled at their success, noting that it seemed particularly unlikely given the amount of time they spent reading ancient texts in college. “After we studied Greek, Gothic and Sanskrit, we clearly weren’t up to anything,” Ms Mantell said.
And yet, she told Time, “We apparently had a touch of business acumen.”