Waxing Poetic

The women behind Caedmon Records recall 50 years of wrangling poets into a studio and capturing their voices, both literally and figuratively.

August 27, 2002|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Fifty years have passed since two young women hauled the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas into a studio in New York City where he read the story A Child's Christmas in Wales and the half-dozen poems that became one of the most popular recordings in the history of literature.

All three were making their first record. Barbara Cohen Holdridge and Marianne Roney Mantell, both then 22, were founding Caedmon Records with about $1,500 and more or less unlimited hope. They gave Thomas a $500 advance and a promise of 10 percent of the royalties. He was their first poet - in a catalog that would eventually encompass T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound, Anne Sexton, e.e. cummings, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, all the Sitwells and all of the plays of Shakespeare.

Thomas then was perhaps the first superstar of poetry and maybe the last. He was the poete maudit of the post-World War II generation. But he was more bad boy than evil genius, with the curly-haired, cherubic good looks of a wasted angel. He drank and smoked too much, and he slept with too many women, at least from the point of view of his wife, Caitlin. And he died too young - although he was 39 and had three children. "He had his pick of lovely young college girls, which he picked," Holdridge says, laughing.

Holdridge - who will be inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in October - has lived in the Baltimore area since her marriage to the late Lawrence Holdridge, an engineer, 43 years ago.

She runs Stemmer House Publishers, which puts out a wide variety of books, including the International Design Library. Her publishing company is named for her home on Caves Road, a 250-year old colonial mansion brought brick by brick from eastern Baltimore County in 1930.

She's a handsome woman who speaks with precise clarity of the origins of Caedmon Records in that twilight of a golden era of American literature. She sits on a patio that looks out on a lawn that slopes down to a grove of trees. A small fountain gurgles into a nearby L-shaped modern pool.

In Manhattan, she recalls, Dylan Thomas stayed at the Hotel Chelsea, which has harbored generations of writers, artists and musicians, from Mark Twain to William Burroughs to Sid Vicious, who killed his girlfriend there. Thomas drank at the White Horse Tavern, where he is said to have uttered these perhaps apocryphal last words: "I've had 18 straight whiskeys. I think that's the record." He died Nov. 9, 1953.

In early 1952, Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Mantell, then Cohen and Roney, had gone to hear Thomas at the 92nd Street Y, the Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association, whose renowned series of poetry readings continues today.

"I knew of him because I read his poem `In the White Giant's Thigh' in The Atlantic, and I was bowled over by it," Holdridge says. "And I was even more bowled over when hundreds, if not thousands, of subscribers canceled because of that poem. They really did. They were outraged. That was the clincher."

Thomas read the sensual, mysterious and lovely "In the White Giant's Thigh" on the first Caedmon recording.

"America in the '50s was more prudish than we are today, I think," Holdridge says.

Thomas was beginning his second American tour when Holdridge and Mantell went to the 92nd Street Y to hear him. They had graduated from Hunter College in 1950.

"We both had a literary education," Holdridge says. "We met in a summer Greek class."

In 1952, she was an assistant editor at Liveright, a New York publisher that traced back to Boni & Liveright, the influential 1920s firm whose authors included Faulkner, Pound, Cummings and the young Ernest Hemingway.

"It was not what it had been the '20s," she says. "But, you know, the aura was there, and the feeling was there and every Saturday I would go in ... and I would read the old files. And the old files were filled with letters from [W.H.] Auden and Cummings and Hemingway and Katherine Anne Porter and all of these people whom I was going to know within the next two years."

Mantell was already in the recording business, doing liner notes for one of the minor labels.

"She said let's go and record [Thomas]," Holdridge says. "We had been vaguely talking about doing some recordings of authors, but this was our first."

So they went to the 92nd Street Y not only to listen to Thomas, but also with a business proposition. They sent a note backstage:

Dear Mr. Thomas:

We have been told that there is no admission to backstage but that you will come after the recital to "greet" the crowd.

We are interested in discussing a recording and publishing project with you, but find the crowd a little impractical for this. Have you some suggestions as to how we could meet?

Holdridge still has the note.

"We signed it with our first initials and last names," she says, "little realizing if we signed it Marianne and Barbara he would have hopped to it with alacrity. As it was, he dodged us for a week. Phone calls were never returned.

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