For many audiobook and literature aficionados, the story is legendary. In January 1952, two bright and determined young women, Barbara Cohen and Marianne Roney, recent graduates of Hunter College, attended a reading by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas at New York City's 92nd Street Y. Already ardent Thomas fans, Cohen and Roney were so taken by his performance, they made him an offer to record his works for posterity. Though the women were rebuffed in their attempts to meet with Thomas "backstage" at the Y, they boldly wrote him a note—intentionally signed with gender-neutral first initials and last names—and asked for a meeting to discuss a business proposal. Several days later the two lunched with Thomas at the Chelsea Hotel to persuade him to record his poetry as the first audio title to be released by their brand-new company, Caedmon Records (named for the first poet to write in English).

"We hit it off immediately," said Barbara Holdridge (then Cohen). "We punned him under the table," she recalled with a laugh, "and he even picked up the check, something he typically avoided whenever possible."

Since Thomas's fateful recording session at Steinway Hall on February 22, 1952, Caedmon went on to earn an unparalleled reputation as a respected publisher of spoken-word audio. With plans that stretch throughout 2002, HarperAudio—home to the Caedmon Audio imprint since 1987, when Caedmon was acquired by then—Harper & Row—celebrates this 50-year milestone.

"So many people think audiobooks are a new thing," said Carrie Kania, associate publisher for HarperAudio. "And here we are 50 years after these women published that first title. That's remarkable." In addition to following their passion for literature and poetry, Holdridge and Marianne Roney Mantell proved to be savvy capitalists. They both left entry-level jobs and initially invested $1,500 to start their company. By 1959 Caedmon had revenues of $500,000. Recordings by W.B. Yeats, Eudora Welty, T.S. Elliot, William Faulkner and others filled the company's catalogue throughout the 1950s and '60s.

Each title had to appeal to both Holdridge and Mantell's tastes, and be considered able to stand the test of time culturally and commercially. "We thought there was a need and a market for spoken word recordings of authors reading their works," Holdridge said. "When Dylan Thomas fell into our laps, so to speak, we seized on that as our time to proceed with our idea. We were never interested in just getting the voices. We wanted to recreate the moment of creation for these authors, what they were feeling, what they invested in their writings at the time of inception. We never cared if they had great voices or not." All the same, they captured many a great author voice as well as a stellar cast of professional actors' voices.

"It's an amazing who's who list of literary greats from that time," Kania told PW. "I asked them once, 'Was there anyone you missed?' and they immediately answered 'Hemingway.' " (Although they never made an original recording of the author reading his works, the two did eventually obtain some tapes made by Hemingway's biographer and a couple of radio interviews Hemingway had done that they released on the Caedmon label. They also produced a Hemingway collection read by Charlton Heston.) Kania remembered pressing the women about other authors, asking, "Where is Jack Kerouac? Where are the Beats?" She says the reply she received from them was an honest, unapologetic one: "We didn't think they'd stick around."

The early Caedmon staff proved to be a bit of a who's who as well. As the partners expanded their Manhattan operations, the roster of employees grew to include poet and playwright Howard Sackler who served as dramatic director, recording engineer Peter Bartók (son of the composer) and comedian-turned-director Mike Nichols, who was head shipping clerk, and, incidentally, Caedmon's first official employee. In 1970 the two women sold Caedmon Audio to D.C. Heath, where it hummed along until the Harper acquisition.

Everything Old Is New Again

Since 1987 HarperAudio has been re-releasing the Caedmon backlist, in no particular order. "We have tried to include one or two Caedmon titles on every season's list," Kania said. This reissuing of titles has turned into something much larger over the years. "As we began re-releasing tapes, it involved converting many of the old ones from reel-to-reel to DAT," Kania explained. "We figured that we might as well try to restore them and re-master them since we had already begun the process. I'm no technical expert, but I'm amazed at the sound we have been able to achieve."

The high sound quality is the result of a restoration effort led by Rick Harris, HarperAudio's executive director and producer. He has described the process, which involves sophisticated computer work with noise-reduction software and hour upon hour of listening, as "painstaking work… A very artistic ear is essential because the challenge is to preserve and enhance the sound."

One of Harris's recent restoration projects is the cornerstone of the Caedmon anniversary celebration. Dylan Thomas: The Caedmon Collection was released last month. The 12-hour boxed-set features Thomas's original 1952 work for Caedmon, as well as him reading works by some of his favorite authors, including W.H. Auden and William Shakespeare. Other Caedmon titles scheduled for release in this celebratory year are The Arthur Miller Audio Collection (April), containing a full-cast recording of Death of a Salesman (featuring young co-star Dustin Hoffman) as well as The Crucible, and The James Joyce Audio Collection (June), which features the only known recording of Joyce's voice, here reading Ulysses. According to Kania, other plans to celebrate the anniversary include: Caedmon CD samplers to be given away at BEA and the fall regional and library shows, postcards featuring old Caedmon advertising, and easel-back displays highlighting titles.

Though the extensive Caedmon backlist provides lots of opportunities to keep the imprint name alive, HarperAudio has moved the Caedmon tradition into the 21st century with new recordings as well. Following Holdridge and Mantell's philosophy of "putting great voices to great works," HarperAudio has recently released the following, among others, under the Caedmon banner: Dubliners (by James Joyce, read by Frank McCourt, Stephen Rea, Patrick McCabe, et al; On the Road by Jack Kerouac, read by Matt Dillon (which was nominated for a Grammy) and the forthcoming The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, read by Edward Norton (Sept. 2002).

Throughout the years, Caedmon and its founders have oft been recognized as true pioneers of the audiobook industry. In 1992, Caedmon received a Peabody Award, which cited the company's contribution to American Arts and Letters, and last June Holdridge and Mantell accepted an Audie Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Audio Publishers Association. "That was really Marianne's and my celebration of the 50th anniversary," Holdridge said of the Audie occasion. Such honors only solidify Kania's feelings about being entrusted with the distinguished imprint. "It's a source of prestige and great responsibility for us to publish Caedmon titles," she said. And Holdridge believes Caedmon is in good hands. "Harper is doing an excellent job of keeping the label alive," she said. When asked if her and Mantell's vision from 50 years ago had been realized, Holdridge commented, "Yes, very much so. More than we ever could have imagined."