Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Barbara Holdridge
MSA SC 3520-15534

Biography:

"We won't tell you how to make a good record. But we will tell you this much: We use directors who know what they're doing. We select our material carefully. And we pick the great artists, the people who will endure for years."
-Barbara Holdridge1

Barbara Holdridge's pioneering work in the field of spoken word recordings helped launch the multi-billion dollar industry of audiobooks that exists today.2 Holdridge and Marianne Mantell, her business partner and friend, founded Caedmon Records in the 1950s, revolutionizing the way people understood and accessed literature. Holdridge and Mantell recorded many of the most famous authors and poets of the twentieth century reciting their own works, bringing a fresh and much needed perspective to how stories and poems were digested by audiences across the nation. Holdridge's passion for poetry, the classics, and literature in general has touched the lives of countless individuals, and her legacy to the audio recording industry will have far reaching ramifications for many years to come.

Barbara Ann Holdridge (maiden name Cohen) was born in 1929 in New York.3 She attended Hunter College in New York City, where she met her friend and future business partner Marianne Mantell (then Roney).4 The two met at a six week summer Greek class at Hunter, and became fast friends.5 Both young women graduated in 1950 with degrees in Humanities, and both were members of Phi Beta Kappa, one of the most prestigious greek letter societies in the United States, that promotes 'freedom of inquiry and liberty of thought and expression.'6,7,8 It would take only two years after their graduation for the two collaborative minds to come together and create Caedmon Records.

In 1952, at 22 years old, Holdridge was working as an assistant editor at a New York publisher, and Mantell was doing lines at a local label.9 While out to lunch together one day, Holdridge mentioned to Mantell that Dylan Thomas was reading at the 92nd Street Y that night, and asked her if she wanted to go. Mantell enthusiastically agreed, and even suggested to Holdridge that they should record him reading his poetry (the two had previously discussed the idea of recording authors reading their own works).10 This was the opportunity of a lifetime for both Holdridge and Mantell, and they would seize upon it with the tenacity and sharp-mindedness of the successful business women they would become.

As planned, the two women went to Thomas's performance that night, but two different versions of how they met with him have emerged over the years. The more widely accepted version goes like this: After the reading, Holdridge and Mantell sent a note backstage to Thomas that read:

        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?

                        Signed,
                                  B. Cohen and M. Roney11

Holdridge and Mantell intentionally signed the note with their first initials only, thinking Thomas would be more inclined to meet them if they appeared gender neutral.12 The ladies realized later on, as Thomas became infamous for his womanzing exploits, that, "if we (had) signed it Marianne and Barbara he would have hopped to it with alacrity. As it was, he dodged us for a week."13

Holdridge's audacious manner refused to let her give up. About a week after the performance she woke herself up at 5:00am and put a call into the Hotel Chelsea, where Thomas was staying. Luck or kismet was with her, because Thomas answered. He agreed to meet Holdridge and Mantell for lunch at the Little Shrimp to listen to their business proposition.14 The meeting, in a few words, was a complete success. In a newspaper interview, Holdridge elaborated, "We punned him under the table, and he even picked up the check, something he typically avoided whenever possible."15

What deal did Holdridge and Mantell make with Thomas? After all, the two women were representing themselves independently; they were not working on behalf of an established recording company. In essence, Caedmon Audio (now Caedmon Records) was simultaneously founded in conjuction with their meeting with Thomas.16 Holdridge and Mantell were then able to get a $1,500 loan from a bank for the startup costs, based on their signatures alone, and they agreed to give Thomas a $500 advance in addition to 10 percent of the royalties made from the record.17 They named their company after Caedmon, the first poet to write in the English language.18

After several failed attempts to get Thomas into a recording studio, Holdridge and Mantell were finally able to book a session at Steinway Hall on February 22, 1952.19 Thomas read several of his more famous poems such as "The White Giant's Thigh" and "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night." When he stopped, as if to finish, Holdridge and Mantell started to panic; they had filled only one side of the record, but needed to have recordings on both sides in order to market it and sell it.20 They asked Thomas if there was any other piece of writing he could read, and he mentioned a relatively unknown story at the time called "A Child's Christmas in Wales," published about a year earlier in Harper's Bazaar magazine.21

Mantell rushed over to the magazine's headquarters and borrowed the only known copy of the story in their files, and brought it to Thomas to read.22 Listening to Thomas record the story, Holdridge remembers, "We were beguiled by it. We loved it," and "I don't know what would have happened if we had not recorded it. It would have languished at Harper's Bazaar. I don't know that anyone could have dug it up."23 The story has since become one of the most popular and widely known of the twentieth century.

Holdridge and Mantell had succeeded; they had recorded their first author. After that first recording Holdridge and Mantell found a cubbyhole of a space for their office, and began writing to other twentieth century poets and authors, asking them to come record their writings at Caedmon Audio. They wrote to Thomas Mann, E.E. Cummings, and Archibald MacLeish, and signed them all.24 Their budget was tight (initially, they used a wheelbarrow to cart records from the R.C.A. plant on 34th street to their office 10 blocks away), but their passion for the business was insatiable.25 By 1966, Caedmon had grossed $14 million, and Holdridge and Mantell employed 36 people at their 8,000 square foot office in a Mid-Manhattan building not far from the Empire State Building.26

Holdridge and Mantell had made history. Their company, Caedmon, had become the first commerically successful publisher to record authors reading their own works.27 Holdridge started two national clubs to help promote and sell their records, reaching tens of thousands of people.28 Most of Caedmon's business was educational, with 40 percent of its sales coming from schools and community libraries across the country by 1967.29 They had, by this time, recorded an exhaustive number of famous poets and authors of the twentieth century. Here is just a partial list of the literary men and women they worked with:

-Robert Frost
-Erza Pound
-Langston Hughes
-T.S. Eliot
-Sylvia Plath
-Eudora Welty
-William Faulkner30

When asked to comment on the success of the company, Holdridge responded, "We like to think, that we've taken the uncommon things and made them popular...[and] The records give stature to poets who have been relegated to critics and scholars."31 Furthermore, when asked why they felt the need to record the author's voices, Holdridge replied, "...when they spoke their works aloud, they were in a way re-living them. And that's what came through and that's what we were after. We weren't just doing their voices."32 She continued, "They read with a feeling, an inspiration that came through."33 Caedmon was a dream come true for Holdridge, a dream that she envisioned as a woman in the 1950s, and that would be realized into an empire by the 1960s.

Holdridge and Mantell sold Caedmon in 1970, and today it is a part of the publishing giant HarperCollins.34 Holdridge and her husband, Larry, whom she married in 1959 (they raised twin daughters, Eleanor and Diana, together), bought the historic Stemmer House in Owings Mills, Maryland, in 1973 for $205,000.35,36 The Georgian-style mansion, built circa 1751, is on the National Register of Historic Places.37 Holdridge and her husband put close to $1 million in renovations into the house over the years, and cultivated 6 of the land's 28 acres into award-winning formal gardens.38

Holdridge has also remained in the publishing world since selling Caedmon Records. She founded Stemmer House Publishers in 1975, and became known for publishing children's books, as well as the company's International Design Library, a publication of sourcebooks for artists and other creative professionals.39 She sold the company in 2003, and officially retired. She has been enjoying her time ever since, spending a great deal of it in her gardens.40 Holdridge was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2002, and accepted a Special Lifetime Achievement Award at the Audie Awards in 2001 for founding Caedmon Records.41

Holdridge and her husband also made a significant contribution to the world of American Folk Art. They discoverd and documented the portrait painter Ammi Phillips, who was the artist of at least 700 portraits, many of which had been attributed to other artists.42 Together, they published a book on the rediscovered folk artist in 1968 titled "Ammi Phillips: Portrait Painter, 1788-1865."43 Larry, a self-taught and self-employed hydraulic engineer, who enjoyed almost 40 years of marriage with his wife, passed away in September 1998.44

Barbara Holdridge's life and career has helped revolutionize the spoken word industry, as well as expand the professional opportunities available to women today. As an entrprenuer and businesswoman, Holdridge defied traditional gender conventions by establishing an independent and highly successful career during the 1950s, at a time when women were still largely defining themselves as houswives and homemakers. As a pioneer for the spoken word recording industry, she helped bring twentieth century and classical literature into mainstream American culture. She is, undoubtedly, a woman for the history books, and has more than earned her place as a member of the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame.
 
 

Written By Archival Intern Emily J. Steedman, B.A. History, A.A. Liberal Arts & Sciences
 
 
 

ENDNOTES:
1. Gail Dugas, "2 Girls, 10 Years 1 Idea Equal a Record Business in Culture," Carroll Daily Times Herald, April 11, 1962, NewspaperArchive.com.
    Return to text
2. "Caedmon: Recreating the Moment of Inspiration; Label Brought Words of Dylan Thomas, Other Writers to Life," NPR,
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=866406 (Accessed June 21, 2011). Return to text
3. "Barbara Holdridge - National Women's Hall of Fame," National Women's Hall of Fame,
    http://www.greatwomen.org/women-of-the-hall/search-the-hall/details/2/189-Holdridge (Accessed June 21, 2011). Return to text
4. John Crosby, "Literature In Sound Seems to Sell Well," Capital Times (Madison), February 3, 1961, NewspaperArchive.com. Return to text
5. Ibid. Return to text
6. Joyce Kaplan and Maria Terrone, eds., "Audio Publisher Founded by Hunter Alumnae Turns 50," Hunter (June 2002): 8,
    http://www.hunter.cuny.edu/alumni/assets/AtHunterFall02.pdf (Accessed June 21, 2011). Return to text
7. Vic Sussman, "BOOK WORLD; PAGEX8; RECORDED BOOKS," Washington Post, April 5, 1987, Final Edition, Lexis Research System. Return to text
8. "The Nation's Oldest and Most Widely Known Academic Honor Society," Phi Beta Kappa Society,
    http://www.pbk.org/infoview/PBK_InfoView.aspx?t=&id=8 (Accessed June 21, 2011). Return to text
9. Carl Schoettler, "Waxing Poetic; The women behind Caedmon Records recall 50 years of wrangling poets into a studio and capturing their voices, both
    literally and figuratively," Baltimore Sun, August 27, 2002, Final Edition, Lexis Research System. Return to text
10. Ibid. and Ben Cheever, "Audio's Original Voices," Publishers Weekly, October 24, 2005, Proquest Search. Return to text
11. Carl Schoettler, "Waxing Poetic." Return to text
12. "Caedmon: Recreating the Moment of Inspiration," NPR. Return to text
13. Carl Schoettler, "Waxing Poetic." Return to text
14. Ibid. Return to text
15. Shannon Maughan, "A golden audio anniversary," Publishers Weekly, March 4, 2002, ProQuest Search. Return to text
16. Carl Schoettler, "Waxing Poetic." Return to text
17. Ibid. and Dan Lewis, "Poetry, Plays Forte of New Disk Firm," Independent Star-News (Pasadena), July 23, 1967, NewspaperArchive.com. Return to text
18. Vic Sussman, "BOOK WORLD." Return to text
19. Shannon Maughan, "A golden audio anniversary." Return to text
20. Carl Schoettler, "Waxing Poetic." Return to text
21. "Caedmon: Recreating the Moment of Inspiration," NPR. Return to text
22. Ibid. Return to text
23. Carl Schoettler, "Waxing Poetic." Return to text
24. John Crosby, "Literature in Sound Seems to Sell Well." Return to text
25. Dan Lewis, "Poetry, Plays Forte of New Disk Firm." Return to text
26. Ibid. Return to text
27. Joyce Kaplan and Maria Terrone, eds., "Audio Publisher Founded by Hunter Alumnae Turns 50." Return to text
28. Dan Lewis, "Poetry, Plays Forte of New Disk Firm." Return to text
29. Ibid. Return to text
30. Carl Schoettler, "Waxing Poetic." Return to text
31. Dan Lewis, "Poetry, Plays Forte of New Disk Firm," and John Crosby, "Literature in Sound Seems to Sell Well." Return to text
32. Carl Schoettler, "Waxing Poetic." Return to text
33. "Caedmon: Recreating the Moment of Inspiration," NPR. Return to text
34. Carl Schoettler, "Waxing Poetic." Return to text
35. "Historical Newspapers, Birth, Marriage, & Death Announcements, 1851-2003 record for an ancestor," Ancestry.com,
    http://search.ancestry.com/browse/view.aspx?dbid=50000&iid=80556071&pid=244625&ssrc=&fn=Lawrence+Barrett&ln=Holdridge&st=g (Accessed June
    22, 2011). Return to text
36. Fred Rasmussen, "Lawrence Barrett Holdridge, 88, founded hydraulic firm," Baltimore Sun, September 5, 1998. Return to text
37. Sarah Tilton, "A Historic Captain's Home," Wall Street Journal (Online), May 20, 2011, ProQuest Search. Return to text
38. Ibid. and Susan Reimer, "PLANTING TO REMEMBER, HONOR LOST LOVED ONES; GRIEVING GARDENERS PUT THEIR HEARTS INTO
    THEIR WORK,"Baltimore Sun, September 23, 2007, Final Edition, Lexis Research System. Return to text
39. Jim Milliot, "Pathway Book Service buys Stemmer House," Publishers Weekly, September 15, 2003, ProQuest Search. Return to text
40. Ibid. Return to text
41. Carl Schoettler, "Waxing Poetics," and Shannon Maughan, "A golden audio anniversary." Return to text
42. "Barbara Holdridge - National Women's Hall of Fame," National Women's Hall of Fame. Return to text
43. Fred Rasmussen, "Lawrence Barrett Holdridge." Return to text
44. Ibid. Return to text
 

Return to Barbara Holdridge's Introductory Page
 
 
 
 


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