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Audio Publisher Celebrates 50 Years

By Donna Martin 

On a January evening 50 years ago, Barbara Cohen and Marianne Roney, recent graduates of Hunter College, approached a famously flamboyant and boisterous Welsh poet after he gave a public reading at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Unable to push past the ardent fans who gathered around him, they wrote him a note about a "business proposition." A week later, over lunch at the Chelsea Hotel, Cohen and Roney offered the poet $500 of their own money-and a 10 percent royalty-to record his poetry on a 45-minute vinyl record. 

The poet agreed, and on February 22, 1952, he was accompanied by a messenger to Steinway Hall in New York City, where he read a selection of poems he had prepared. Unfortunately, he had chosen only enough material for one side of an LP. It was Washington's Birthday, and many bookstores where his poetry could have been found were closed. Then he remembered that he had published a story a year or so before in Harper's Bazaar that had received very little attention. A copy was found, the rest of the reading was recorded, and a classic was born. 

The poet was, of course, Dylan Thomas, and the story he recorded-A Child's Christmas in Wales-became one of America's most beloved Christmas tales. The recording not only captured the legendary voice of one of the best-known poets of the 20th century, it also launched Caedmon Records, the first commercial publisher of the spoken word. It was, said Roney, "the discovery of a genre-literature that, like music, must be performed to achieve its real effect." 

On February 22, 2002, the HarperAudio imprint of HarperCollins, which has owned Caedmon since 1988, celebrates 50 years of Caedmon recordings with the release of the "Dylan Thomas Caedmon Collection." The CD includes previously unavailable recordings of Dylan Thomas reading the works of some of his favorite poets, including W.B. Yeats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and D.H. Lawrence. 

The success of Caedmon is due to the tenacity of its cofounders, who were honored last June with a special achievement award from the Audio Publishers Association. At a time when commercial publishers scoffed at the idea of spoken-word recordings, Cohen and Roney aspired to record the greatest living poets and writers reading their own works. 

In the years before they sold the highly successful company to D.C. Heath in 1970, Cohen and Roney recorded poets e.e. cummings, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Carl Sandburg, Sylvia Plath, Gertrude Stein, and Wallace Stevens, and fiction writers Anthony Burgess, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, J.R.R. Tolkien, Kurt Vonnegut, and Eudora Welty, among others. They went to extraordinary lengths to capture such voices for posterity, venturing to London to sign T.S. Eliot and later gaining entrance to St. Elizabeth's psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C., to record Ezra Pound. 

All of these recordings are still in print, along with such landmark dramas as Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. Even their longtime ambition to record all of Shakespeare's plays was realized, featuring the voices of actors such as Ralph Richardson, Richard Burton, Paul Scofield, Edith Evans, and Claire Bloom. Among the Caedmon offerings now available is the three-CD Shakespeare Audio Collection, including unabridged performances of As You Like It starring Vanessa Redgrave, Much Ado About Nothing starring Rex Harrison, and The Winter's Tale starring John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft. 

But 50 years later, Dylan Thomas's recording of A Child's Christmas in Wales remains a commercial as well as a sentimental favorite. Thomas made four more recordings for Caedmon before he died in 1953, a year after his first recording. 

A testament to the importance of Thomas's words to Caedmon can be found near his birthplace at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive in Swansea, Wales. A memorial, financed by Cohen and Roney, was placed in his beloved Cwmdonkin Park. It is a stone carved with the final lines from his poem "Fern Hill." "Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means / Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea." 

Donna Martin lives in Kansas City, where for many years she was editorial director of Andrews McMeel Publishing. She writes frequently for Publishers Weekly and the Kansas City Star