In early 1952, when Marianne Roney was languishing in a menial job in New York, writing liner notes and translating opera libretti for record companies, she and a college friend Barbara Cohen hit upon a project that would kick-start what is now a billion-dollar, spoken-word audiobook industry.
Roney and Cohen had recently heard the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas declaiming his verse at a venue on the city’s Upper East Side. They had been so impressed by Thomas’s mellifluous delivery that they decided to pool their $1,500 savings and set up a company that would record him and others for posterity on long-playing disc.
The famously inebriate Thomas proved difficult to reach. The young women eventually contacted him by phone at the Chelsea Hotel at 5am, as he was stumbling back from a party. After meeting them at a local restaurant, he agreed to come to Steinway Hall on 57th Street to be recorded by their friend Peter Bartók, son of the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. He was doubtless encouraged by their offer of a $500 advance, plus a 10 percent royalty after 1,000 sales.
Thomas initially read five poems, including his celebrated Fern Hill. But there was still another side of an LP to be filled. When Roney asked him what else he might record, he remembered A Child’s Christmas in Wales, a wistful story he had written for the magazine, Harper’s Bazaar.
Bartók had expected a literary voice but instead heard, in Roney’s words, “a French horn, at times a whole orchestra”, so had to adjust the microphone. Even as Thomas was reading, Roney realized there was something special going on, a poet bringing prose to life in electrifying fashion and giving birth to a new genre — “literature that, like music, must be performed to achieve its real effect”.
Reordering their priorities, they repackaged their recording as A Child’s Christmas in Wales and Five Poems. This appeared as an album later that year and was a great success, selling more than 400,000 copies.
The young women eventually contacted him by phone at the Chelsea Hotel at 5am, as he was stumbling back from a party.
Their embryonic company, Caedmon Records, adopted the slogan “A third dimension for the printed page” and set about systematically documenting living poets, including TS Eliot, Marianne Moore and WH Auden, who noted how the two women’s relaxed approach “made me do my best”.
From a small office at 460 Fourth Avenue, Roney and Cohen expanded into recording novels by Hemingway, James Joyce and Colette (whom they managed to track down six weeks before she died) as well as plays by Shakespeare. They used leading actors, including Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft, to do the readings.
Fêted as women in a man’s world, they used the gramophone and later tape machine to bring high culture into American living rooms. Helped by government subsidies in the 1960s, they won big orders from schools and colleges. “Instead of getting orders for two or three, we started getting orders for a hundred each time,” Roney said. “That was a windfall.”
As well as Bartók, their support team included Mike Nichols, the future film director, who worked as the company’s shipping clerk, and a young artist called Andy Warhol, who produced the cover for a Tennessee Williams album.
Thomas managed to renegotiate even healthier advances on his royalties and then ungraciously belittled the two young women to friends as the “Hairies”. Nevertheless, when he died two years later they commissioned his statue for Swansea’s Cwmdonkin Park where he was born, as well as a plaque for the White Horse Tavern, his favorite New York watering hole.
Born in Berlin in 1929, Marianne Roney was the only child of Max Roney, an Austrian mechanical engineer, and Serena (née Berger), a bookkeeper of Hungarian origin. To escape persecution — the family was Jewish — they emigrated in 1939, moving first to Paris, then London, before finally reaching New York in 1941. Studious and musical, playing the violin, piano and accordion, Roney won a place at the “Castle on the Hill”, the prestigious High School of Music & Art in Hamilton Heights, abutting Harlem, before moving to the then all-female Hunter College. There she studied Greek, graduating in 1950 with a Phi Beta Kappa grade.
In 1956 Roney married Harold Mantell, a public relations executive, who branched into making educational films. After Caedmon, her talking books company, was sold to DC Heath, a textbook firm, in 1971, she joined him in setting up Films for the Humanities and Sciences (later the Films Media Group), where she enjoyed a successful second career producing and distributing documentary films. The BBC was among its clients. Again she was in the right place at the right time, as videos and DVDs became essential classroom tools.
The firm was based in the university town of Princeton where Roney, now Mantell, lived and had four children, including Michael, who worked with her in the family film business, and Eva, an artist. Two other sons predeceased her, along with her husband.
Always an enthusiastic traveler, she was one of the few Americans to have been to North Korea, and also to have visited both the North and South Poles.
Marianne Mantell, publisher, was born on November 23, 1929. She died on January 22, 2023, aged 93