Duvall Hecht, founder of Books on Tape, dies at 91

Duvall Hecht, whose boredom at listening to music and news on the radio during his long daily commute in Southern California led him to start Books on Tape, which broadly commercialized the audiobook, died Feb. 10 at his home in Costa Mesa, California. He was 91.

His wife, Ann Marie Rousseau, said the cause was heart failure.

In 1975, Hecht was craving intellectual stimulation during his lengthy rush-hour commutes between his home in Newport Beach and his office in Los Angeles, where he worked in marketing for the investment banking firm Bateman Eichler, Hill Richards. At first he rested a reel-to-reel tape recorder on the seat beside him and played recordings of books that had been made for blind people.

But the selection was limited, and he wanted more. So he decided to record books himself.

Working with his wife at the time, Sigrid (Janda) Hecht, from their living room, and later from a former sailmaker's loft, Hecht built Books on Tape by renting and selling cassettes through the mail to individuals, schools and libraries.

The Hechts held down costs by hiring little-known actors to narrate the books. They built their catalog by recording books that were in the public domain, and by negotiating with publishers for the sublicensing rights to make unabridged recordings. At their headquarters in Costa Mesa, a dozen tape decks busily duplicated titles from master cassettes.

Many of his thousands of customers, Hecht said, became hooked.

"One customer called our tapes 'the best invention since sex'; others say they've even missed appointments while trying to finish a whodunit," he told The Detroit Free Press in 1984.

All the company's audiobooks were unabridged. Each word of the original books was read; it would take, for example, 20 hours to finish listening to "Great Expectations."

When publishers like Random House and Simon & Schuster later joined the market with abridged audio versions of their books, Hecht was unmoved. He stuck to his niche: providing hours (and hours) of uncut recorded mysteries, history and travel books, thrillers and biographies to those who were stuck in long drives or had lots of leisure time.

"When people who've been buying abridgments find us, they think they've died and gone to heaven," he told The New York Times in 1996.

The market eventually moved from cassettes to CDs to digital audiobooks, which now make up almost 96% of $1.3 billion industry in the United States.

"Books on Tape was the vendor to look at if you were selling into libraries, because they were creating a lot of content," said Michele Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association. "Everyone looked to Duvall and Sigrid as industry leaders."

Duvall Young Hecht was born on April 23, 1930, in Los Angeles. His father, John, was a stockbroker, and his mother, Clarabelle (Young) Hecht, was a homemaker. After graduating from Beverly Hills High School, where he was an indifferent student, Duvall attended Menlo College in Atherton, California, for a year, before transferring to Stanford University.

While studying for his bachelor's degree in journalism, he was recruited for the Stanford rowing team; he excelled quickly enough to earn a spot competing for the United States in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, soon after his graduation. He and his teammate James Fifer competed in the coxed pairs, in which each rower uses one oar on either side of the boat, which is steered by a coxswain. They did not win a medal.

Hecht entered the Marines, where he was a fighter pilot, but continued his training in rowing, this time for the 1956 Summer Games in Melbourne, Australia. He and Fifer won the gold medal in pairs, this time without a coxswain, defeating the favored Soviet team by eight seconds.

He served in the Marines for another year before being hired as a commercial pilot by Pan American World Airways. But he was bored -- flying a plane, he said, was like driving a bus -- and he left after a year. He taught English at Menlo, where he also started a rowing team and coached it; soon after earning a master's in communications from Stanford in 1960, he began working as an investment adviser at the first of several firms before joining Bateman Eichler.

He continued in the investment world for a while after starting Books on Tape with four titles, including "Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback," George Plimpton's 1966 account of trying to play for the Detroit Lions, and "Zelda," Nancy Mitford's 1970 biography of Zelda Fitzgerald.

Hecht remained passionate about rowing even as he ran Books on Tape and worked in the investment world. He founded the rowing team at the University of California, Irvine, when the campus opened in 1965 and was its first coach; he left in the 1970s to coach the rowing team at UCLA for six years, then returned to Irvine, where he coached the team from 1992 to 2001.

That year, with Books on Tape's catalog at 6,000 titles, Hecht sold the company to Random House for an estimated $20 million.

After working as a consultant to Random House for about a year, he discovered that executive jobs were not plentiful for septuagenarians. So he took an odd detour: He decided to drive a long-haul truck, which he did for seven years.

"He'd had a dream since he was 16 of driving 18-wheelers," Rousseau said in a phone interview. "Who could believe it? He loved every part of it. Those were his seven happiest years."

And he spent many hours on the road listening to Books on Tape.

His marriage to Sigrid Hecht ended in divorce. In addition to Rousseau, he is survived by their daughter, Oriana Rousseau; three children from his first marriage, Katrin Bandhauer and Justin and Claus Hecht; and three grandchildren.

Duvall Hecht became aware of Rousseau, a photojournalist and painter then living in Manhattan, after she entered a contest in 1991 sponsored by Books on Tape that asked entrants to write about a book they had listened to. She didn't win, but Hecht was impressed by what she had written about "War and Peace" (which, she recalled, required 65 cassettes to complete).

He sent her a note with an audiobook about van Gogh. They continued to correspond for three years -- he sent her audiobooks and she replied with book reports -- before they met.

"I cracked the code on how to get free books," she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.