Books on Tape founder Duvall Hecht dies; The audiobook pioneer was 91

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Mr. Hecht was an Olympic gold medalist in rowing, a Marine Corps pilot and, with the founding of Books on Tape in 1975, an entrepreneur who harnessed the still-new technology of cassette tapes to offer bibliophiles a new way to explore literature.

He was working at a brokerage firm in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, commuting about an hour at each end of his workday, when he became “frantic”, he told the Los Angeles Times, to escape his daily misery on the road.

The radio, he said, offered little more than “bad music and worse news”. He found some solace in recorded books for the blind, which he played on a reel machine that rode like a passenger in his Porsche. (The tapes, still in their infancy, would soon explode in popularity.)

Surely, Mr. Hecht thought as he navigated highways jammed with commuters who shared his misery, others might enjoy listening to books on tape.

Books on Tape became the official name of his business, which he started in 1975 with the help of his first wife, Sigrid, and with seed money from the sale of his Porsche. The company made him, in the description of the trade publication Publishers Weekly, “the first major supplier of books recorded on tape”.

Mr. Hecht was not the first person to record audio versions of books. Besides books for the blind, he said, one could find recordings of books offering instructions in foreign languages, Bible recitations, inspirational and self-help manifestos and advice to sellers on how to conclusion of an agreement.

But “I wanted something that would get me through life today,” he told The Times. “I wanted modern and current literature.

Mr. Hecht insisted that Books on Tape customers not receive any abstracts. Only complete works, as conceived by their authors, would do. Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” counted 45 strips. But it was complete.

To make the recordings affordable, Mr. Hecht’s company offered them for mail-order rental. Books on Tape catered to libraries and schools, but also cultivated a private tenant base that is believed to have reached 85,000.

Mr. Hecht’s daughter described the business as a family business, with her parents working together and the children duplicating tapes and preparing them for shipment to customers.

Just as readers have a special affection for certain writers, some Books on Tape listeners have declared loyalty to certain storytellers. Mr. Hecht hired well-trained actors, but not necessarily the more expensive big-name names that other publishing houses hired for consumer audiobooks.

Tape books advertised in scholarly publications including The New Yorker magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and Smithsonian magazine. According to Mr. Hecht’s account, the company catered to the “absolute top 5% of the socio-economic structure.”

While other publishers offered abridged versions of new releases such as Elmore Leonard’s thriller “Glitz” and Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca’s best-selling autobiography, Hecht noted, Books on Tape produced complete recordings of works such as Winston Churchill’s 1899 book “The River”. War: a historical account of the reconquest of the Sudan.

“We’re out here in this meadow cutting some tender succulent grass, and they’re out in a field,” Mr. Hecht told The Times in 1985, “cutting each other’s throats and fighting for shelf space. “.

(Over the years, Books on Tape has also provided attractions such as the legal thrillers “The Burden of Proof” by Scott Turow and “The Client” by John Grisham.)

Opponents claimed that recorded books were no substitute for hardcover books and that audio books would lead to a devaluation of literature. Mr. Hecht harbored no such fear and reminded skeptics of the long oral tradition of literature.

“Listening is just taking literature back to its original form, before Gutenberg came on the scene,” he once told the Journal, referring to the 15th-century craftsman considered the father of the modern printing press.

Although he originally envisioned his business as serving commuters consigned to hours of daily traffic jams, Books on Tape has proven a welcome presence in other settings as well.

“We have weavers and carvers who rent from us,” he told the Journal in 1986. “There’s even an undertaker who listens with a little earpiece during the funeral.”

Books on Tape had amassed 5,000 titles by 2001, when it was sold to Random House for $20 million. According to the Audio Publishers Association, audiobook industry revenue reached $1.3 billion in 2020.

Duvall Young Hecht was born in Los Angeles on April 23, 1930. His father was an investment banker and his mother was a homemaker.

Mr. Hecht had hoped to play football at Stanford University, but he was too small to make the team. His physique proved more suited to rowing, the sport that would take him to two Olympics.

He competed in the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, the same year he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Stanford. After college, he joined the Marine Corps but continued his training as a rower. He and a teammate, James Fifer, won gold in the coxless pair event at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.

Mr. Hecht received a master’s degree in journalism from Stanford in 1960 and remained in the Marine Corps Reserve until 1966. Trained as a fighter pilot, he briefly flew for Pan Am airways before entering investment banking in Los Angeles. He continued that career until the mid-1980s, his daughter said, by which time Books on Tape was successful enough to pay him and his wife a salary.

Mr. Hecht founded the rowing program at the University of California, Irvine and also coached for periods at Menlo College in Atherton, Calif., and the University of California, Los Angeles.

After selling Books on Tape, he became a truck driver, before buying his own platform. His long commutes gave him more time to listen to recorded books.

Mr. Hecht’s marriage to the former Sigrid Janda ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 19 years, Ann Marie Rousseau of Costa Mesa; three children from his first marriage, Katrin Bandhauer of Orange, California, Justin Hecht of San Francisco, and Claus Hecht of Laguna Beach, California; a daughter of his marriage to Rousseau, Oriana Rousseau of Costa Mesa; and three grandchildren.

Although Books on Tape offered recordings of books in all genres, Mr. Hecht had a soft spot for historical works, particularly World War II, and accounts of Churchill’s life. Another of his pleasures was Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series of novels about the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.

In an interview, Mr Hecht’s daughter recalled listening with her father to the island adventures of “Robinson Crusoe” on the reel to reel that had been used in his Porsche. She said that if they got home before a chapter was finished, they would sit in the aisle and continue listening until the end of the passage.

In poetic irony, she said she heard from many Books on Tape customers who said they did the same. Having found so much pleasure in listening to recorded books, they have extended, if only for a few minutes, the journeys they once dreaded.


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