Duvall Hecht, whose daily grind to L.A. led to Books on Tape, dies at 91

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Duvall Hecht was somewhere between his banking job in Los Angeles and his home in Newport Beach when he realized he'd heard the same song for the third or fourth time. On the news stations, the daily report had grown stale and repetitive. The commercials were numbing and endless.

It was, he told The Times years later, the most "deadly two hours" in his day, a grinding commute devoid of any intellectual stimulation.

In a flurry of entrepreneurial magic, he sold his 1965 Porsche, hired a college drama coach and created what would become volume No. 1 in the soon-to-be-massive Books on Tape catalog, a recording of George's Plimpton's football tale, "Paper Lion."

"It never once seemed like a wacky idea to me," he said in 2001, shortly after selling his startup to Random House for an estimated $20 million.

Hecht, a man of varied interests, died Feb. 10 at his home in Costa Mesa, his wife, Ann Marie Rousseau, said. He was 91.

Long before he arose as a pioneer in the world of audiobooks, Hecht was a rower. A good one. He competed in the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, and four years later won gold in Melbourne, Australia.

In 1965, still filled with a passion for the sport, he persuaded Dan Aldrich, the inaugural chancellor at UC Irvine, to make rowing one of the five founding sports at the university. For decades, he remained loyal to the program as a mentor, fundraiser and coach. He also coached at UCLA and Menlo College.

Born in Los Angeles on April 23, 1930, Duvall attended Beverly Hills High School, then Stanford University, where he hoped to make the football team. But at 6 feet 1 and 185 pounds, he was deemed too light, and a coach suggested he try rowing instead.

While in the Marines, he became a fighter jet pilot and, after his discharge, a Pan Am pilot, which he found to be little better than being a bus driver, his wife said.

When he landed a job as an investment banker in downtown L.A., he sought alternatives to the radio. For a while, he set up a reel-to-reel tape recorder on the passenger seat and listened to books that had been recorded for people who were blind. When cassette tapes first arrived on the scene, he turned to those as a possibility, but could find only motivational recordings.

After recording "Paper Lion," he began placing ads in newspapers around the country and within five years sales were approaching $2 million and he had tens of thousands of customers for his audiobooks.

There were tricks to be learned, though. It could take years to secure rights from publishing houses, and the initial recordings were sometimes stilted and difficult to listen to. He began hiring actors to do the readings.

"You can’t ‘announce’ a book," he told The Times in 1983. "You have to read it with feeling, yet you don’t want to dramatize it.”

Customers would rent book tapes for 30 days, and since Hecht didn't charge a deposit, they were on an honor system to return them. For the most part, he said, customers held up their end of the bargain and mailed back the tapes.

There was a bulk factor as well. A recorded reading of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" was 70 hours long and consisted of 47 90-minute tapes, more than enough to fill a glove compartment.

After selling the company, he said he was disappointed when Random House cut his catalog of 6,000 books in half, often dropping the classics in favor of bestsellers and new releases.

“I think if I had known they were going to do that, I might not have sold them the company," he joked.

Though he'd been a pilot, an Olympian, a banker and an entrepreneur, Hecht suddenly found himself unemployable after he sold Books on Tape, and pursued a new career as a long-haul truck driver, a dream he'd had since he was 16. His wife said she'd sometimes accompany him on his cross-country trips and marveled at how much he enjoyed the open road.

"And on those trips, of course, we would listen to Books on Tape.”

Hecht is survived by his wife, Ann Marie Rousseau; daughter Oriana Rousseau; three children from his first marriage to Sigrid M. Hecht: Katrin Bandhauer, Justin Hecht and Claus Hecht; and grandchildren Lorien Bandhauer, Walter Bandhauer and Emma Lawlor.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.