Olympic Rower Duvall Hecht Pioneered Audio Books

Commuting to his job in downtown Los Angeles in the early 1970s, Duvall Hecht got tired of listening to what he called “bad music and worse news.” He tried propping a reel-to-reel tape player on the passenger seat and listening to books for the blind.

Then Mr. Hecht, a marketing manager for a securities firm who had won a gold medal in rowing at the 1956 Olympics, hit on a business idea: recording books on cassette tapes, then becoming popular as players were installed in more cars. In 1975, Mr. Hecht set up Books on Tape Inc., using seed money partly raised by selling his 10-year-old Porsche.

He was years ahead of the later rush by big publishers to churn out abridged bestsellers, sometimes read by big-name actors. Mr. Hecht’s strategy was different: He preferred unabridged books, even if that meant several dozen tapes for “War and Peace.” He also favored little-known actors, who charged less and tended not to distract the reader with stagy vocal flourishes. Tapes were rented or sold through the mail.

“We have weavers and sculptors who rent from us,” Mr. Hecht told The Wall Street Journal in 1986. “There’s even an undertaker who listens with a tiny earpiece during funerals.”

Most of the customers, he said, were overachievers, people “crazy with frustration because they’re two hours behind the wheel and all that time is going down the sewer.”

Based in a converted sail-making loft in Costa Mesa, Calif., the business employed dozens of people and had steady demand from libraries and people who wanted to hear the whole book. Mr. Hecht sold the firm to Bertelsmann’s Random House unit in 2001 for an estimated $20 million.

Mr. Hecht died Feb. 10 at his home in Costa Mesa. He was 91.

“Listening is just returning literature to its original form, before Gutenberg got into the act,” he once said.

After selling the recorded-books business, he had trouble finding another job that interested him. The solution was to revive a boyhood dream and learn to drive long-haul trucks. After a six-month course, he began driving for a haulage company in his mid-70s and later bought his own Freightliner truck. I have spent seven years as a truck driver.

Driving a truck “is my meditation,” he told the Orange County Business Journal. “It’s solitude. You can hardly find that anymore.”

It also gave him more time to listen to books.

The son of a stockbroker, Duvall Young Hecht was born April 23, 1930, in Los Angeles. At Beverly Hills High School, he was named Most Popular Boy. After a year at Menlo College, I transferred to Stanford University, where I studied journalism. Though he did n’t make the Stanford football team, Mr. Hecht was recruited to the rowing squad and discovered one of his life’s greatest pleasures from him.

He pursued that sport while serving as a pilot in the US Marines in the mid-1950s. At the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Mr. Hecht and his partner, Jim Fifer, defeated a Russian team to win gold medals in pair-without-coxswain rowing.

He later flew for Pan American World Airways but quit after a year. It was like driving a bus, he said.

I have earned a master’s degree in communications at Stanford. He taught English at Menlo College and then went into the securities industry, following his father.

In his free time, he founded a rowing program at the University of California, Irvine, where he has served as a coach and fundraiser for decades. He also served at various times as a rowing coach at Menlo College and the University of California, Los Angeles.

After seven years of truck driving, he took a job as a financial writer at an investment firm. He also invented a scooter, dubbed the Zipper, to improve mobility for people with physical challenges. He sold only a few of them but zipped around on one in his later years.

He met Ann Marie Rousseau, a fine-arts photographer and painter, after she entered an essay contest sponsored by Books on Tape. Though she did n’t win, her entry from her caught his eye from him and led to correspondence and later a meeting between them. They married in 2002.

Ms. Rousseau survives him, along with four children and three grandchildren. Two earlier marriages ended in divorce.

He liked his Bombay gin served on ice, in a bucket glass, with two onions.

In his final holiday greeting card, he wrote: “There are still lessons to learn from life.”

Write to James R. Hagerty at bob.hagerty@wsj.com

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