Books on Tape Founder Took a Novel Approach

Duvall Hecht, ’52, MA ’60

July 2022

Reading time min

Duvall Hecht standing by a semi-truck

Photo: A.M. Rousseau

Duvall Hecht was no fan of the radio. In his view, pop songs polluted the airwaves during his multihour commute; he yearned to be productive. “Work was the way to solve all problems,” says his wife, Ann Marie Rousseau. One day, an idea came to him: What if he could listen to books while driving?

His company, Books on Tape, began in 1975 with a reel-to-reel recording device in his living room. Aided by the popularization of dashboard cassette players in the late ’60s, the company became a national phenomenon that gave rise to the audiobook industry. “One customer called our tapes ‘the best invention since sex,’” Hecht told the Detroit Free Press in 1984.

Hecht, ’52, MA ’60, died on February 10 of heart failure. He was 91.

Hecht liked to say that “sports and girls” were his main subjects at Beverly Hills High School, where he was voted most popular boy. But, Rousseau says, he was also a voracious reader who entered college “bent on getting every inch out of life.” Before earning his master’s in communication from Stanford at age 30, he’d been a fighter pilot in the Marines, an Olympic gold medal–winning rower, a commercial pilot and a teacher. He later founded the rowing program at UC Irvine, became a financial writer and invented a mobility scooter called the Zipper. On weekdays, he rose at 4 a.m. to coach collegiate rowing before work, “and then he was also a night owl,” Rousseau says. Commuting the 100 mile round trip between Newport Beach and a brokerage firm in Los Angeles stoked the restlessness that drove him to start his company.

He sold his Porsche and used the money to pay lesser-known actors to record their readings of full-length books. Although no publisher thought his unabridged recordings—rented by mail order—would support a business, readers signed up in droves. “He called it the living library of sound,” says former Books on Tape CFO Ron Prowell. Hecht never understood why customers preferred popular fiction, like Tom Clancy novels, to “quality” offerings, like the classics. His favorites included biographies of Winston Churchill and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series of historical fiction. Many titles weren’t profitable, but Hecht was committed to enriching readers by offering a variety of literature. By the time he sold the company to Random House in 2001, he’d amassed 6,000 titles; many of those original recordings are still available in audiobook format today.

At 74, Hecht didn’t want to retire. Instead, he became a long-haul truck driver. “He was one of the few Stanford graduates at the Dootson School of Trucking,” his wife says, laughing. Into his 80s, he hauled heavy cargo across the country in his taxicab-colored 18-wheeler, the Yellowbird Express, happily listening his way through books on tape.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his children, Oriana Rousseau, Katrin Bandhauer, Justin and Claus, and three grandchildren.

Kali Shiloh is a staff writer at Stanford. Email her at kshiloh@stanford.edu.

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.