Last year, in a sad twist of fate, readers finally learned the identity of a well-respected blogger who had spurned all interviews. Known simply by her childhood nickname “Tanta,” Doris Dungey, 47, was a blogger for the finance and economics blog, Calculated Risk and whose death ignited a hailstorm of blog posts.
When she succumbed to ovarian cancer in Nov. 2008, the The New York Times and The Washington Post both published obituaries honoring her work as a blogger. Through obituaries, blog posts and readers’ comments, a portrait of Tanta has taken shape, cementing her legacy as an exceptional mortgage expert and blogger.
Readers were able to put a face to Tanta’s words when her family allowed her photos to be posted on news publications. A pretty blonde with blue eyes, Tanta did not let readers identify her by her looks; instead they knew her through her knowledgeable and often acerbic analyses of the mortgage industry.
“She was a rare voice,” noted Noah Rosenblatt, vice president of Halstead Properties and the publisher of UrbanDigs.com. “Tanta discussed the inner workings of the mortgage market and the dangers that were lurking behind the scenes that no other analyst, economist or CEO would dare to discuss openly.”
Much of Tanta’s knowledge of the mortgage industry came from her experiences working as a mortgage banker for twenty years. Although she was merciless in criticizing the errors of financial experts and journalists alike, she did so under a pseudonym since she hoped one day to return to work for the mortgage industry, the Times reported.
Since her first CR blog post, back in 2006, Tanta was one of the few people who had sounded an alarm on the growing dangers behind the lending industry. In her post she criticized a report from Citigroup that predicted the mortgage industry would “rationalize” by 2007 as a warning that larger issues were looming.
“I bring all this up not just to stick it to Citicorp, but because we’ve all been asking the question lately of who will be the bagholder when the exotic/subprime mortgage problem finds a home,” wrote Dungey.
Tanta had many fans, including Federal Reserve analysts, who cited one of her posts, “Mortgage Servicing for Ubernerds,” in their report, “Understanding the Securitization of Subprime Mortgage Credit” and Paul Krugman, a Times columnist who included her quotes in his blog.
Alex Blumberg, a contributing editor for NPR’s Planet Money and a producer for the public radio program This American Life, credits Tanta for helping him understand the mortgage industry.
Blumberg and NPR’s international business and economics correspondent, Alex Davidson produced “The Giant Pool of Money,” a widely-acclaimed episode on This American Life which gave a clear explanation of the housing crisis and the factors that led to it. The episode won numerous awards, including the venerable Peabody Award.
“I didn’t know anything about mortgages or what underwriting was,” explained Blumberg. “Tanta wrote this thing called ‘The Compleat Ubernerd’ (Thirteen posts that explain the mechanisms behind mortgages) which was great for getting up to speed.”
Although Blumberg did not receive a response from Tanta when he tried to contact her, she later congratulated him after the episode aired.
“She sent me an email saying ‘good job,’ which made me really happy,” recalled Blumberg. “When I heard she had passed away, I was much sadder than I thought I would be for someone I had never spoken to and didn’t know at all. Even though she was an anonymous blogger writing under a pseudonym, there was an authenticity to what she wrote that was different.”
Not everything about Tanta was business, however. Hints about her personal taste and preferences occasionally appeared in her posts, which attentive readers eagerly picked up as clues to Tanta’s personality. In a memoriam page dedicated to Tanta created by Bill McBride, the owner of Calculated Risk, an anonymous commenter wrote:
And really, if she had a blind spot, it was she had no idea of the tremendous impact she had on her readers. Any casual mention of her likes and dislikes was seared into my memory, Van Morrison? Check. Jackson Browne? Check. ABBA? Check. ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?’ Check. Marianne Moore? Check. Ann Taylor Stores? Ha! For someone who engaged in as many and extended wide-ranging conversations with us all as she did, how could we not know her?
Other admirers have paid tribute to Dungey’s work by contributing donations on her behalf to various charities and a scholarship fund at her alma mater, Illinois State University. Dungey received a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy from ISU and a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Doris Dungey Endowed Scholarship Fund was created for ISU students with financial needs who are interested in journalism and was fully endowed within 60 days for $26,000. In addition, a bench was dedicated to Tanta and placed by the Milner Library where she often liked to read.
Usually bloggers who stop writing fade into obscurity. It is unlikely that Tanta’s reputation as a knowledgeable and well-respected blogger will follow the same fate anytime soon. In response to Krugman’s announcement that Tanta had passed away, a commenter named Paula wrote:
I discovered Tanta’s work for the CR blog last night when I was directed to it by reading her obit in the Times. I’m finding her ‘UberNerd’ series of writings on mortgage securities enormously valuable this morning. I can therefore attest that Tanta’s legacy will remain vibrant and essential even to those of us who only just met her ideas.
Photo: Courtesy of family