Nov. 7, 1935 – April 7, 2020
From right, Alan Graber ’57, Bill Tangney ’57, and John Milton ’57 posed with Ernest Hemingway in 1955.
When William Edward Patrick Tangney ’57 died last March, he had hardly worked in more than half a century. He lived alone in an apartment in Naples, Florida, paid for largely by classmates and friends. People who saw him in recent decades said he was a diminished soul who had struggled ever since a motorbike accident in the 1960s.
Yet to his classmates, “Tangs” lived on as the shooting star they recalled from campus — a consummate adventurer, a zesty writer with a magnetic personality, an enduring reminder of a Princeton where confidence and camaraderie were coins of the realm.
“Bill didn’t accomplish anything, you could say, except being beloved,” says Turhan Tirana, the class’s longtime secretary.
Tangney was, by all accounts, a notable talent. On a Daily Princetonian staff that included several future journalism legends, Tangney “was the best of all,” says Prince reporter Alan Graber ’57. But what made Tangney stand out was his unpredictability.
As a sophomore, Tangney joined three classmates on a spring-break trip to Fort Lauderdale — detouring to Cuba to drop in on their literary hero, Ernest Hemingway. Bearing a letter of introduction from professor Carlos Baker, Hemingway’s biographer, the quartet drove to Key West, slept on the beach, took a $10 flight to Havana, and walked right into Hemingway’s place, finding the writer standing shirtless at his desk, typing.
Hemingway’s house man tried to shoo the Princetonians away, but they produced their letter from Baker, and the writer invited them to hang out poolside. A liquor cart arrived, the house man mixed martinis, and Hemingway told tales of fishing and newspapering.
Back on campus, the students wrote up their adventure for the Prince. “We pulled a real coup,” Tangs said, his stock phrase after all his gambits, such as the time he showed up at a Cannon Club party with two dancers he’d recruited from Trenton. “It seemed like his object in life was to have fun,” says Eberhard Faber IV ’57, then chairman of the Prince.
After Princeton, Tangney reported for UPI; later he was a writer for Mike Wallace, then an anchorman on the CBS Morning News. In those years, Tangney was a regular at Chumley’s and other watering holes near his Greenwich Village apartment. One night, after drinks, his motorbike hit a pothole, and he hit his head against a parked car.
“Bill being Bill, he wasn’t wearing a helmet,” says Gary Peter Gates, a colleague. “He was in the hospital for months. He did recover, but he really was never the same again.”
Classmates saw him at memorials for friends, where he would deliver rambling remarks, with flashes of his former flair. At his 25th reunion, Tangney joked that he was the only one there on scholarship: For decades, Tangney’s classmates supported him, thanks to a $2 million Classmates Fund established for those in need.
Princeton, Tangney wrote in the 1957 Bric-a-Brac, “was a place where you could very pleasantly mix a little indolence with a little effort.” But the place was becoming more egalitarian and serious — no longer, as Fitzgerald put it, “the pleasantest country club in America.”
“For the enterprising young scholar, it was a happy prospect,” Tangney wrote, “but for those of us who were wont to put down a few at the K.I. [the King’s Inn in Kingston] and to hell with midterms, it was a sad time. Our kind was dying, no question about it.”
Marc Fisher is a senior editor at The Washington Post and chair of the PAW board.