Miriam Ottenberg Papers, 1931-1982


Miriam Ottenberg was born in Washington, D.C. on October 7, 1914. Her father, Louis Ottenberg, was an attorney; her mother, Nettie Podell Ottenberg (1887-1982), a Russian emigree, was an active woman suffragist who later became known as “Mrs. Day Care” for her efforts on behalf of better child care services. Miriam had a sister, Regina Ottenberg Greenhill, and one brother, Louis Ottenberg, Jr.

Miriam Ottenberg graduated from Central High School in Washington, D.C. in 1931, and attended Goucher College, Columbia University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, from which she graduated with a B.A. in journalism in 1935. While in Madison, she wrote for the student newspaper, The Daily Cardinal. After graduation she worked as a copywriter for a Chicago advertising agency, Neisser-Meyerhoff (1935-36) and as a reporter for the women's department of the Akron (Ohio) Times until she joined the staff of the Washington Star in 1937.

Ottenberg was the first woman news reporter at the Star, where previously women had written primarily for the woman's page. Ottenberg began her career by covering public service and charity campaigns, such as the Community Chest, and other human interest stories. By the beginning of World War II, she was covering all the major murder stories in the city. During the war she also covered the draft, civil defense, and mobilization.

In 1947, Ottenberg began specializing in investigative crime reporting, eventually becoming a noted pioneer in the field. Her first professional recognition came in 1953, when she was named co-winner of the Washington Newspaper Guild competition for public service articles. She won honorable mention awards in the same category in 1954 and 1958, and in 1959 she won first place in the local news category for her stories on an abortion ring and on murders of women. In an unusual tribute, in May 1958, capital police, jurists, and local and federal government officials held a party to pay tribute to Ottenberg's efforts against crime.

In 1960 Ottenberg won the Pulitzer Prize (and the Bill Pryor Award of the Washington Newspaper Guild) for her series on used car fraud, “Buyer Beware.” Over the years she became known as the “Beware Girl” for her continued investigations of consumer fraud. Her award-winning series included “Homeowners Beware,” “Investors Beware,” “Traveler Beware,” and a series on local stock market abuses. In 1967 she exposed debt-consolidating firms in her series, “Debtor Beware.” To collect information for numerous stories, Ottenberg often donned disguises. The first incidence of this occurred when, in order to expose an adoption racket, she and a fellow reporter posed as a married couple seeking to adopt a child. From about 1966 to 1968, Ottenberg served as editor of “Action Line,” one of the first regular newspaper sections that investigated consumer complaints.

In 1962 Ottenberg published The Federal Prosecutors (Prentice-Hall), a book about the FBI. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, with whom she had developed a working relationship and mutual respect after years of reporting on the activities of the Department of Justice, wrote the forward. Ottenberg was one of the first reporters to reveal that the Mafia was an organized crime network. Her 1963 story on Joe Valachi, the mobster who subsequently blew the whistle on the Mafia, presented a new view of organized crime in America. Ottenberg's stories on crime influenced the enactment of at least five new laws: 1) a law allowing police to arrest and search persons believed to be carrying concealed weapons; 2) a law providing stiffer penalties for sex crimes against children, and hospitalization for sexual psychopaths not legally insane; 3) an omnibus law giving law enforcement officers various weapons to combat crime; 4) a law to hospitalize dope addicts; and 5) a law providing mandatory commitment for persons found not guilty of crime by reason of their insanity.

The Women's National Press Club elected Ottenberg president in 1964. She served a one-year term, and maintained an interest in the role of women in journalism, later speaking on the topic a number of times. She was given awards for distinction by the National Council of Jewish Women in 1963 and by the American Association of University Women in 1975.

Ottenberg retired in 1974 due to vision problems and failing health related to multiple sclerosis. (Ottenberg had contracted MS in 1944 at the age of 30, although it was not diagnosed until 1967 or revealed to her until 1971.) During her retirement she began investigating the disease, lecturing extensively, appearing on talk shows, and writing articles on the subject. She also began gathering information and individual accounts of coping with the disease. From this she produced her second book, The Pursuit of Hope (Rawson, Wade Pub.) in 1978. In 1979 she won the Hope Chest Award from the National Capital Chapter of the National MS Society.

On June 10, 1981, Ottenberg was inducted into the Washington Hall of Fame of the Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi. In the same year the Star printed its last edition. Ottenberg, who had helped write the centennial history of the paper in 1952 and who had maintained an interest in its history, collected information and wrote an article about one of the Star's distinguished editors and personal friend, I. William Hill.

After 1980 Ottenberg spent her last years living in an apartment next door to her mother. She died of cancer on November 10, 1982.