Ottenberg, Miriam

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Born 7 October 1914, Washington, D.C.; died December 1982

Daughter of Louis and Nettie Podell Ottenberg

Miriam Ottenberg spent two years at Goucher College near Baltimore before transferring to the University of Wisconsin, where she received a B.A. in journalism in 1935. Her first job after college was writing copy for a Chicago advertising agency. A year later, Ottenberg became a reporter in the women's department for the now-defunct Akron Times-Press.

In 1937 Ottenberg joined the Evening Star, a Washington daily. Within her first two years on the job, she launched her first full-fledged newspaper investigation. She broke page one stories and exposés consistently over the years. By 1947 Ottenberg's specialization was the investigation of crime and the conditions fostering it. According to the Star, Ottenberg probed "phony marriage counselors, a multi-state abortion ring, high food prices, juvenile crime, sex psychopaths and dope addicts." In 1958 the Washington law enforcement community honored Ottenberg with a testimonial reception and a plaque crediting her contributions.

When her "Buyer Beware" series broke in the Star in November 1959, it presented three months of painstaking investigation. Alerting the U.S. Congress to the shabby practices of unscrupulous used car dealers and finance companies, the articles led to wide-ranging legislation outlawing the unethical practices she revealed. Her work on the seven-part series brought Ottenberg a Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1960. Only four women had won the award since its inception more than 40 years before.

In 1963 another page one scoop was printed not only by the Star but by most other major U.S. newspapers as well. Here Ottenberg introduced the public to an evil underworld empire called the Cosa Nostra—"Our Thing"—better known then as the Mafia. Newspapers across the country ran her story on Joseph Valachi's testimony, significant because it was the first time an insider was willing to talk and confirm the group's existence.

Ottenberg's newspaper copy, always direct and crisp, is lucid, logical, and highly readable. She spoke with authority, and her writing, which focuses on how the individual is affected, makes what might be an impersonal situation personally interesting to the reader. The Federal Investigators (1962) employs the same combination of vibrant language and swiftly moving action. Ottenberg presents vignettes of 17 federal investigatory agencies, each dedicated to the safety and security of the American public. Tales of high excitement and intrigue illustrate the individual organizations, ranging from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to the Postal Inspection Service.

Retiring on disability in 1974 after a 34-year career with the Star, Ottenberg in her "semiretirement" worked harder than ever as a writer and lecturer. In 1978 her study of her own disease, multiple sclerosis, was published. She used well-learned investigative reporting techniques for a three-year inquiry including over 100 interviews with victims of the disease and innumerable medical experts. The Pursuit of Hope has been hailed as the first comprehensive book on the disease.


Hohenberg, J., The New Front Page (1966). Marzolf, M., Up from the Footnote (1977).

Reference works:

CA (1969). Foremost Women in Communication (1970).

Other references:

NYT (3 May 1960). Washington Star (2 May 1960). Wisconsin Alumnus (July 1960).