Jean Harris (photo NPR)
A distraught Jean Harris paid one last visit to her estranged lover, Dr. Herman Tarnower, intending to take her own life but ended up shooting him when the famed “Diet Doc” tried to wrest the handgun from her. What should have been ruled an accidental death or, at most, involuntary manslaughter, led instead to Harris’s wrongful conviction of murder.
by Denise Noe
On March 10, 1980, the bestselling Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet by Dr. Herman Tarnower received a publicity boost. Tarnower could not enjoy the fruits of it since it was his killing. Called “The Headmistress and the Diet Doc,” the case grabbed international headlines because of the social prominence of Tarnower’s slayer, Jean Harris, the 56-year-old headmistress of the exclusive Madeira School, as well as that of the victim.
In addition, as Diana Trilling observes in Mrs. Harris, “To many women . . . it had only to be known that Tarnower had replaced his mistress of 14 years with a woman 20 years her junior and more than 30 years younger than himself for Jean Harris to be regarded as embattled female spirit.” Trilling continues, “Whoever had known sexual jealousy, that most destructive of emotions – and this would be so for men no less than for women – had known madness” and could sympathize with Jean Harris.
Prominent feminist Betty Friedan saw no feminist implications in the case and derided Harris as a “pathetic masochist” for sticking with Dr. Tarnower after their relationship soured.
As most facts emerged about the case, it was learned that Jean Harris had for years suffered a gnawing sense of being “inadequate” and that she believed she could no longer be “useful” as a human being. Long divorced and with her sons grown, she was terrified of a jobless old age. Her romance with Tarnower had led to her suffering for years under a campaign of extraordinary harassment. By the night of March 10, 1980, she felt that there was nothing solid in her life as both personally and professionally she was being shoved aside. There was overwhelming evidence that she wanted to end her own life.
The Boy from Brooklyn and the Lady from Cleveland
The man who would author a best-selling diet book but become even more famous in death was born Herman Tarnower in Brooklyn in 1910, into a Jewish immigrant family. He finished his premedical training in two years instead of the usual four. In 1936, he opened a Scarsdale, New York office.
A lifelong bachelor, he hired husband and wife Henri and Suzanne Van der Vreken in 1964 to run his house. In the spring of 1966, Tarnower was at a dinner party when he found himself smitten with divorcée Jean Harris, mother of two teenagers. Days later, Harris was bedridden because back trouble flared. Tarnower surprised her with a get-well present, the book Masada, about finds at the ancient Israelite fortress where, in A.D. 73, Jewish men, women, and children committed suicide rather than accept defeat by Rome. “It’s time you knew more about the Jews,” the card said.
Tarnower showered Harris with cards, presents, and calls. The woman who inspired his attention was born Jean Struven in Cleveland, Ohio in 1923, the second of the three daughters of Albert and Mildred Struven. Albert Struven was a civil engineer and vice-president of the Arthur G. McKee, Inc., construction firm. He had a terrible temper, exploding into rage over such problems as a broken light bulb or stalled car. Jean admired her father for his brilliance but feared his tirades. Mildred sometimes called Jean “Miss Infallible” for her self-righteousness.
In high school, Jean won a prize for her essay, “The Man I Took For Granted.” It refers to Life With Father by Clarence Day when she writes, “Oh, Mr. Day, had I your talent with which to tell the story of an equally deserving father! I have not the eloquence to bring it forth. Or perhaps this realization is not entirely an appreciation of father, but a step toward appreciating men in general. It is possible that some day my subject will be, not ‘The Man I Took For Granted,’ but ‘The Man Who Took Me For Granted.’”
When they married, Jean was 23 and Jim Harris, 27. Jean later recalled thinking quiet Jim a nice contrast to blustering Dad.
David Harris was born in 1950 and Jimmie in 1952. In 1964, Jean, feeling stifled in her passionless marriage, divorced Jim.
Jean moved from school teaching to school administration, getting a job as director of the Middle School at Springside, a private school in a Philadelphia suburb. She was working at Springside when she met Tarnower at a dinner party given by Jean’s close friend Marge Jacobson. Jackson described the attraction of Harris and Tarnower as “Instant take!”
Within months of meeting Harris, Tarnower gave her a diamond ring and proposed marriage. She enthusiastically accepted. However, the wedding was delayed – by Harris. She explained to a friend, “I cannot marry Hy for a year. I cannot take those children out of school again.”
As that year passed so did Tarnower’s interest in marriage, something Harris would discover when she pressed him for a new wedding date. In a phone call Harris told Tarnower, “School is going to start, and I have to know where I am to start, and I have to know where I am going to be living, and where the children are going to be in school.” Tarnower replied, “Jean, I can’t go through with it. I’m afraid of it. I can’t go through with it and I’m sorry.” She mailed the ring back.
Harris and Tarnower continued dating despite Harris’s feeling of discomfort in a relationship that could not lead to marriage. Her strongly held and old-fashioned morality inevitably gnawed at her even as she gave in to her love for Tarnower.
Springside’s headmistress retired in 1970 and Harris hoped she would be the replacement. She was not. Harris then learned the Thomas School in Rowayton, Connecticut was searching for a headmistress. She applied and was hired. Rowayton is about a half hour’s drive from Tarnower’s Purchase, New York home.
On April 26, 1973, Harris celebrated her 50th birthday with sons David and Jimmie. Tarnower was not there. He had long ceased telling Harris he loved her. Instead, as Shana Alexander writes in her book, Very Much A Lady, he repeatedly told Harris, “I don’t love anyone and I don’t need anyone.” He seemed oddly oblivious to the pain this caused her since she was adamant in acknowledging that she loved him deeply. Then again, perhaps he was aware of it and just did not care.
Nasty Phone Calls
At about this time, Lynne Tryforos, a separated mother of two small daughters, became Tarnower’s secretary/receptionist. Although he was 30 years older than Tryforos, Tarnower soon began an affair with her.
In 1974, Harris and others worked out a plan in which the Thomas School merged with another school, a move Harris believed necessary to solve Thomas’s financial troubles.
In 1975, Harris began receiving anonymous phone calls at her home. The caller would graphically describe Tarnower having sex with another woman, jeer at Harris that she should take sex lessons, called her “old and pathetic” and suggested she “roll over and die.”
During this same time period, Harris often received a message at work that she should call a number. She called the number and found she had called Tryforos. Tryforos would demand Harris quit harassing her, changing her unlisted phone number several times. Each time it changed, it was sent to Harris. Harris consulted with a private detective and with two phone company employees in an unsuccessful effort to stop both the anonymous calls to her house and the calls to her work leaving messages to call a certain number that was inevitably the unlisted phone number of Lynne Tryforos. Unable to track down the source of these calls, Harris felt besieged by them. Her sleep was frequently disturbed, leaving her fatigued the next day, and she was made terribly anxious and self-conscious.
Shortly after making the deal that merged Thomas with another school, Harris was hired by the Allied Maintenance Corporation in New York City to write bids for industrial cleaning contracts. Although she now lived over an hour’s drive away from Tarnower, she continued to visit him on some weekends. She was at his home sunbathing in July 1976 when Tryforos and daughters, Electra and Laura, showed up. The children jumped into the pool while their mother started painting garden furniture.
Harris asked, “Does it not seem bizarre to you, Lynne, that you are here painting his furniture while I am here?”
Tryforos stared and said nothing. Harris said, “Lynne, why in hell are you here?”
“I’m here because I’m allowed to be,” she answered.
“Not while I’m here, Lynne,” Harris said.
Tryforos and daughters left.
Tarnower was negligent in keeping evidence of a visit from one woman away from the other. When Harris visited Tarnower, items belonging to Tryforos often confronted Harris. Despite Tarnower’s indifference to her pain, as well as his repeated insistence that he loved no one, Harris could not bring herself to end the relationship.
That same July, Harris learned that the Madeira School in McLean, Virginia sought a headmistress. On December 15, 1976, Harris, then 53, was appointed Madeira School headmistress. She moved into an on-campus house in Virginia in 1977. She continued to see Tarnower even though it meant a drive of about six hours.
At Madeira, the new headmistress quickly became known as “Integrity Jean” because in her lectures on morals and ethics she often mentioned the word “integrity.”
The Making of a Best-Seller
Since overweight can cause heart problems, Tarnower had for years been giving patients diet advice mimeographed on a single page. That page advised eating a high-protein, low-carbohydrate, low-fat, low-sugar diet, and teetotalling.
In the late 1970s, Bantam Books President Oscar Dystel suggested Tarnower write a book based on his sheet. He suggested Samm Sinclair Baker, a practiced self-help book writer, as co-author.
Tarnower and Baker, together with the Van der Vrekens, Harris, and Tryforos, expanded the one page into a book. Alexander writes, “Tarnower talked, Samm took notes, wrote them up, and returned them to the doctor for revisions. Suzanne Van der Vreken created and tested new recipes. Jean Harris read sections of the manuscript, often re-writing parts in her own hand. Lynne Tryforos sometimes took manuscripts in Jean’s handwriting and corrected and clarified portions for the typist. Recipes appeared with names like Mustard Sauce Henri, Borscht Suzanne, and Spinach Delight à la Lynne.
When published in 1978, The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet by Dr. Herman Tarnower and Samm Sinclair Baker shot to the top of the bestseller lists. At the beginning of the book, Dr. Tarnower explains what he sees as the reason for the popularity of his diet in two words that he italicizes: “It works.”
Dieters were advised to go on the Scarsdale Medical Diet (SMD) for a period of 14 days. They should be on it no less than that for best weight-loss results and no more than that to maintain maximum health. After the two weeks of SMD, they were advised to switch to the less restrictive Keep-Trim Diet (KTD). The book states, “The average person’s food intake contains approximately 10-15 percent protein, variations of between 40-45 percent fat and 40-50 percent carbohydrates.” By contrast, the SMD “averages 1,000 calories or less per day and averages 43 percent protein, 22.5 percent fat, and 34.5 percent carbohydrates.”
When the book appeared, Baker was upset over the first sentence on the acknowledgments page: “We are grateful to Jean Harris for her splendid assistance in the research and writing of this book.” Baker thought her contributions did not merit such prominence and called Tarnower to object. Alexander writes that Tarnower stood firm, “Samm, please leave it just as it is,” but then added gently, “I like to make people feel good and I want to make her feel good.”
In October 1978, Harris bought a handgun, telling the store clerk it was for “self-protection.” Later, she explained, “I felt if I couldn’t function anymore, I could handle it.” Alexander reports that Harris believed she had picked the one weapon likely to end in her suicide rather than rendering her disabled as she also said, “A gun was the one way I knew I wouldn’t mess it up.”
Harris suffered a major trauma in March 1979. Returning from a trip with Tarnower, Harris found the clothes that she had left in a closet in his home destroyed. Duncan Spencer writes in Love Gone Wrong: The Jean Harris Scarsdale Murder Case, “Suzanne [Van der Vreken] said, ‘[Harris] found her clothes ripped and slashed . . . One sleeve was ripped from the body of a dress, there was a slash in every dress and all of the dresses there were slashed and ripped.’ Suzanne went on to say that Mrs. Tryforos had visited the Tarnower house before the doctor and the headmistress returned from Jamaica.” Reluctant to complain right after their vacation, Harris said nothing to Tarnower – even though one-third of her wardrobe had been viciously destroyed.
This was not the only time Harris found her property destroyed. On one occasion, she found a nightgown covered with orange stains. Even more upsettingly, she found a new dress still in its box, no longer folded, but rolled up and smeared with human feces.
Harris believed Tarnower was responsible for the cost of these two damaged items of apparel. She also knew he kept two wallets filled with cash. She took money that would cover the cost of the two destroyed items from one of those wallets.
In Christmas 1979, Harris and Tarnower vacationed in Palm Beach, Florida. Harris writes in Stranger in Two Worlds, “We were there for two very happy weeks. Mrs. Tryforos outdid herself this time. In addition to phone calls and telegrams, she placed an ad on the front page of The New York Times to tell the doctor, long distance, that she loved him forever. It was something that might be considered ‘cute’ if you could spare the $250 that it cost, if you were in your teens, and if the person you addressed it to wasn’t a 69-year-old man spending a two week vacation with another woman. Under the circumstances it would be hard to imagine anything more tasteless and deliberately mean.” Harris continues that Tarnower reacted with “horror” and exclaimed, “Jesus! I hope none of my friends see it.”
Harris writes that she thought, “I’m your friend, Hy, and I see it.” However, she tried to make light of her pain by saying, “Why don’t you have her try the Goodyear blimp next time, Herm?”
Troubling Times at Madeira
In 1979, just over two years into Harris’s tenure as headmistress, the Madeira Board hired professional school consultants Russell R. Browning Associates to examine how the school rated with potential donors. In May 1979, the Browning Report was complete. Shana Alexander reports, “One director said Jean Harris was the most controversial head of school in the nation.”
The report quoted one parent saying, “Mrs. Harris doesn’t care what she says, and isn’t careful to whom she says it.” It also criticized her lack of ability to handle disciplinary situations effectively, a shortcoming that one “friend” of the school said caused several sets of Madeira parents to try to dissuade prospective new families from applying.
While the report quoted people who made positive comments about Harris, its recommendation was to “get rid of Jean Harris immediately” and install an interim headmistress while searching for her replacement.
The board voted to ignore the Browning suggestion.
Nonetheless, the report devastated the emotionally fragile Harris. She now believed it was likely only a matter of time before she lost her job. It seemed like everything in her life was slipping away from her. Her boys were grown and out of the house. The man she deeply and desperately loved only tolerated her. She was being repeatedly and cruelly harassed. Now she feared losing her job. There seemed to be nothing solid in her life, nothing on which she could depend.
On September 18, 1979, a Madeira clique that called itself the “Brazen Hussies” played a prank that misfired. A member accidentally poured caustic toilet bowl cleaner instead of shampoo over the heads of new members. One girl’s face was badly burned. Harris drove the girl to the hospital. When the injured girl returned to Madeira, she became Harris’s special protégée and friend.
In March 1980, a Madeira official informed Harris about marijuana use in a dorm. “I’ll have a talk with the house mother,” Harris said. The official stated that the house mother was said to be involved. Room searches were made. Marijuana seeds and stems were found along with paraphernalia.
The girls in those rooms were taken to a meeting of both adult officials and Student Council members. Some students said, “If you’re not expelled for this, what do you have to do to get thrown out of this place?” Others said this activity was so common it made no sense to make a big deal out of it.
Harris sided with kids who believed the malefactors should be expelled. A vote was taken and four seniors were expelled only two months before graduation. A student protest developed, leading to a rally in support of them.
In the immediate wake of this blow-up, Harris wrote Tarnower a long, rambling letter in which she pled for his affection and complained about the wrongs she claimed Tryforos had perpetrated. She told him about having 1/3 of her wardrobe slashed and ripped, about finding a nightgown covered with orange stains, and a dress smeared with excrement. She told him about years of being repeatedly awakened in the middle of the night by a jeering caller.
The Fateful Day
On the morning of March 10, 1980, Harris read a letter from the girl who was injured in the Brazen Hussies incident. The teenager wrote, “This isn’t a ‘hate’ letter at all. I just feel that you are not handling the situation correctly.” The girl said people knew pot smoking was common so punishing four with expulsion was “hypocritical.” This gentle criticism from a girl Harris had singled out for protection and special friendship devastated the headmistress. Spencer reports that Harris showed the letter to Madeira’s second-in-command, Kathleen Johnson, and to English teacher Ruth Katz. Johnson, who later took over as Madeira’s acting headmistress, recalled, “It’s too bad that letter upset her.” Johnson said the letter appeared to have an extraordinarily traumatic effect on Harris. “It was as though she had something pulled down in front of her eyes,” Johnson commented. “She hadn’t understood what we had said to her.”
According to Spencer, Katz recalled, “I simply came down the hall to wish her a pleasant holiday, and I observed her over the letter. It was clear to me that Mrs. Harris was weary and discouraged; numb and very quiet – maybe glazed.” Sympathetic to the “drain” Katz saw in Harris, she gathered a bunch of daisies and placed them on the seat of Harris’s car.
The critical letter from a girl Harris had aided and taken under her wing led Harris to a terrible decision. Later, she said in a courtroom, “It sort of put a box on my life.” Spencer reports Harris recalling, “If she thinks I’ve failed her, too [like the board, like Tarnower, like the students], I’ve really blown the whole thing. I’ve failed everyone. I was doing the best I could do; it just wasn’t enough. I didn’t have the strength to do more.”
She decided that she had failed completely and had no reason to live.
Shots in the Night
At 5:16 p.m., she called Tarnower.
“Hy, it’s been a bad few weeks,” she said. “I’d like to come and talk to you for a few minutes.”
He replied that a niece was coming for dinner.
“That’s all right,” Harris said. “She always leaves early. I couldn’t get there before 10:30.”
“It would be more convenient if you came tomorrow,” Hy said.
“I won’t be able to see you tomorrow,” she said. “Please, just this once, let me say when.”
“Suit yourself,” he replied.
After that phone call, Harris picked up the gun. She loaded it, trying to ensure all chambers were filled.
Harris felt she no longer had anything to offer and could no longer function. Thus, she would die. Her death would be peaceful. She would enjoy a last few minutes with Tarnower, talking with him and feeling “safe” one last time. Then should would go to the pond on his property, the one around which the lovely daffodils grew, and shoot herself.
Her drive was oddly peaceful for she knew what she would do and how her life would end. At one point she thought, “What if Hy says something to spoil my resolve to die?” Then she thought, “I won’t let him know what I’m going to do, I won’t stay too long, and I won’t let him spoil my resolve.”
She knew the dedicated doctor was used to getting up in the middle of the night to help people.
She arrived at 10:45 p.m. She expected the front door would be unlocked but it was not. Holding her pocketbook and the daisies she had found in her car, she went through the garage as she often had before and up the circular stairway. “Hy,” she called. “Hy, Hy.”
Harris heard him stirring. She sat on the bed that was “hers” when she stayed at his house. She turned on the light and saw Tarnower in his blue pajamas.
“I thought you’d put a lamp in the window,” she said. “It’s black as pitch out there.”
Tarnower angrily barked, “Jesus, it’s the middle of the night and you wake me up!”
“I only want to talk, Hy, and I won’t be long.”
“I don’t feel like talking in the middle of the night,” he answered.
“I brought you some flowers,” she said. “Have you written any more on the book?” Tarnower had decided to write another book, this one on the subject of longevity.
“Shut up and go to bed,” he said. “I don’t want to talk.”
“Won’t you really talk to me for a little while?” she begged.
“There’s a shawl here,” Harris said. “I want to be sure Kathleen [a daughter-in-law] has it. I’ll just get it.”
Harris headed for the nearest bathroom. She turned on the light and saw a greenish blue satin negligee. Believing the owner of that item had destroyed Harris’s clothes, she picked up the negligee and took it to Hy’s bedroom where Harris tossed it on the floor.
Denied the final “safe” feeling she craved, Harris returned to the bathroom where she was confronted by a box of hair curlers she knew to be those of Tryforos. Harris threw the box and it crashed into a side window.
Tarnower jumped up from bed. When Harris walked back into the bedroom, he struck her across the mouth. She ran back to the bathroom, picked up another box, and tossed it so it smashed a mirror.
She went back to the bedroom and he struck her again on the mouth.
Harris felt all agitation drain out. The last few minutes of pleasant talk were not to be. Why bother with going to the pond? She sat on “her” bed and pulled her hair behind her ears. She raised her face to Tarnower, shut her eyes, and urged, “Hit me again, Hy. Make it hard enough to kill me.”
“Get out of here,” he growled. “You’re crazy!”
“Never mind,” she said. “I’ll do it myself.” She zipped open her pocketbook and took out the gun. She raised it to her head. Tarnower lunged at her, knocking the gun down, and making it go off in the process. Spencer writes, “The bullet passed through the web of [Tarnower’s] palm, through a solid inch of muscle, striking no bone, no important nerves or ligaments or tendons, and half-spent, struck Tarnower’s chest wall, hitting the clavicle or collarbone and clipping the vena cava, a large blood vessel returning blood to the heart. The bullet then stopped, having penetrated the chest wall less than an inch.”
Tarnower shouted, “Jesus Christ! Look what you did!” Then he went to the bathroom to treat the (relatively minor) wound. Spencer notes, “There is one lapse in Tarnower’s reaction that merits examination. He knocked the gun out of Harris’s hand even at the expense of the shot to his own hand. But then, having painfully gotten control of the situation, he didn’t take advantage of it by getting the gun and throwing it out the window, unloading it, tossing it down the spiral staircase, or merely hanging onto it with his good hand while he took a close look at the wounds in the bathroom. The logical, consistent explanation is that he knew the first shot had been fired by mistake.”
While Tarnower was in the bathroom, Harris was on her knees looking for the gun under “her” bed. She pulled it out. Tarnower was back. He grabbed her upper arm tightly, causing her to drop it. With the gun in Tarnower’s wounded right hand, he moved to the head of “his” bed and buzzed for his servants. That he buzzed with his left hand and held the gun in his right is provable, as Spencer observes, “by the fact that blood was found on the gun and the bed and none on the buzzer.”
A desperate Harris begged, “Hy, please give me the gun, or shoot me yourself, but for Christ’s sake let me die.”
“Jesus, Jean, you’re crazy, get out of here!” Tarnower shouted.
She pulled herself up and grabbed for the gun. Tarnower left the buzzer to grab her wrist. He lunged forward. She believed she had the gun in her control. She felt what she believed was the muzzle in her belly and pulled the trigger. Despite the loud noise, Harris thought, “My God! That didn’t hurt at all! I should have done it long ago.”
Tarnower fell back. Harris jumped up. She ran out of his reach. She put the gun to her head. She took a very deep breath that she expected to be her last breath and pulled the trigger. The gun clicked.
Astounded, because she was sure she had filled all chambers, she lowered the gun and gazed at it. She pulled the trigger. Boom! A shot rang out. She raised the gun to her head again. She repeatedly pulled the trigger and empty chambers repeatedly clicked.
One thing that must be noted is that Harris could only recall pulling the trigger twice at times when Tarnower was shot. She remembered the time when he brought her hand down from her head, making it go off and into his hand. She remembered consciously firing at herself when she believed the muzzle was poking in her belly, a shot that probably went through Tarnower’s arm.
However, all doctors who examined his corpse believed he was shot at least three times. Most believe he was shot four times. Harris simply could not recall or account for those shots. She may have had a temporary blackout when they were struggling.
She ran to her coat. She knew there were bullets in a pocket. The coat was beside the bedroom TV. She retrieved the coat but realized the gun was full of spent cartridges. She could not put fresh bullets in until the cartridges were out. Harris went to the bathroom to try unloading the cartridges by banging the gun against the bathtub. The bathtub was chipped by her efforts but no cartridges dislodged and the gun flew out of her hand and into the tub.
Harris went back to the bedroom where she saw Tarnower. Harris shouted, “Somebody turn on the goddamn lights! I’m going for help!”
She ran into the rain, got in her car, and raced out of Dr. Tarnower’s driveway. As she began to turn into a parking lot with a phone booth, a police car flashing its lights bore down on her. Making a U-turn, she headed back toward the Tarnower residence. The police car followed. Both cars pulled up in front of that house. Harris jumped out and ran over to the police officer. She shouted, “Hurry up! He’s been shot!” As they ran up steps, Henri Van der Vrekan shouted, “She’s the one! She did it!”
Suzanne Van der Vrekan joined Harris and the police officer in the doctor’s bedroom. Shana Alexander writes in Very Much A Lady “Herman Tarnower was now on his knees between the two beds, slumped against the white telephone, its bloody receiver dangling down. With Suzanne’s help, the police officer gently laid the wounded man down on his back between the beds.” The cop ran downstairs for emergency oxygen as Suzanne took the doctor’s hand and softly spoke to him. Harris caressed his face and wailed, “Oh, Hi, why didn’t you kill me?”
Additional police officers rushed to the scene. Harris admitted she shot Tarnower but said she meant to kill herself. Harris refused medical attention for the bruise near her eye and for the swelling on her upper lip.
Detective Arthur Siciliano asked, “Who had control of the gun?”
“I don’t know,” Harris replied.
“Who owned the gun?” he asked.
“It’s mine,” she said.
“Who did the shooting? Do you recall holding the gun?”
“I recall holding the gun and shooting him in the hand,” she answered.
A stretcher with an unconscious and bloodied Herman Tarnower on it was carried past.
Long-time Harris friends Leslie and Marge Jacobson were asleep in their Manhattan home when awakened by Harris’s call. “Leslie, I think I’ve killed Hi,” Harris said.
Charged with Murder
“Do not utter another word!” he ordered. Leslie dressed to meet Harris and told Marge to phone an attorney who worked with Leslie, William Riegelman, and tell him to rush to the police station to see Harris. Riegelman did and found Harris being booked for aggravated assault. Her white blouse was streaked with blood and she was badly bruised on her mouth and right eye. A call came in from St. Agnes Hospital. Tarnower had been pronounced dead and, at the police station, the charge against Harris increased to second-degree murder, the most serious possible in New York unless the victim is a police officer or prison officer on duty.
Friends recommended respected attorney Joel Aurnou. Aurnou met her. A sobbing Harris said she did not care what happened to her, and wanted no defense. She said she had no reason to live.
Aurnou came up with a reason. He said if she did not defend herself, David and Jimmie would be known as a murderer’s sons. Did she want her sons stigmatized? Love for her grown sons motivated her to want to prove her innocence. She told Aurnou all that she could remember of the bedroom struggle, admitting she could only account for two shots.
Prosecutor George Bolen ridiculed this scenario. He insisted Harris had murdered Tarnower. Before trial, he crowed, “All I need to prove intent is Herman Tarnower’s body and four bullet holes!”
A Defense Puzzle
One puzzling aspect of the trial of Jean Harris is that her plea was simply “not guilty.” Many observers believed she should have pled guilty to first-degree manslaughter, offering the legal defense of “Extreme Emotional Disturbance” or EED. A legal rather than psychiatric term, New York’s penal law in 1967 defined it to state that jurors “may consider all emotions which in fact influence . . . conduct, such as, for example, passion, grief, resentment, anger, terror, fright, hatred or excessive excitement or agitation, and these emotions need not necessarily be of sudden or spontaneous occurrence. They may have simmered in the defendant’s mind for a long time.” In a major EED case, People v. Patterson, the New York Court of Appeals wrote, “It may be that a significant mental trauma has affected a defendant’s mind for a substantial period of time, simmering in the unknowing subconscious, and then explicitly coming to the fore.”
Judge Betty D. Friedlander, who represented the defendant in the Patterson case, asserts, “Jean Harris is the person that defense was written for.”
Alexander believes it was not used because “it implies a homicidal rather than a suicidal state of mind.” In Stranger in Two Worlds, Harris recalls that her lawyers always explained EED as requiring her to say that she “murdered Hy” but “under extreme emotional disturbance.” She writes that she replied, “You’re telling me that the way to be acquitted of murder is to say that I murdered a man. I didn’t murder Hy, and nothing and no one will ever induce me to say that I did.”
However, Alexander believes that the degree of turmoil Harris was suffering makes intent virtually impossible to determine. She also notes, “There is no inconsistency between an EED defense and a ‘tragic accident’ defense. Indeed, one could have caused the other.”
The People v. Jean Harris
Judge Russell Legget presided at trial.
A jury of eight women and four men was impaneled. Four of the jurors were black, three of them women. The foreperson was a male bus mechanic. The other three men were the black social studies teacher, a systems analyst, and a retired school administrator. The black women were a keypunch operator, and anti-poverty worker, and a part-time chambermaid. The eight white women included a special education teacher, a housewife, a reading teacher, an Avon Products salesperson, a worker for the New York City Board of Education, and a part-time cardiac therapy nurse.
The trial began on November 21, 1980.
Bolen read the three charges against Harris: count one, murder in the second degree; count two, criminal possession of a weapon in the state of New York, second degree; and count three, criminal possession of a weapon in a place not the defendant’s home or place of business, third degree.
In his opening, Bolen stated, “No one’s going to appear in the court with a movie camera and a screen, or a videotape and play for you what happened at the residence of Dr. Herman Tarnower March 10 and particularly what happened in his bedroom.” Bolen discussed the way Tarnower divided his romantic and sexual attentions between Harris and Tryforos. Bolen later states that after dinner, Tarnower “went up to the bedroom and retired for the night. Several hundred miles away, Jean Harris placed keys into the ignition of one of the school’s cars and with her in the car was a revolver and a number of cartridges.” He promised to prove that the defendant “consciously, volitionally, and intentionally fired five shots.”
Opening for the defense, Aurnou asserted, “There came a time on that night when both Jean and Dr. Tarnower struggled over the gun, when both Jean and Dr. Tarnower fought over her life – and both of them lost. He lost his life in what we will show you was a tragic accident, and she was left with a life she no longer wanted to live.”
Aurnou also said, “We contend what happened in the case did not happen in the way the prosecutor described it. . . . Facts will show you a very different version; when we say facts, we mean physical facts found and available at the scene.”
After Bolen finished direct examination of one of the first officers at the scene, Daniel O’Sullivan, Aurnou asked in cross-examination, “Did you hear [Harris] indicate that it was her intention that she never return to Virginia alive?” O’Sullivan answered, “Yes.” Aurnou asked, “Did you hear her answer that she did not know [who had control of the gun]?” Again, the officer said, “Yes.” He answered, “That’s correct” when Aurnou asked if she had said she did not know who pulled the trigger. Aurnou asked, “Did you also hear my client say, sir, that she asked the doctor to kill her because she wanted to die?” Yet again, O’Sullivan answered, “Yes.”
Bolen called surgeon Dr. Harold Roth who arrived at the Tarnower residence as the wounded man was being put in the ambulance and accompanied him to the hospital. He administered cardiac massage but Tarnower was dead by the time he got to the hospital. His right arm was “totally disarticulated.”
On cross, Aurnou asks, “If you had had seven or 10 minutes more . . . would that have made a difference in his ability to survive?
“It might very well, yes,” Roth testified. “Any minutes would have made a difference.”
Aurnou laid support for the defense contention that the failure of the police to rush Tarnower to the hospital was part of the “tragic accident” resulting in his death. Alexander writes, “The two fatal bullet holes, one in front, one in back, lined up so perfectly that it appeared to everyone, doctors and medics as well as the cops, that Tarnower had sustained a single, superficial flesh wound clean through the shoulder, an illusion strengthened by the fact that there was surprisingly little external bleeding.”
On redirect, Bolen got Roth to say that police consider a hand wound that goes from front-to-back a “classic defense wound.” The prosecutor argued that Tarnower sustained this wound when he held his hand up to ward off a direct and murderous shot.
Bolen called Westchester County Deputy Medical Examiner Louis Roh, M.D. to the stand. When Roh autopsied Tarnower, he found five wounds, four wound tracks, and three bullets. He testified, “The one bullet that caused the wound to the hand is the one that caused the wound in the right anterior chest wall.” He supported the prosecution contention that the hand wound was sustained when Tarnower vainly tried to ward off a shot because the hand and chest wounds can be lined up and because when the bullet dropped into the chest cavity after hitting the collarbone and cutting a big vein, it did not have much force. He further testified, “It is my opinion that it is consistent with a defense wound.”
Trilling reports, “To counter Aurnou’s claim that the police delay could have caused Tarnower’s death, Bolen questioned the pathologist as to how much blood the doctor would have had to lose to go into intractable shock. Roh believed that the doctor went into intractable shock within five to 10 minutes after he sustained the injuries.”
Harris moaned during this testimony.
Bolen asks if the wounds were “consistent” with a struggle over a gun between a man of Tarnower’s size and a woman of Harris’s. “It is not consistent with a struggle for the gun. . . . Number 1, the multiplicity, the person receiving three gunshot wounds and four wounds on the body . . . Secondly, the location of these wounds. If two persons are struggling over the gun and discharging during the struggle, I would expect to see the wounds mainly in the front part of the body,” Roh responded.
Aurnou got Roh to admit on cross that in his original autopsy report, he said that four bullets had struck Tarnower instead of the three to which he testified at trial. The suggestion was made that Roh changed his opinion to bring it more in line with the idea that the hand wound was a classic defensive wound.
The prosecution soon rested.
One of the first defense witnesses was Madeira Board Chair Alice Faulkner. Harris trembled and wept as Faulkner testified to finding a letter from Harris as well as a companion document stating, “I want to be immediately CREMATED AND THROWN AWAY.” Both were found on a chair by the living room door of the home Madeira furnished for the headmistress.
The letter reads:
I’m sorry. Please for Christ’s sake don’t open the place again until you have adults and policemen and keepers on every floor. God knows what they’re doing. And next time choose a head the board wants and supports. Don’t let some poor fool work like hell for two years before she knows she wasn’t ever wanted in the first place. There are so many enemies and so few friends. I was a person and nobody ever knew.
The letter was unsigned. The document asking for cremation is signed twice.
Forensic scientist Herbert MacDonell testified to measuring the angle of a bullet hole through a glass door and tracing a ricochet mark to establish the zone within which the gun was fired. Alexander writes, “If the bullet went through Tarnower’s hand in the manner Jean had described, the blood would spray in certain specific patterns and parabolas, which would tend to confirm her story. In examining the new close-up photos of the door frame, he spotted dark specks that could be human blood.” He later confirmed they were blood. Alexander continues that MacDonell “discovered on the door frame a ‘directional bloodstain,’ an oval droplet 1/25th of an inch in diameter, which again confirms Harris’s story of where she and Tarnower were standing when the first shot was fired.”
MacDonell attacked Roh’s testimony. MacDonell testified that if the doctor had held his hand up to ward off the gun in “a classic defense posture,” his face and entire pajama sleeve would have been covered with a thin spray of blood – they were not. This testimony powerfully rebuts the contention that Tarnower was trying to ward off a shot from a Harris who came barreling down on him with the gun.
He also testified that his reconstruction indicated that the shot Harris fired when she thought the gun barrel was pointing at her stomach had broken Tarnower’s arm.
MacDonell found small bloodstains in the bathtub – exactly the right size to have been put there by someone banging a gun filled with fresh blood against enamel. MacDonell asserts that the gun was filled with blood when Tarnower held it in his injured hand.
Alexander writes, “By examining the primer in the base of the spent cartridges under low-power magnification, the professor [MacDonell] can tell whether the firing pin has struck the primer once, or more than once. . . . Since he found four shells double-struck, and one single-struck, he has been able to calculate the precise sequence of the five shots fired from the six-cylinder weapon: bang, bang, bang, bang, click, bang, click, click, click, click.” That sequence precisely supports Harris’s recollections.
Bolen asked MacDonell if he had examined the bloodstained bed sheets. MacDonell admitted he had not and said he would like to. The expert spent a lunch hour looking at the sheets. Back in court, he pointed out how the patterns supported Harris’s story. For example, he said a stain looked like someone might have laid a gun across it. MacDonell laid his own gun across it and the fit was perfect.
Over a weekend recess, Bolen talked to a defense pathologist who said that if a bullet passed through a hand before entering the chest, one might find tiny palm tissue in the chest. Bolen related this to Roh and asked Roh to look for such tiny palm fragments.
Bolen recalled Roh who testified he found three tiny fragments that could be palm tissue. On cross, he admitted they could be cartilage, cotton fibers, or collarbone fragments. Aurnou put on several pathologists who said the fragments cannot be identified as palm material.
One of those pathologists was the respected A. Bernard Ackerman, M.D. Ackerman testified, “My diagnosis is unequivocal. All three fragments came from tissue other than the [palm] skin of Dr. Tarnower.”
Bolen recalled Roh yet again and asked if it would be anatomically possible for Tarnower to have sustained the arm wound in various positions. On cross-examination, Aurnou asked, “Is it also anatomically possible he could have sustained it while sitting on the toilet?”
Harris gasped, “Joel, how could you?”
Harris in Her Own Defense
Harris took the stand. Aurnou asked about her mental state after the marijuana brouhaha at the Madeira school. Her reply was agonizingly slow, “I . . . couldn’t . . . function.” He quotes from her resignation letter that stated, “I was a person and no one ever knew.”
Aurnou urged, “Tell the jury what you meant.”
She wept as she said, “I think it had something to do with being a woman who had worked for a long time and had done the things a man does to support a family but is still a woman. I always felt that when I was in Westchester I was a woman in a pretty dress and went to a dinner party with Dr. Tarnower and in Washington I was a woman in a pretty dress and the headmistress. But I wasn’t sure who I was . . . and it didn’t seem to matter.”
Aurnou asked, “It mattered to you, didn’t it?
She said, “I was a person sitting in an empty chair.”
Later, Aurnou asked, “Did you ever that night intend to shoot or kill Dr. Tarnower?”
“No, I didn’t,” she replied. “The most violent thing I did was throw a box of curlers, and I didn’t throw them at him. I never for a moment wanted to hurt Hi, never in 14 years. And certainly not that night.”
Bolen asked if she was upset Herman dated Lynne Tryforos.
“Yes,” she answered. “As I said before, I thought it denigrated Hy . . . I think this whole conversation denigrates Hy and I hate it!”
“You were very concerned about the doctor’s reputation?” Bolen asked.
“I was indeed, and this thing is tearing me apart,” she said.
Later Bolen asked how she referred to Tryforos in the letter she sent Tarnower on March 10.
“I referred to her as what I had experienced her to be . . . Dishonest . . . adulterous . . . a whore,” she said.
He asked, “Those were very strong terms to use, aren’t they?”
“They are,” she answered. “They are very out of character for me to use. But it’s not like me to rub up against people like Lynne Tryforos.”
Bolen entered the letter that she had written just before Tarnower’s death and that would become known as the “Scarsdale Letter” into evidence. Then he read it to the jury. It began, “I will send this by registered mail only because so many of my letters seem not to reach you.” She wrote about years of anonymous taunting phone calls, having her dresses torn, having a nightgown destroyed with orange stains, and the horror of finding a dress smeared with feces. She writes of her pain when she discovered that he sold the ring he had presented to her as an engagement ring: “I desperately needed money all those years. I couldn’t have sold that ring. It was tangible proof of your love and it meant more to me than life itself. That you sold it the summer your adulterous slut finally got her divorce and needed money is a kind of sick, cynical act that left me old and bitter and sick.”
The jury convicted Jean Harris of second-degree murder and of both weapons charges.
Given the powerful scientific testimony of experts like MacDonell and Ackerman stating that the physical facts supported Harris’s story, why did the jury convict? Part of it may be that the testimony was too complex for lay persons to adequately follow and understand. Spencer writes, “The jury ignored almost all the evidence and all but a few of the 92 witnesses who appeared at the three-and-a-half month trial.” The jurors based their verdict on an inability to act out in the jury room a way for Tarnower to have sustained the hand wound in a struggle.
After the trial, Ackerman wrote an essay entitled, “The Physician As Expert Witness: Is Peer Review Needed?” He argued that prosecution doctors appeared to lose scientific objectivity in finding what would be best for the prosecution.
Twelve Years in Prison
Sent to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, Harris washed dishes and stairs and at one point headed the Inmate Liaison Committee, a post she relinquished due to poor health. She worked in the prison nursery. She also wrote three books: Stranger in Two Worlds, They Always Call Us Ladies and Marking Time: Letters from Jean Harris to Shana Alexander.
New York Governor Mario Cuomo denied clemency to her three times but granted it in December 1992. Shortly after her sentence was commuted, she moved into a cabin in New Hampshire. Los Angeles Times reporter Pamela Warrick described Harris as “slight and delicate” as well as “very sad looking, especially around the eyes.” Harris said she entertains few guests other than sons Jimmy and David. After 12 years in unavoidably close quarters with fellow inmates, Harris cherishes privacy. “I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be alone,” she said.
Harris told New York Times reporter James Feron she wanted to live “where there aren’t a lot of people, where I don’t have to look into someone else’s window.” She told Feron that she spent much time “gardening, painting my garage, and writing.”
Harris continued working for the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility Children’s Center. All profits from books she wrote were donated to the Children of Bedford Foundation that aids the center. However, Harris expressed discomfort with the credit sometimes given to her. “I think I’ve helped a little bit with that effort, but it is its founder, Sister Elaine Roulet, who is the moral essence of the Children’s Center and that prison,” she told Warrick.
According to Warrick, Harris rejected comparisons of her case to those of battered women who killed abusers. When Barbara Walters said, “You did become a symbol of the woman wronged,” Harris replied, “No. I think I’m the woman who let herself be wronged.”
She believes that if her case has any larger implications, it is in the need for individual responsibility. She tells anyone struggling with problem relationships, “It’s up to you to make yourself happy.”
At the end of Warrick’s interview, the reporter asked if she would consider dating.
She answered, “Good heavens, no! Whatever for?”
In December 2012, Jean Harris died at the age of 89 in a New Haven, Connecticut assisted-living facility of complications relating to old age.
Alexander, Shana. Very Much A Lady: The Untold Story of Jean Harris and Dr. Herman Tarnower. Pocket Books. 1986.
Feron, James. “Jean Harris Savors a New Life After Prison.” The New York Times. June 27, 2993.
Harris, Jean. Marking Time: Letters from Jean Harris to Shana Alexander. Kensington Publishing Corp.1991.
Harris, Jean. Stranger in Two Worlds. Kensington Publishing Corp. 1986.
Luther, Claudia. “Jean Harris dies at 89; killer of ‘Scarsdale Diet’ doctor.’ Los Angeles Times. December 28, 2012
Sack, Kevin. “Clemency Given to Jean Harris in Murder Case.” The New York Times. December 30, 1992.
Spencer, Duncan. Love Gone Wrong: The Jean Harris Scarsdale Murder Case. A Signet Book. 1981.
Tarnower, M.D., Herman and Baker, Samm Sinclair. The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet. Bantam Books. 1980.
Trilling, Diana. Mrs. Harris: The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers.
Warrick, Pamela. “‘The Myth of Me’: Aftermath: Jean Harris rejects the labels thrust upon her after the Scarsdale Diet Doctor murder in 1980, saying she’s just a ‘tired old lady.’ But she still has the energy to speak out for other women still in prison.” Los Angeles Times. July 19, 1993.