The Case for Jean Harris’s Innocence

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.

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