Jean S. Harris, 89; her trial for murder provided a lens for a nation

Jean Harris (left) spent 12 years in prison for killing Herman Tarnower (above) in 1980.
Jean Harris (left) spent 12 years in prison for killing Herman Tarnower (above) in 1980. –Photos by Associated Press

NEW YORK — Jean S. Harris, the private-school headmistress whose 1981 trial for the murder of a prominent Scarsdale, N.Y., physician galvanized a nation mulling feminist perspectives with its story of vengeance by an aging woman scorned, died Sunday at an assisted-living center in New Haven. She was 89.

Her death was confirmed by her son James.

For more than a year — from her arrest on March 10, 1980, to her sentencing for second-degree murder on March 20, 1981 — Mrs. Harris’s case was front-page news.

The trial provided the fascination of a love triangle involving the cultivated headmistress of an exclusive girls’ school, a wealthy cardiologist whose book, “The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet,’’ had been a bestseller, and an attractive younger rival for his affection.


If Mrs. Harris was to be believed, it was the story of an attempted suicide by a jilted woman that turned into the unintentional shooting of the man who had rejected her. But there was an underlying social debate that drew commentary from writers, sociologists, and feminists and antifeminists alike.

Mrs. Harris’s passionate defenders saw her plight as epitomizing the fragile position of an aging but fiercely independent woman who, because of limited options, was dependent on a man who mistreated her. Her detractors, who were just as ardent, suggested that such reasoning made it seem that it was the physician, Dr. Herman Tarnower, who was on trial.

Mrs. Harris was sentenced to 15 years to life, and spent 12 of those years at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County, N.Y. But she salvaged that seemingly wasted period through a remarkable second act.

She counseled fellow female prisoners on how to take care of their children, and she set up a center where infants born to inmates can spend a year near their mothers. Then, after her release in 1993 after a grant of clemency by Governor Mario M. Cuomo, she set up a foundation that raised millions of dollars for scholarships for children of women in prison in New York State.


At the center of the murder case was Jean Struven Harris, a slight, blue-eyed blonde, then 56, a product of comfortable suburban homes and Smith College. Headstrong, articulate, and ambitious, she was the headmistress of the Madeira School, a boarding school for affluent girls on a large wooded campus in Virginia.

At 10:56 on the night of March 10, 1980, the White Plains police received a telephone call from Tarnower’s secluded glass-and-brick house on a 6.8-acre estate in Purchase, N.Y. Lying in an upstairs bedroom dying of four bullet wounds was Tarnower, the 69-year-old founder of the Scarsdale Medical Group whose diet book had sold 3 million copies.

When police arrived at the driveway, they came across Ms. Harris, wearing tan slacks and a mink jacket, driving away.

She contended that she was going to look for a phone to call the police. But officers found a .32-caliber gun in the glove compartment, and a detective later testified that she told him: “I did it. . . . I’ve been through so much hell with him. He slept with every woman he could.’’

Tarnower and Mrs. Harris, the divorced mother of two grown sons, had been companions for 14 years. But in the years before the shooting, the doctor had begun appearing at dinner parties and taking vacations with his office assistant, Lynne Tryforos, a divorced woman who was then 37.

For years Tarnower, a lifelong bachelor, had refused to marry Mrs. Harris. Now, as a wealthy man, he could dally with the even younger Tryforos.

In her eight days on the witness stand, Mrs. Harris was able to describe her betrayal with an arch wit that charmed the courtroom. She recalled how she once discovered a birthday greeting from Tryforos to Tarnower in a small ad on the front page of The New York Times and how she responded: “Herman, why don’t you use the Goodyear blimp next time? I think it’s available.’’


She testified that she decided to commit suicide and bought the revolver. She drove from Virginia to Tarnower’s place, she said, so she could have a quiet moment with him before she shot herself “at the side of the pond where there were daffodils in the spring.’’

When she went upstairs, she testified, she found him in his pajamas asleep in his bedroom. She noticed Tryforos’s negligee, hair curlers, and jewelry and fell into a rage, she said, deciding to shoot herself right there.

When she drew the gun from her pocketbook, she testified, Tarnower tried to stop her, pushing her hand down, but the gun fired. They struggled and it went off a second time.

Mrs. Harris, however, could not account for two of the bullets. On Feb. 24, 1981, after eight days of deliberation, the jury of four men and eight women decided that she had murdered the doctor.

The trial drew more than 100 reporters from around the country. Writer Shana Alexander and critic Diana Trilling wrote popular books about Mrs. Harris’s experience. Trilling compared Mrs. Harris to Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary; Mrs. Harris, she said, was “material asking to be written but with no one to write her.’’

Some feminists considered Mrs. Harris’s action legitimate revenge, although Betty Friedan, describing Mrs. Harris as a “pathetic masochist,’’ denied that there were any feminist issues involved in the trial.

At Bedford Hills, she held various jobs. She organized the prison library, tutored inmates for high school equivalency examinations, and served as a teacher’s aide in the nursery.

Almost 70 years old when she got out in 1993, she tried to live out of the limelight, despite the occasional made-for-television movie or book about the case (Ellen Burstyn played Mrs. Harris in a 1981 movie, and Annette Bening played her in 2005). She devoted herself to gardening outside her cabin on the Connecticut River in New Hampshire, writing, and taking walks with her golden retriever.

Jean Witte Struven Harris was born in Chicago, the second of three daughters, and grew up in the fashionable Cleveland suburbs of Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights.

She was educated at the Cleveland area’s leading private school and majored in economics at Smith College. She graduated in 1945. She went on to receive a master’s in education at Wayne State University.

Soon after leaving Smith, she married James Harris, the son of a middle-level chemicals executive from Detroit.

The couple settled in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and Mrs. Harris took a job teaching at a private school where some members of the Ford family sent their children. She gained a measure of social prestige, yet James Harris’s career in a carburetor company languished. Their marriage foundered, and in 1964, she filed for divorce. James Harris died in 1977.

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