The Headmistress and the Diet Doc

The year 1980 was not turning out so well for Jean Harris. Her job as headmistress at the Madeira School, an expensive, prestigious boarding school for the rich and privileged was turning into more of a nightmare than the dream job she had hoped it would be.  Her recent decision to expel four seniors for smoking marijuana on campus had provoked a mini-riot amongst the parents and students,  one of whom considered the decision to be hypocritical given that marijuana use was endemic at the school. Harris refused to budge in her decision.  The whole situation left Harris depressed and exhausted.  At the age of 57, she worried that her job was in jeopardy.  She hadn’t been the first choice for the job and a commissioned report had suggested firing her.  Her savings meager, Jean felt that she was too old to start over again at another school.  She had also run out of the medication that had been prescribed to combat her depression. And then there was her fourteen year relationship with Dr. Herman Tarnower.

Her lover was now famous for his book, The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet which had recently spent several months at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List.  Jean had hated the idea, believing diet books to be tacky and trite.  The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet had become a national bestseller, selling 750,000 in hardcover and over two million in paperback.  Tarnower was in demand as a guest on TV talk shows.  A one page mimeographed sheet that he had been giving away to his heart patients for years was now making him millions. For several years now, Tarnower had also been having an affair with his office assistant Lynne Tryforos, but Jean had been under the impression or at least hoped that she meant more to Tarnower than her younger, blonder rival.  Until Tarnower had told her that Lynne would be sitting next to him at his upcoming 70th birthday party, not Jean.  She would be placed at a different table.  Jean could feel him slipping away from her and she was frantic.  

She wrote Tarnower a long, rambling, ten page letter detailing all the wrongs she felt he had done her, and begging him to treat her differently. To make sure that he got it, she sent it by registered mail.  Although she was expected at an important dinner on the night of March 10, 1980, Jean was determined to see Tarnower, even if it meant driving the five hours from Virginia to Westchester. Before she left, she fetched her gun, a Harrington & Richardson 32-caliber revolver which was still in the box.  She filled it with bullets before dropping it back in the box.  Before leaving, she’d updated her will, and left notes scattered around her house that she had no intention of returning to.  Dressed in a black suit, she got into her blue and white Chrysler and took off for Tarnower’s house in the pouring rain.

Although Herman Tarnower had agreed to see her, he was not happy to see her when she arrived that night. He was already dressed for bed in his pajamas.  The couple argued.  When she was questioned by the police later, Jean claimed that she had come to Westchester not to kill Tarnower, but to ask him to kill her.  If had refused, she then planned on doing the deed herself. The two struggled for the gun.  When the police arrived, Tarnower was lying on the floor with four bullets in him.  Jean stood by distraught, her black suit sodden from the rain.  The headmistress was booked for Murder Two.  What made this petite, genteel, 56 year-old Smith graduate finally snap?  Was it an accident or murder?  Was she justified? Public debate raged. Harris evoked vastly different thoughts and feelings about women, love, fidelity and aggression. To some women, Jean Harris was a modern-day Anna Karenina, to others, a pathetic masochist.

Jean met Herman Tarnower soon after her divorce in 1966, introduced by mutual friends.  Jean had just turned 43, and had recently moved to Philadelphia to take a job as the director of the middle school at the Springside Academy.  Tarnower was 13 years older, a well-respected cardiologist and internist with a practice in Westchester.  He was also a committed bachelor married to his job.  From the beginning the attraction was immediate. Tarnower, who was used to women chasing him, did the pursuing this time. He was the complete opposite of her ex-husband Jim Harris who was handsome, easy-going and not terribly ambitious.  Tarnower was more like her father, aloof, exuding strength and ambition. Jean, who was used to making decisions at work and as a single mother, loved having a man take charge for a change.  He was also sophisticated, well-dressed, erudite knowledgeable about wines, food, and well-traveled.  Usually tightfisted when it came to money, Tarnower sprang for flowers and expensive gifts for his new inamorata. Before long they were spending nights on the town, dining at fine restaurants and dancing at the Pierre.

Within months, Tarnower had proposed marriage to Jean, even going so far as to buy her an engagement ring.  Initially Jean had wanted to postpone the wedding; she had just uprooted her sons to Philadelphia from Detroit and was reluctant to uproot them again to move to New York.  The decision gave Tarnower time to think and he began to get cold feet.  Although he tried to break it up off, insisting that Jean deserved a man who could offer her marriage, but Jean was too much in love.  She wrote him a letter insisting that she was fine with continuing the relationship on his terms, that she loved him too much to leave him, marriage or no marriage.  It was a decision that she would later learn to regret.  Tarnower took this letter to mean that he was free to go back to his days of womanizing.  Jean tried to ignore the other women, focusing on the fact that it was she that Tarnower took on expensive trips around the world, who dined with his powerful friends, and graced his dinner parties.

Jean was also struggling in her professional life. Although she loved teaching, she had moved into administration because it paid better.  It wasn’t a natural fit for her.  She was too outspoken and honest, seemed to lack tact when dealing with parents and the trustees.  All the bureaucracy began to weigh her down. When she was passed over as headmistress at the Springtime Academy, she became depressed.  She moved on to the Thomas School in Connecticut which had the advantage of placing her closer to Tarnower, but the school struggled to stay open and eventually merged with a boy's school.  Jean then decided to try the corporate world, working as the manager of sales administration for Allied Maintenance, a job which paid her more than she had made in school administration.   It was around this time that Tarnower began to prescribe Desoxyn, a powerful methamphetamine for Jean which made her hyper, but also gave her insomnia.  To combat the insomnia, she began to take sleeping pills.  Over the ten years that Tarnower prescribed the medication, he continued to up the dosage as Jean developed a tolerance to the drug.

 She was also addicted to Tarnower, believing that he was her life-line, that if he ended the relationship, she had nothing left to live for.  She seemed helpless to leave him, despite her friends’ best efforts to convince her otherwise.  Also like many women, instead of blaming Tarnower for cheating her on her, she blamed the other woman.  In this case, Lynne Tryforos who had started working for Tarnower as a receptionist four years before his relationship began with Jean Harris. Like Jean, Lynne was a divorcĂ©e with two children. She was also a good thirty years younger than the good doctor. Unlike Jean, Lynne only had a high school education. Snob that she was, Jean didn't mean that Lynne was sophisticated or cultured enough for Tarnower.

Although both women worshipped Tarnower, Lynn was on the ground so to speak. She managed the doctor’s professional life and increasingly his home life as well. While Jean could come across as a terrible snob sometimes, Lynn was much more down to earth, more openly adoring of the great doctor.  His friends felt that she relaxed him. While Jean argued and challenged Herman, Lynne was supportive.  As Tarnower aged, nearing retirement age, he began to prefer Lynne’s uncomplicated company.  Then there were the anonymous phone calls that both women claimed to receive.  Both women complained to Tarnower that the other was harassing her.  Jean also complained that two dresses that she had left at Tarnower’s were ruined by Lynne.  Was Jean lying about the calls, did she ruin the dresses herself and blame Lynne for them? Or did the housekeeper, Suzanne Van der Vreken, who disliked Jean, ruin the clothes? (This is my personal theory).

The trial lasted three months in 1981 and became a national soap opera. Many people expected that Jean Harris would be acquitted or at least receive a lighter sentence.  And she might have been, if she had pleaded guilty by reason of temporary insanity, or if she had agreed to a plea bargain. Joel Aurnou, her lawyer, so believed in his client’s innocence that he refused to entertain anything other than an absolute acquittal.  They decided to put their faith in the justice system, to believe that a jury would hear her story and believe her to be innocent.
And they might have if not for several things.  First the prosecution claimed that Jean had shot the doctor while he was sleeping, the bullet wound in his hand was a defensive wound. Meanwhile the defense argued that the doctor was wounded when he tried to wrest the gun from Jean’s hand. Most sides had expert witnesses who testified to promote their theories.  Another witness was a patient who had been in the office that morning of Tarnower’s death when Jean had called.  When Tarnower went into another room to take the call, he left the phone off the hook, so Mrs. Edwards could hear parts of the conversation including Tarnower telling Jean to leave him alone.  Unlike OJ at his trial, Jean testified in her own defense. On the stand, she came across as alternately depressed, agitated, snobbish and sad. But it was the infamous ‘Scarsdale Letter,’ that Jean had sent Tarnower that did the most damage to her defense.   Her lawyers had managed to retrieve the letter before the prosecution could get their hands on it. However once Jean admitted to the letter under cross-examination, the prosecution could get it admitted in to evidence.  

The letter gave a different picture to the one painted by the defense.  The letter was filled with vindictive prose about Lynne Tryforos, a woman that Jean had claimed not to be jealous of.  Instead of a fragile, emotionally distraught and suicidal woman, the letter made her look like a woman scorned determined to make her lover pay for humiliating her. Jurors later stated that they couldn't believe that a woman as dignified as Jean had used such language, calling Tryforos a ‘psychotic whore’ amongst other things. Unfortunately none of the mental health professionals who had treated Jean since the arrest were called to testify in her defense, nor was her addiction to the drug Desoxyn mentioned either.

The jury deliberated for 8 days.  When the jury came in with a guilty verdict, even the prosecution was surprised.  Many people thought she would get off.  After all, she wouldn't be the first upper-class woman to shoot her husband or lover and get away with it. When the guilty verdict came in, the prosecutor assigned to the case, George Bolen maintained that the case proved that there was no double-standard under the law. Rich and poor were treated alike. Harris was sentenced to 15 years in the penitentiary with possibility for parole or time-off for good behavior.  Her lawyers appealed the verdict 3 times but lost. In prison, Harris wrote several books, spending most of her time working in the prison’s children center and helping to give parenting classes to inmate moms. After serving twelve years, and suffering two heart attacks, Governor Cuomo finally granted her clemency on the grounds of ill health in 1992. Released in 1993, Harris spent the rest of her life raising money for the education of the children of inmates at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.  She passed away at the age of 89 in 2012. 

Further reading:

Shana Alexander:  Very Much A Lady:  The Untold Story of Jean Harris and Dr. Herman Tarnower, Gallery Books, 2006

Diana Trilling:  Mrs Harris - The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor, Harcourt, October 1981


Popular posts from this blog

The Many Lives of Beryl Markham

Scandalous Women in Fiction: Irene Forsyte

Royal Princess, Royal Scandal - the sad life of Princess Margaret