WASHINGTON – With her regal bearing and patrician accent, Jean Harris seemed to be the very model of the classic girls’ school headmistress. She was always the proper lady.
In 1977, she was named headmistress of the Madeira School, an exclusive private school for girls set amid rolling hills in McLean, Virginia.
She sometimes lectured her students on honor and propriety, which made the events of March 10, 1980, that much harder to grasp. On that night, in Purchase, New York, the 56-year-old Harris shot and killed her longtime lover, Herman Tarnower, a millionaire cardiologist who was famous as the creator of the Scarsdale Diet.
For the next year, the nation was transfixed as Harris took the stand at her trial and spoke of her self-loathing, jealousy and rage. Overtones of feminism, male entitlement and revenge enlivened the proceedings, which left some viewing Harris with sympathy, others with contempt.
In the end, Harris was convicted of second-degree murder and spent almost 12 years in prison before her sentence was commuted when she was 69. She became the subject of movies and books, authored two publications herself while in prison and remained a source of fascination until her death Dec. 23 at an assisted living facility in New Haven, Connecticut. She was 89.
Her son, James Harris, confirmed her death to news outlets. The cause was not disclosed, but Harris had a long history of heart ailments.
She met Tarnower in 1966, soon after her divorce from her husband. Within a year, Harris testified at the trial, Tarnower gave her a ring and promised to marry her. The marriage never took place — Tarnower never married anyone — but Harris continued to see the doctor as her teaching career took her from Michigan to Pennsylvania to Connecticut.
By the mid-1970s, Tarnower was seeing other women, but Harris remained a part of his life and work. At her trial, she testified that while he was going out to dinner parties, she stayed at his home, working on the manuscript of the diet book that would make his fortune.
Harris was particularly jealous of Tarnower’s office manager, Lynne Tryforos, who was 20 years younger than she and had become the object of the doctor’s affection. Harris and Tryforos clashed during their occasional meetings at Tarnower’s house. At her trial, Harris freely recalled that “I think I used the words ‘psychotic whore.’ “
Finally, on the fateful night in 1980, Harris made the five-hour drive from McLean to Tarnower’s estate in New York. She testified that she encountered Tarnower in his bedroom and that he “grabbed my waist, as though he was trying to tackle me. I felt the muzzle of the gun in my stomach, or what I thought was the muzzle.
“I had the gun in my hand, and it exploded again, and it was such a loud shot and my first thought was, ‘My God, that didn’t hurt at all.’ I should have done it a long time ago.”
Her intent, she said, was to kill herself in Tarnower’s presence. Instead, the 69-year-old Tarnower was felled by four bullets, including one in the back. Harris was arrested in Tarnower’s driveway. A .32-caliber revolver was in her glove compartment.
A letter in which she had complained to Tarnower of his “broken promises” was entered into evidence in court. “I was very much in love with him,” she said during her trial. “I have been publicly humiliated.”
Harris was sentenced to 15 years to life. She used her time behind bars to mentor other inmates and to set up a prison child care center. She also wrote two books, in one of which she described prison officials as “such evil little people! I am safer with the inmates.”
Authors Shana Alexander and Diana Trilling wrote books about Harris, and she was portrayed in TV movies by actresses Ellen Burstyn and Annette Bening.
“I have lived a quiet, private life,” Harris said during her trial, “and I wanted to die a quiet, private death. It wasn’t meant to be a grandstand play, though it certainly looks that way now.”
Jean Witte Struven was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Smith College in 1945 and received a master’s degree in education from Wayne State University in Detroit in 1965.
Her marriage to businessman James Harris ended in divorce.
New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo commuted Harris’ sentence Dec. 29, 1992, on the same day she was being treated for her second heart attack. She retired to rural New Hampshire and became an advocate for prison reform.
Not long before the Tarnower murder, Harris contemplated leaving Madeira after a critical report called her “the most controversial” prep school leader in the country. “I didn’t think I was controversial,” she said during her trial. “I can’t make that statement now.”