Jean Harris Biography
- Born: 27-04-1923
- Birth Place: Cleveland, USA
Jean Harris Biography
Who'd have thought it? Jean Harris, headmistress of an exclusive girls' school, is found guilty of shooting her lover, the author of the best-selling Scarsdale Diet.
Jean S. Harris was born Jean Struven in 1923 in Cleveland, USA. Her mother Mildred was a Christian Scientist and her father Albert, a civil engineer.
Albert was an intelligent but humorless man who was known for his terrible temper. He was hospitalised for a manic-depressive disorder at least once and received electro-shock treatment.
Harris received good grades at school and went on to attend the prestigious Smith College majoring in economics. Soon after graduation she married a handsome Navy veteran, Jim Harris, and they settled in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Their first son David was born in 1950 and Jimmie quickly followed in 1952. Realising she had a gift with children Harris set up a kindergarten from home.
The marriage had gasped its last breath by 1965 and the couple divorced. Soon after a close friend of Jean’s, Marge Jacobson, introduced her to Dr. Herman Tarnower.
A Brooklyn Jew, Tarnower set himself up as a cardiologist in the Scarsdale and White Plains areas of New York. During World War II he joined the US Military Corps and was promoted to major. When the war was over he founded the Scarsdale Medical Center and was highly regarded amongst his colleagues and patients. He was a relentless social climber who held elaborate dinner parties and cultivated a circle of wealthy friends and patients.
Tarnower was also a renowned playboy, but seemed smitten with Harris and to everyone’s surprise, especially hers, he proposed in 1967. Harris refused claiming that she was concerned at having to move her two sons from their schools, but by the time the boys had finished their school year Tarnower had changed his mind. He also told her that she should see other men because he wouldn’t be able to commit to her.
Harris didn’t take his advice and the couple carried on seeing each other for 14 years and during that time Tarnower continued dating other women. Harris became particularly jealous of Lynne Tryforos, a young and attractive secretary/medical assistant of Tarnowers who, many of the doctor’s friends believed, was a good influence on him and put him at ease.
The women embarked on a competition for the doctor’s affections. Harris received mysterious and obscene phone calls and she suspected they were from Tryforos. One night at Tarnower’s she found her favorite dress smeared with excrement. She returned the gesture by telephoning Tryforos every night for a month.
Harris became the Director of the Middle School at Springside, a female academy in a posh Philadelphia suburb and in 1977, she became head of the extremely prestigious Madeira School for Girls in Washington D.C. When Harris took the role the school was suffering a decline and during the next two years she failed to improve the school’s academic reputation. When a performance report came out in May 1979 it recommended her dismissal.
Fearing the safety of her job Harris’ depression grew deeper. Tarnower was already prescribing her Desoxy, a methamphetamine better known as speed, for her persistent depressive bouts and it was at this time that she bought a .32 revolver.
Friends from the publishing world suggested to Tarnower that he write a book documenting the diet he recommended to his patients. The basic nutritional philosophy of cutting down on carbohydrates, eating plenty of oily fish, lean meat, fruit and vegetables and have a low intake of fats, salt and sweets was quite revolutionary at the time and when Tarnower wrote The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet it became an immediate bestseller.
On Friday 7th March 1980, the Dean of Students at Madeira found marijuana stems and seeds in the rooms of four of the school’s most outstanding students. Harris expelled all four teenagers and angry parents descended upon the school while the students started a demonstration in protest.
Harris received a letter from one of her favourite students condemning her for expelling the four marijuana smoking pupils. In her fragile emotional state this criticism was the final straw and she decided to kill herself.
She wrote a letter to Tarnower chronicling the many wrongs she felt he had dealt her and begged him to treat her differently. She also pointed out that Tryforos would persistently ruin her clothes and that some of her jewellery had gone missing. She confessed to making harassing phone calls to Tryforos and destroying anything her younger rival had touched that belonged to Tarnower.
On Saturday 8th she wrote a will, but over the weekend she had second thoughts about the letter and decided she didn’t want Tarnower to read it. She called him on Monday 10th and asked him to throw it away as soon as it arrived. After much pleading Tarnower eventually agreed to see her.
In Harris’s version of events she made the five-hour drive to his home planning to spend her final moments with him before putting a bullet through her head at one of her favourite places – a tiny island in the middle of a pond in his grounds.
When she arrived Tarnower ignored her and she became angry when she saw Tryforos’s negligee and slippers and a box of pink curlers in his bathroom. She flew into a rage, throwing the garments around and Tarnower slapped her hard in the mouth.
She slumped down defeated, took out the gun and pointed it at her head. A struggle between the two ensued and Harris ended up shooting Tarnower five times. Turning the gun on herself proved fruitless because it was empty.
The trial at the Westchester County Court in New York lasted three months and became a national melodrama. Harris pleaded temporary insanity and accidental death insisting that she had only wanted to kill herself.
The question of intent was the main issue. Defence and prosecution lawyers produced witnesses who argued fiercely over forensics, where Tarnower was when he was shot and the trajectory of the bullets. George Bolen, the prosecution lawyer, argued that Harris descended upon Tarnower in his sleep and shot him. He awoke and put his hand up in a futile attempt to ward off a bullet and then Harris pumped the gun twice more and ran into the bathroom where she threw Tryforos’ things around.
Harris’ defence lawyer, Joel Aurnou, was heavily criticised for not sufficiently preparing his client for the trial. The jury wasn’t offered the option of first-degree manslaughter – the mercy option – and the mental health professionals who tested and treated Harris weren’t called to testify.
But the most damning piece of evidence against Harris was the 10-page letter she had written to Tarnower. In it she repeatedly called Tryforos vulgar names and it included passages that showed her complete lack of self-worth. Bolen read the letter to the jury who were shocked by its contents and after deliberating for eight days found Harris guilty of second-degree murder. She was sentenced to 15 years to life at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York.
In prison Harris wrote an autobiography and two other books. She spent much of her time working in the prison’s children’s centre and during her term she suffered two heart attacks. After serving 12 years of her sentence in 1992 Governor Mario Cuomo granted her clemency on grounds of ill health, as she was preparing to undergo quadruple heart bypass surgery. She currently resides at a retirement home in Connecticut.
It is thought that Harris has visited Tarnower's grave several times since her release.
Harris's story has been told several times. First of all in the 1982 book 'Mrs Harris' by Diana Trilling and then in the 1983 book 'Very Much A Lady: The Untold Story of Jean Harris and Dr Herman Tarnower' by journalist Shana Alexander.
The murder trial was depicted in a 1981 TV film called 'The People Vs Jean Harris' where she was portrayed by Ellen Burstyn, who was nominated for both a Golden Globe and Emmy award for her performance.
In 2006, HBO produced 'Mrs Harris', which depicted the couple's relationship from the beginning as well as the trial. Harris was played by Annette Bening, with Ben Kingsley in the role of Tarnower. Both actors received Emmy and Golden Globe nominations.