It was February 24, 1981, that Jean Harris was found guilty for the murder of her longtime partner, Dr. Herman Tarnower.
At 10:56 on the night of March 10, 1980, police in White Plains, New York, received a call from the estate of Dr. Herman Tarnower, the famed cardiologist whose book The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet had sold three million copies.
When they arrived on the scene they found Jean S. Harris, the petite, blonde private school headmistress who had been dating Dr. Tarnower for 14 years. Harris, 56, was about to drive away. At first, she claimed to be looking for a phone booth to call for help.
Later, officers found a .32-caliber gun in the glove compartment, and she confessed to detectives: “I did it … I’ve been through so much hell with him. He slept with every woman he could.”
The story and subsequent trial lifted the lid on the love triangle between Harris, a divorced mother of two who was headmistress of the posh Madeira School for girls in Virginia, her wealthy doctor ex-lover, and his new, younger girlfriend.
Tarnower, a lifelong bachelor, had refused to marry Harris and begun a relationship with his 37-year-old office assistant Lynne Tryforos. Harris, police heard, was a woman scorned.
The bloodbath was a shocking twist in a life that began with great promise.
Jean Witte Struven was born on April 27, 1923, and had a privileged childhood in an affluent suburb of Chicago. She graduated magna cum laude from Smith College in 1945, and shortly after graduating married James Harris. But the marriage did not last, and by 1964, she had filed for divorce.The next year, she met Dr. Tarnower at a dinner party — and was immediately smitten. According to The New York Times, her lover “wooed her with roses and dances at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan” before giving her an engagement ring and popping the question.
Tarnower later backed out of the marital commitment, but the couple continued to date, maintaining an open relationship. Based on how things ended, it seems that the open relationship agreed with Dr. Tarnower more than with Harris.
Harris’ trial, which began in 1980, made national news and divided public opinion. Some reporters saw her as a feminist icon; others as a pathetic masochist who gave women a bad name.
She charmed the courtroom with her articulate wit, at one point describing her response after finding a birthday message from Tryforos to Tarnower in The New York Times. She told the court she said: “Herman, why don’t you use the Goodyear blimp next time? I think it’s available.”
Her composure, strength, and lack of emotion on the stand also may have prejudiced the jury, and the public, against her, as she could come across cold and unfeeling.Regarding the shooting, she testified that by March 1980, she had decided to commit suicide and planned to see Tarnower one last time before killing herself.
But she told the court that after coming upstairs and seeing Tarnower sleeping in bed, she flew into a rage when she noticed Tryforos’s negligee, hair curlers, and jewelry. She said that when she pulled her gun out of her bag, to shoot herself, Tarnower tried to stop her, and the gun went off in the struggle.
But the jury didn’t buy her story, and on February 24, 1981, she was found guilty. She was sentenced to 15 years to life, and spent 12 of those years at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County.
During that time she was a model prisoner and 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.
She was released after Governor Mario Cuomo granted her clemency in 1992. She later set up a foundation that raised millions of dollars for scholarships for children of women in prison in New York State.
When Barbara Walters interviewed Harris for American Scandals, she confessed that she had battled an addiction to amphetamines for years and was not in her right mind during the trial.
She spent many of her remaining years gardening outside her cabin on the Connecticut River in New Hampshire, writing and taking walks with her golden retriever.
Harris died in 2012 at an assisted-living center in New Haven. She was 89.
Learn more about the case by watching Investigation Discovery’s Barbara Walters Presents with ID GO.
Main photo: Jean Harris with Barbara Walters [Lincoln Square Production/Investigation Discovery]