Jean S. Harris (1923-2012)
Jean S. Harris, who was convicted of killing the "Scarsdale Diet" doctor in 1980, died in an assisted-living facility in New Haven, Conn., Sunday.
She was 89.
Her death was confirmed by her son, James Harris.
The former headmistress of an exclusive girls school, Harris was arrested on March 10, 1980, for fatally shooting her lover, Dr. Herman Tarnower, a Westchester cardiologist who penned the best-selling "The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet." The case, involving a love triangle, captivated the nation for more than a year, from Harris' arrest to her sentencing for second-degree murder on March 20, 1981.
Harris maintained the slaying was accidental and that she meant to shoot herself. Her supporters saw Tarnower as an emotionally abusive bachelor who was having an affair with his office assistant, Lynne Tryforos, a woman half his age, during much of his relationship with Harris.
After serving almost 12 years of a 15-year-to-life sentence, on Dec. 29, 1992, minutes before she was wheeled into open-heart surgery at the Westchester Medical Center, a gaunt and frightened Harris was told that then-Gov. Mario Cuomo had granted her bid for clemency for the murder.
Her doctors told her the news as she was being prepared for quadruple-bypass surgery following the second heart attack she had while being held at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Cuomo had rejected two previous bids for clemency.
"She thought maybe someone had mixed up the message," Alice Lacey, head of the Jean Harris Defense Fund, told Newsday at the time of the surgery. "She had pretty much given up hope" for clemency.
LIFE BEHIND BARS
Cuomo said in a statement that he granted Harris clemency because of her work at Bedford Hills on behalf of fellow inmates and their children. Harris, former headmistress of the exclusive Madeira School for Girls in McLean, Va., created an organization called the Bedford Hills Children's Foundation to aid in the education of prisoners' children, and had taught classes for expectant mothers on parenting skills.
Harris tutored inmates studying for their high school equivalency exams, worked with incarcerated mothers in the prison nursery and asked Westchester County residents to open their homes in the summers to the children of inmates so the kids could visit the prison.
Harris' case ignited a social debate over the status of women, with her defenders seeing her as symbolizing the plight of an aging and independent woman who was mistreated.
In her book, "My Third World," Harris wrote about her experiences, complaining about prison guards who shackled her when she was hospitalized for heart surgery and wouldn't allow her to use the toilet alone. She joked about two guards having to use their "combined IQs" to make a security decision and lamented the fact that they wouldn't allow her son to hand her a copy of The New York Times.
Born Jean Struven on April 27, 1923, she grew up in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, attended private schools, graduated magna cum laude from Smith College and married industrialist James Harris.
The couple lived in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and had two sons. Harris also got her first job there, teaching first grade.
She and James Harris divorced in 1966. A few months later, the slender, blond, blue-eyed divorcee of 43 met Tarnower, 12 years her senior, at a party on Park Avenue in New York. They talked about marriage early in the relationship, but that never panned out, and Harris remained his lover.
In 1977, she left a sales administration job in New York to become headmistress of the Madeira School.
Weekends and vacations were spent with Tarnower, traveling or on his arm at social gatherings. She also earned a mention in the acknowledgments in his best-selling diet book for helping with research.
During her trial, the expensively dressed Harris came across as snobbish, arrogant and jealous of the younger woman who had replaced her as the principal object of Tarnower's attention.
"In Westchester, I always felt I was a woman in a pretty dress that went to dinner parties with Dr. Tarnower. In Washington, I was a woman in a pretty dress and a headmistress. I wasn't sure who I was, and it didn't seem to matter," Harris testified at her trial.
Besides her son James, Harris is survived by another son, David; a sister, Mary Lynch; a brother, Robert Struven; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
With The Associated Press