Jean Harris seemed like a class act. Middle-aged, an accomplished headmistress of Madeira Girls’ School, an elite boarding school, blonde and attractive, the world was her oyster. She was also engaged to a wealthy medical doctor, Herman Tarnower, whose claim to fame and fortune was that of the Scarsdale Diet. The Diet, like any other that was introduced to the public as the solution to weight problems, came and went almost as quickly as any other, but while it was popular it lined Tarnower’s coffers with gold. The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet was an immediate best-seller. It shot to first place on the best-sellers’ list of the The New York Times, slipped to third, and went back to Numero Uno after an unexpected publicity boost by an event that took place on March 10, 1980.There was another side to Jean Harris’ life that wasn’t so picture perfect however and that was the other woman in Tarnower’s life, Linda Tyforos, a 40-year-old pretty blonde who had overthrown Jean in Tarnower’s affections. It wasn’t long after Tarnower’s latest sexual acquisition that he broke off his engagement to the older but elegant Jean.
In 1967, Hy surprised all of his friends by proposing marriage to Jean Harris, who eagerly accepted. However, to the even greater surprise of both her friends and his, the wedding was delayed by Jean because could not pull her teenaged sons out of school and send them to another. It would, she believed, be too much of an upheaval for them.
Known as Integrity Jean for her strict adherence to moral guidance for her girls, she expelled four students who experimented with marijuana in their dorm.On the same day that Jean Harris expelled The Madeira Four she discovered Tarnower was replacing her at his table during a dinner party being held in his honour with lovely Linda, a humiliation that cut Jean to the quick. Along with Tarnower’s betrayal parents angrily challenged her decision to expel their daughters. “If I had known you ran this school with your own Gestapo, I would never have sent my daughter here!” a mother shrieked. That Friday also saw a students’ rally in support of the Madeira Four. “We love you, Keri! Kelly! Kathy! Nina!” the girls shouted. One of the demonstration’s leaders spotted a couple of teachers and screamed, “You fucking hypocrites!” “How dare you speak that way to people who work for slave wages, breaking their backs to give you ingrates a decent education?” Jean asked rhetorically.
Jean Harris was at a difficult crossroads in her life. She was 50 years old, involved with a physically unremarkable 69-year-old Casanova and defending her right to protect the Madeira’s girl school’s reputation, not a place she’d envisioned herself when she first met Tarnower. She was insomniac, panicked, depressed, and confused. As she was to testify later, “I remember very distinctly Saturday morning going in and out of my bedroom several times. I wanted to clean it up, but I didn’t know how. I couldn’t decide where anything goes. I didn’t know which pile of paper went where. Just hanging up a dress seemed to involve more decisions than I could cope with.”
That night she penned a letter to her ex-lover calling Linda a “slut” and a “whore.” This letter was notable for its rage and pain as well as its extreme hatred for Lynne Tryforos. Jean derided Linda as a “vicious, adulterous psychotic.” Jean admitted to behaviors of her own that could easily be called “tasteless” and criminal: “twice I have taken money from your wallet, the first time to pay for the stained nightgown and the second time to reimburse me for the smeared dress.” She also “ripped up or destroyed anything I saw that your slut had touched and written her cutesie name on including several books that I gave you and she had tasteless, unmitigated gall to write in.”
On Saturday in between writing her letter and talking with distressed and angry students, Jean Harris started composing a will. For quite some time, she had been considering suicide and had purchased a gun for that grim purpose. However she did not make a final decision to cash in her chips on life until the morning of March 10 when she read a letter from a student she had previously aided. The young lady wrote of her disagreement with the decision to expel the four pot-smoking girls. The girl told Jean, “this isn’t a ‘hate’ letter at all. I just feel that you are not handling the situation correctly. . . . it was “hypocritical” to so harshly punish four of them.” The letter devastated the headmistress. “It sort of put a box on my life,” she recalled. In her fragile emotional state, this gentle criticism from a student she very much liked was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
Before she died she wanted to touch bases with the man who had been the love of her life. She phoned him, begging to see him that night. He put her off, telling her it would be more convenient if they chatted on the morrow. She pleaded some more and he finally said, “Suit yourself.” Calmly believing herself to have no future she also thought of herself as having no worries, and she made the five-hour drive to the home of Herman Tarnower. She planned to enjoy a few final moments with her longtime boyfriend, then without letting him know of her intentions she would go to the pond that was on his estate. The pond had a tiny island in the middle of it upon which sat a statue of Buddha.
What happened next depends on whether you believe Jean Harris’s version of that night or that of the prosecution. In Harris’s version of the event, she greeted him and he snapped, “Jesus, Jean, it’s the middle of the night!” “Won’t you talk to me for just a little while?” she pleaded. She did not want to die before hearing some warm and reassuring words from him. “I brought you some flowers,” Jean whispered hopefully. Tarnower ignored her. She saw a negligee and slippers that she didn’t recognize and a box of pink curlers that was all-too-familiar. These were Lynne Tryforos’s things. Jean screamed as she picked up the negligee and ran back to the bedroom where she tossed it on the carpet. Then she was back in the bathroom and hurling the box of curlers through the open door. There was a loud crash as the box broke the dressing room window.
She was still yelling when Tarnower, now out of the bed and wide awake, slapped her mouth, very hard. She pulled the gun out of her own pocketbook and put it against her temple. Herman struck her hand and the gun fired, somehow hitting him through his hand. “Jesus Christ, look what you’ve done!” he screamed as blood streamed down his arm. The wounded doctor rushed to the bathroom and the suicidal headmistress got on her hands and knees to search the floor for the weapon. Jean grabbed the gun and engaged in a fierce tug-of-war over it with the injured Herman Tarnower. Jean felt something very hard and solid sticking into her stomach. Thinking it was the gun she pulled the trigger and there was a loud bang and Jean thought that didn’t hurt at all! For good reason, for she had just shot the doctor for the fourth time.
Finally she turned her attention to the man who had gotten the bullets then screamed, “Somebody turn on the goddamn lights! I’m going for help!” The good doctor died that night. Jean Harris was charged with second-degree murder in the death of Tarnower because at that time in New York first-degree murder applied only to the killing of a police officer or corrections officer on duty.
During Jean’s trial the prosecutor asked if the doctor’s murder had to do with another woman and Jean Harris’ answer helped to bury her. “Yes,” she said, “but more to do with my own integrity in being touched by the other woman than by the other woman herself.” He asked Harris if she considered herself “publicly humiliated by the fact that Dr. Tarnower was seeing Lynne Tryforos in public” and she answered that “I thought he was publicly humiliated much more than I.” Judge Leggett had no choice but to sentence Jean Harris to spend from fifteen years to life in prison.
What kind of person was Lynne Tryforos? That is not publicly well-known. Linda has turned down all of the many interview requests she received after the doctor’s killing. She never testified at Jean Harris’s trial. Jean Harris turned to her attorney and said, in a voice full of pain and despair, “I can’t just sit in jail, Joel.” She didn’t. Her time in prison may have been miserable but it was spent quite usefully. She published three books while behind bars: Stranger in Two Worlds, They Always Call Us Ladies, and Marking Time.
Her attorneys appealed the verdict three times but lost. She petitioned for clemency and was repeatedly denied but finally, on December 29, 1992, after serving twelve years behind bars and suffering two heart attacks while in prison, her sentence was commuted by then-Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo. Now in her mid 70s, Harris devotes much of her time to raising money for the education of the children of inmates at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.