Jean Harris: Love, Lust, and a Scandalous Murder

From last week’s San Francisco porn kings, this week we move across the country to the prestigious Madeira School for girls. In 1980, the school’s headmistress, Jean Harris, killed her lover and ignited a scandal.

Jean Harris

Jean Harris was virtually the definition of respectable. In fact, the students at Madeira nicknamed her “Integrity Jean.” She was born Jean Struven in Chicago in 1923. She grew up in the tony Shaker Heights section of Cleveland, Ohio. Her education included Laurel School in Shaker Heights and Smith College in Massachusetts.. She graduated from Smith magna cum laude in 1945 with a degree in economics.

After college, Jean married Jim Harris, and the couple had two sons together. But in 1965, Jean divorced her husband (he died in 1977). The following year, Jean began a relationship with Dr. Herman Tarnower, a cardiologist and lifelong bachelor.

Jean Harris in 1984
Jean Harris in 1984

Jean Harris and Herman Tarnower

Despite being a confirmed bachelor, Tarnower embarked on a fourteen-year romantic involvement with Jean. During this time, he plied her with expensive gifts and exotic vacations. But he dated other women, too, a fact he didn’t hide from Jean. Not a formula for a smooth, tranquil relationship.

Dr. Herman Tarnower.
Dr. Herman Tarnower.

Jean became headmistress of The Madeira School in McLean, Virginia in 1977. McLean is near Washington, D.C. and the appointment earned her a listing in Washington’s social register.

In the late 1970s, Tarnower published The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet. Its regimen of low carbohydrates, oily fish, and reduced fat was novel for the time. Jean helped him with the book, something Tarnower acknowledged. But Tarnower considered her help merely clerical while Jean felt her role was more that of a co-author. The book hit the best-seller lists in 1978. However, some medical experts dismissed it as a fad diet and others lambasted it for “serious nutritional deficiencies.” Regardless, the fact that it was a best-seller made Dr. Tarnower moderately famous.

Trouble Brewing for Jean Harris

By this time, Jean was hooked on methamphetamines prescribed by—you guessed it—Dr. Herman Tarnower. She didn’t realize she had an addiction, though. However, meth clouded her thinking and contributed to what happened next.

In the mid-1970s, Tarnower hired a secretary for his office, a divorcee named Lynne Tryforos. Before long, the doctor and the secretary were having an affair, even though she was less than half his age. He began distancing himself from Jean, apparently with the intent of replacing her with Tryforos.

Jean was also having troubles at Madeira. She may have been having a long-term fling with Dr. Tarnower, but she was always the prim and proper headmistress at the school. Her rigid and inflexible authoritarian style didn’t wear too well in 1980. Student dissatisfaction boiled over right before break in March 1980. On March 8, some students staged a sit-in to vent their discontent with the faculty and the headmistress. The sit-in left Jean “despondent and distant” according to some Madeira faculty.

Main building of The Madeira School. Jean Harris was Headmistress from 1977 to 1980.
Main building of The Madeira School

The Death of Dr. Tarnower

Two days later, on March 10, Jean drove 264 miles from the Madeira School to Tarnower’s home in Purchase, New York. She took a .32 revolver with her. She later claimed she had intended to kill herself after talking with Tarnower. But when she got there, she found Tryforos’ lingerie in the bedroom. An argument followed and the gun, as guns are wont to do, went off—four times. Tarnower was dead. Jean left, allegedly to get help. But Tarnower’s housekeeper had phoned police when she heard the gunshots. When Jean met police cars racing toward Tarnower’s house, she turned around and followed them. Police arrested her at the scene.

Jean refused to plead guilty to a lesser charge and instead stood trial for second-degree murder. Her trial, which began on November 21, 1980, lasted 14 weeks. Not surprisingly, it was a national sensation. In the end, the jury rejected her defense of an accidental discharge and convicted her. Judge Russell Leggett sentenced her to the minimum: 15 years to life.

Epilogue

Jean Harris served her time at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. She used her experience as an educator to establish programs for her fellow inmates to get their GEDs or college degrees while in prison. She also taught parenting classes and set up an in-prison nursery for babies born to inmates.

Jean Harris (Newsday)
Jean Harris (Newsday)

On December 29, 1992, after eleven years in prison, Governor Mario Cuomo commuted the remainder of Jean’s sentence. She was almost 70 when she walked out of prison in 1993. Harris lived quietly and mostly out of the limelight until her death at age 89 in 2017.

Two books about the case came out in the early 1980s. Mrs. Harris, published in 1982, is Jean’s story told to writer Diana Trilling. Journalist Shana Alexander published Very Much a Lady: The Untold Story of Jean Harris and Dr. Herman Tarnower in 1983.

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One Reply to “Jean Harris: Love, Lust, and a Scandalous Murder”

  1. Much ado with a diet doctor . . . Respectability doesn’t guarantee immunity to mistakes . Now his lover knows .

    Thanks for posting . Tarnower’s murder made for juicy gossip back in the day . Never tried his diet .

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