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Jean Harris

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Jean Harris

Jean Harris
Born Jean Struven
(1923-04-27)April 27, 1923
Cleveland, Ohio
Died December 23, 2012(2012-12-23) (aged 89)
New Haven, Connecticut
Occupation Educator

Jean Struven Harris (April 27, 1923 – December 23, 2012) was the headmistress of The Madeira School for girls in McLean, Virginia, who made national news in the early 1980s as she was tried and convicted of the murder of her ex-lover, Herman Tarnower, a well-known cardiologist and author of the best-selling book The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet.


Jean Harris was born Jean Struven in Cleveland, Ohio, to Albert and Mildred Struven. She was the second of four children. She attended Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she graduated magna cum laude in May 1945 as an economics major. She subsequently married and had two sons: David (born 1950) and Jim (born 1952). In 1965, Jean Harris divorced her husband, Jim Harris, who died in 1977.[1]

Life with Tarnower

Harris met Tarnower, a cardiologist (later known, due to a popular diet book he published, as the "Scarsdale Diet Doctor"), in December 1966, the year after her divorce. They then began a 14-year relationship. Though Tarnower showered Harris with gifts and exotic vacations, he had multiple relationships with other women during these years.

Harris worked as the headmistress of the Madeira School while continuing her long-distance relationship with Tarnower, whose relationships with other women she reluctantly tolerated. Tarnower prescribed Harris multiple medications over the course of several years. In the 1970s, Tarnower hired Lynne Tryforos, a woman more than thirty years his junior, to work as a secretary-receptionist at the Scarsdale Medical Center.

The killing

As Madeira students were preparing to leave for spring break, some staged a "sit-in" protest denouncing the educators and headmistress of Madeira. Harris was troubled by the actions of the students. On the evening of March 9, 1980, Madeira faculty members noted she seemed despondent and distant.

On March 10, 1980, Harris drove from the Madeira School to Tarnower's home in Purchase, New York, with a .32 caliber revolver in her possession. She later stated that she had planned to commit suicide after talking in person with Tarnower one last time. When she arrived at the house she noticed Tryforos's lingerie in the bedroom. An argument ensued, and Herman Tarnower allegedly said to her, "Jesus, Jean, you're crazy! Get out of here!" Harris shot Tarnower four times at close range, killing him. She was arrested and booked for second-degree murder. She pleaded not guilty, insisting that the shooting was an accident in that the gun had gone off accidentally while Tarnower tried to wrest it away from her.[2]

Legal defense and trial

Harris was released on $40,000 bail raised by her brother and sisters and signed into the United Hospital of Port Chester for psychiatric evaluation and therapy. She then contracted the services of attorney Joel Aurnou to plan her defense.

The case went to trial on November 21, 1980, and lasted 14 weeks, becoming one of the longest in state history. The New York press sensationalized the trial and made Harris a household name from coast to coast. Harris took the stand and testified at length in her own defense, but the jury rejected her story that the shooting had been accidental, and convicted her of second-degree murder. With the guilty verdict, Harris was not legally eligible to inherit $220,000 Tarnower had left her in his will.[3]

Harris consistently maintained that she did not intentionally kill Tarnower. Joel Aurnou would later state that he encouraged his client to plead guilty to a lesser charge, but she refused. Because the defense had hoped for a complete acquittal, the jury was not offered the option of finding Harris guilty of first-degree manslaughter, and the mental health professionals who tested and treated Harris were not called to testify. Judge Russell R. Leggett ordered her confined to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Westchester County, New York, for the minimum of 15 years to life. Numerous appeals followed the conviction, but the higher courts determined that she had received a fair trial.

While serving her sentence, Harris made it her mission to improve the education of female inmates in her facility. She began programs in which women could work toward obtaining their GEDs or college degrees while imprisoned. She also taught a parenting class to inmates and developed the in-prison nursery for babies born to inmates.

Eleven years after Harris's conviction,[4] Governor Mario Cuomo commuted the remainder of her sentence on December 29, 1992, as she was being prepped for quadruple bypass heart surgery. She was released from prison by the parole board and initially planned to live in a cabin in New Hampshire, but later moved to the Whitney Center, a retirement home in Hamden, Connecticut.[5]


Harris died of natural causes on December 23, 2012, at an assisted-living center in New Haven, Connecticut at age 89.[6] She was survived by her sons David and Jimmie.

Additional notes

Harris's story was told by Diana Trilling in the 1982 book Mrs. Harris and by the journalist Shana Alexander in the 1983 book Very Much a Lady: The Untold Story of Jean Harris and Dr. Herman Tarnower.

Harris's murder trial was depicted in the 1981 made-for-television movie The People vs. Jean Harris. She was portrayed by Ellen Burstyn, who was nominated for an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe Award for the performance. Burstyn was later nominated for another Emmy for a cameo role as one of Tarnower's former lovers in Mrs. Harris, a 2005 movie in which Annette Bening played Jean Harris.

In the 1995 movie Dolores Claiborne, the journalist daughter Jennifer Jason Leigh asks her mother, Kathy Bates, why she killed her husband. The daughter then excuses herself by saying, "Don't feel too bad, Ma. I asked Jean Harris the same thing once."

In the 1997 Raquel Welch plays herself playing Jean Harris in a fictional Tony Award-winning musical about the murders called Scarsdale Surprise.

In 2005, HBO films produced Mrs. Harris, which depicted Harris's relationship with Tarnower from beginning to end, including the trial. The film starred Annette Bening, with Ben Kingsley opposite her as Tarnower. Both Bening and Kingsley received Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for the film.

Harris and Tarnower are referenced in Christine Lavin's song "Cold Pizza for Breakfast".[7]

October 4, 2013 the show "Deadly Women" told her story from when she met Tarnower to when she killed him. The episode was called "Vengeance".

The Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts has a collection of Harris's records.[8]



  • Jean Harris' biography at The Biography Channel (Archived February 5, 2009 at the Wayback Machine)


  1. ^ Noe, Denise (1992-12-29). "The Jean Harris Case — From Behind Bars — Crime Library on". Retrieved 2013-10-19. 
  2. ^ Isaacson, Walter (1981-03-09). "Jean Harris: Murder with Intent to Love". TIME. Retrieved 2013-10-19. 
  3. ^ Isaacson, Walter (1981-03-09). "Jean Harris: Murder with Intent to Love". TIME. Retrieved 2013-10-19. 
  4. ^ The Jean Harris Case, TruTV Crime Library website, accessed November 24, 2008
  5. ^ "JAN. 17-23: Former Headmistress Freed; Jean Harris, 69 and Frail, Paroled for 1980 Murder - New York Times". 1993-01-24. Retrieved 2013-10-19. 
  6. ^ "Jean S. Harris, 89, Killer of Scarsdale Diet Doctor, Dies". New York Times. Retrieved December 28, 2012. 
  7. ^ "The Bellevue Years : Cold Pizza For Breakfast". Christine Lavin. Retrieved 2013-10-19. 
  8. ^

Further reading

  • Trilling, Diana . Mrs Harris. New York: Viking, December 1982. ISBN 0-14-006363-3
  • Alexander, Shana. Very Much a Lady: The Untold Story of Jean Harris and Dr. Herman Tarnower. New York: Little Brown & Co, 1983. ISBN 0-316-03125-9
  • Harris, Jean. Stranger in Two Worlds. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1986.
  • Harris, Jean, They Always Call Us Ladies Published by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, NY, (1988)
  • Harris, Jean, Marking Time Published by Kensington Publishing Corp. New York, NY (1993)
  • A&E "American Justice" episode: "The Scarsdale Diet Docter Murder"

External links

  • N.Y. Times Obituary for Jean Harris
  • Video of Jean Harris Jailhouse Interview on YouTube
  • Jean Harris at Find a Grave
  • Herman Tarnower at
  • "Jean Harris: Murder with Intent to Love" "Time" article (04/09/1981)
  • Jean Struven Harris Papers, 1973-1993 (ongoing) in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College
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