Jean S. Harris, the private-school headmistress whose 1981 trial for the murder of a prominent Scarsdale, N.Y., physician galvanized a nation with its story of vengeance by an aging woman scorned, died on Sunday at an assisted-living center in New Haven. She was 89.
Her death was confirmed by her son James.
For more than a year — from her arrest on March 10, 1980, to her sentencing for second-degree murder on March 20, 1981 — Mrs. Harris’s case was front-page news.
The trial provided the fascination of a love triangle involving the cultivated headmistress of an exclusive girls’ school, a wealthy cardiologist whose book, “The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet,” had been a best seller, and an attractive younger rival for his affection. If Mrs. Harris was to be believed, it was the story of an attempted suicide by a jilted woman that turned into the unintentional shooting of the man who had rejected her.
But there was an underlying social debate that drew commentary from writers, sociologists and feminists and antifeminists alike. Mrs. Harris’s passionate defenders saw her plight as epitomizing the fragile position of an aging but fiercely independent woman who, because of limited options, was dependent on a man who mistreated her. Her detractors, who were just as ardent, suggested that such reasoning made it seem that it was the physician, Dr. Herman Tarnower, who was on trial.
Mrs. Harris was sentenced to 15 years to life, and spent 12 of those years at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County, N.Y. But she managed to salvage that seemingly wasted period through a remarkable second act. She 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. Then, after her release in 1993 following a grant of clemency by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, she set up a foundation that raised millions of dollars for scholarships for children of women in prison in New York State.
She also lectured about her often incongruous experiences with inmates.
“They looked at me as a rich white woman, even though some of the call girls earned six times what I did as a headmistress,” she told an interviewer.
At the center of the murder case was Jean Struven Harris, a slight, blue-eyed blonde, then 56, who was a product of comfortable suburban homes and a Smith College education.
Headstrong, articulate and ambitious, she was the headmistress of the Madeira School, a boarding school for affluent girls on a sprawling wooded campus in Virginia.
At 10:56 on the night of March 10, 1980, the White Plains police received a telephone call from Dr. Tarnower’s secluded glass-and-brick house on a 6.8-acre estate in Purchase, N.Y. Lying in an upstairs bedroom dying of four bullet wounds was Dr. Tarnower, the 69-year-old founder of the Scarsdale Medical Group whose diet book had sold three million copies.
When the police arrived at the driveway, they came across Mrs. Harris, wearing tan slacks and a mink jacket, driving away. She contended that she was going to look for a phone booth to call the police. But officers found a .32-caliber gun in the glove compartment, and a detective later testified that she told him: “I did it. ... I’ve been through so much hell with him. He slept with every woman he could.”
Dr. Tarnower and Mrs. Harris, the divorced mother of two grown sons and 13 years his junior, had been lovers for 14 years. But in the years before the shooting, the doctor had begun appearing at dinner parties and taking vacations with his office assistant, Lynne Tryforos, a divorced woman who was then 37. For years Dr. Tarnower, a lifelong bachelor, had refused to marry Mrs. Harris. Now, as a wealthy man, he could dally with the even younger Mrs. Tryforos.
In her eight days on the witness stand, Mrs. Harris was able to describe her betrayal with an arch wit that charmed the courtroom. She recalled how she once discovered a birthday greeting from Mrs. Tryforos to Dr. Tarnower in a small advertisement on the front page of The New York Times, and how she responded: “Herman, why don’t you use the Goodyear blimp next time? I think it’s available.”
She testified that by March 1980, she had decided to commit suicide and had bought the revolver. She drove from Virginia to Dr. Tarnower’s place, she said, so she could have a few quiet moments with him before she shot herself “at the side of the pond where there were daffodils in the spring.”
When she went upstairs, she testified, she found him in his pajamas asleep in his bedroom. She noticed Mrs. Tryforos’s negligee, hair curlers and jewelry and fell into a rage, she said, deciding to shoot herself right there.
When she drew the revolver out of her pocketbook, she testified, Dr. Tarnower tried to stop her by pushing her hand down, but the gun fired. They struggled again, and the gun went off a second time.
Mrs. Harris, however, could not account for two of the bullets. On Feb. 24, 1981, after eight days of deliberation, the jury of four men and eight women decided that she had murdered the doctor.
The trial drew more than 100 reporters from around the country. The writer Shana Alexander and the critic Diana Trilling both wrote popular books about Mrs. Harris’s experience. Mrs. Trilling compared Mrs. Harris to Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary; Mrs. Harris, she said, was “material asking to be written but with no one to write her.” Some feminists rationalized Mrs. Harris’s action as legitimate revenge, although Betty Friedan, describing Mrs. Harris as a “pathetic masochist,” denied that there were any feminist issues involved in the trial.
Mrs. Harris took the guilty verdict calmly, but at her sentencing a month later, she was trembling with defiance.
“I did not murder Dr. Tarnower; I loved him very much,” she told the judge. “No one in the world feels his loss more than I do. I’m not guilty.”
At Bedford Hills, she held various jobs. She organized the prison library, tutored inmates for the state’s high school equivalency examinations and served as a teacher’s aide in the prison’s nursery.
“I was lucky that I could find something useful to do,” she told The Times in a 1993 interview. “I didn’t twiddle my thumbs. Really, I got up every morning and went to school and taught. I know it was useful, and I was lucky to have that job.”
She wrote an article for New York magazine on prison conditions, describing a humiliating search of her body by a guard. In 1986, she wrote “Stranger in Two Worlds,” offering her account of the Tarnower relationship as well as a chronicle of prison life.
Almost 70 years old when she got out in 1993, she tried to live out of the limelight, despite the occasional made-for-TV movie or book about the case (Ellen Burstyn played Mrs. Harris in a 1981 movie, and Annette Bening played her in 2005). She devoted herself to gardening outside her cabin on the Connecticut River in New Hampshire, writing and taking walks with her golden retriever, Lainey, who was named after a nun who directed the prison’s children center.
Jean Witte Struven was born in Chicago on April 27, 1923, and grew up in the fashionable Cleveland suburbs of Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights. Her father, Albert Struven, was a civil engineer who became vice president of a construction company that built oil refineries and steel plants around the world. She was educated at the Cleveland area’s leading private school and majored in economics at Smith College. She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated magna cum laude in 1945. She went on to receive a master’s in education at Wayne State University.
Soon after leaving Smith, she married James Harris, the son of a middle-level chemicals executive from Detroit. She once told an interviewer that she had agreed to marry him largely to defy her father, who did not like him.
The couple settled in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and Mrs. Harris took a job teaching at a private school where some members of the Ford family sent their children. She gained a measure of social prestige, yet Mr. Harris’s career in a carburetor company languished. Their marriage foundered, and in 1964, she filed for divorce. Mr. Harris died in 1977.
Besides her son James, she is survived by another son, David; a sister, Mary Lynch; a brother, Robert Struven; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Hoping to put her sons through college, she took a higher-paying job as the director of the middle school of the Springside School, a girls’ academy outside Philadelphia. It was in that position that she met Dr. Tarnower at a dinner party. Both had made trips to the Soviet Union in recent years, and they compared notes.
Dr. Tarnower, the son of a hat manufacturer, was self-assured, urbane and witty. He was a hunter and a sports fisherman, and on his travels he collected Buddhas. He wooed her with roses and dances at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan. In the first year of their courtship, he gave her an engagement ring and proposed marriage. But Mrs. Harris hesitated, and soon he told her that he could not go through with the marriage.
But the romance continued. Early in 1972, Mrs. Harris became the headmistress of the Thomas School in Rowayton, Conn., and bought a house in Mahopac, N.Y., a 45-minute drive from Dr. Tarnower’s house. The Thomas School closed in 1975, and a year and a half later the position at the Madeira School opened up.
The geographic distance between them appeared to place strains on their relationship. Dr. Tarnower began dating Mrs. Tryforos while continuing with Mrs. Harris. In her three years at the Madeira School, Mrs. Harris was by most accounts a capable administrator and a strict disciplinarian who, among other actions, barred students from the bars in the Georgetown section of Washington. Shortly before the murder, her position at the school was imperiled by what some thought was her imprudence in suspending four student leaders after marijuana seeds and pipes were found in their dormitory.
Mrs. Harris grew weary of such conflict, and a letter of resignation was among the notes she wrote shortly before leaving for Dr. Tarnower’s house.