It may not have been the Crime of the Century, but it certainly was in the running for the Crime of the Decade, a decade that had barely begun when Jean Harris killed her lover of 14 years, cardiologist Herman Tarnower (better known as “the Scarsdale Diet Doctor,” after his bestselling book, The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet), in his Purchase home on March 10, 1980. Her cool and seemingly arrogant demeanor did nothing to quell the public perception—or, at her trial, the jury’s perception—of her as a haughty headmistress of a boarding school for pampered rich girls, a woman who was capable of—and convicted of—murder.
Outside of Westchester County, the murder, the trial, and the media frenzy surrounding it, put Scarsdale—where Dr. Tarnower was a physician at the Scarsdale Medical Group—and the County in the middle of a glaring national spotlight. Jean Harris insisted that she did not shoot Dr. Tarnower intentionally. The prosecution contended that Harris shot the doctor four times at close range after she flew into a jealous rage over his affair with his much younger office assistant, Lynne Tryforos. The jury didn’t believe Harris and she was sentenced to 15 years to life. Though numerous appeals failed, Harris—who’d suffered three heart attacks while incarcerated at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women—was granted clemency in December 1992 by Governor Mario Cuomo, who commuted the remainder of her sentence just months before she turned 70, and literally hours before she was set to undergo quadruple bypass surgery at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla.
There’s no doubt about it: Jean Harris took a life. And for that, she was punished. And though no number of good deeds can make up for the killing of Dr. Tarnower, Harris also enriched numerous lives—and likely saved quite a few, too. In prison, Harris was not only a model inmate, but a productive member of the prison population—and a teacher, mentor, and positive role model to the other inmates at the maximum-security facility. An educator to the core, she started a program of parenting classes to teach imprisoned mothers how to bond with, and strengthen bonds with, their children. She authored three books while incarcerated, and with the $100,000 she earned from her first tome, she established Children of Bedford Inc., a nonprofit organization to provide scholarships and help pay tuition and other education-related expenses for children of incarcerated women. According to the New York Times, the foundation raised millions of dollars to help inmates’ children.
Jean Harris died two days before Christmas at an assisted-living facility in New Haven, Connecticut. She was 89.