Her Life Was The Ultimate Lifetime Movie

Jean Harris

Jean Harris

Is it just me, or have we lost an unusual number of cultural icons in 2012? When someone who has affected you dies, it can bring back a wave of nostalgia for an earlier time.

Some of the deaths that had that effect on me this year were those of Etta James, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Dick Clark, Dave Brubeck, Gore Vidal, Johnny Pesky, George McGovern, Ravi Shankar, Henry Hill, and Norah Ephron.

Recently I learned of the death of one of those cultural icons: Jean Harris. She was the headmistress of an exclusive girls’ school who was convicted of killing her famous lover Herman Tarnower, creator of the popular “Scarsdale Medical Diet.”

From the LA Times:

The March 10, 1980, shooting of Tarnower — which she claimed throughout her life was her own suicide gone awry — was one of the most sensational crimes of its era.

It riveted the nation, not only because of its titillating combination of sex and violence. It raised what many experts said were important sociological issues, with some feminists rallying to Harris as a symbol of society’s disregard for the plight of older women and others arguing that her case had nothing at all to do with feminism.

Women’s movement icon Betty Friedan dismissed Harris as a “pathetic masochist” for staying with a man who mistreated her. But author Shana Alexander, who wrote a book on the case, described Harris as the “psychological victim of a domineering person.”

Whether morality play or soap opera, the case inspired two TV movies: “The People vs. Jean Harris” (1981), in which Harris was portrayed by Ellen Burstyn, and “Mrs. Harris” (2005), which starred Annette Bening.

In 1980, Harris was the 56-year-old headmistress of the fancy, private Madeira School overlooking the Potomac River in McLean, Va. Tarnower was a 69-year-old cardiologist and best-selling author of a book on a high-protein, low-fat diet that he developed for heart patients at his medical center in well-to-do Scarsdale, N.Y.

While she was in prison, Harris managed to accomplish quite a bit.

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 prison life. 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.

She also wrote two books in longhand on legal pads while she was incarcerated, Stranger in Two Worlds, the earnings from which she used to start her foundation and They Always Call Us Ladies: Stories From Prison. There’s a lengthy piece about Harris’ good works at The Daily Beast, and here’s another long read about the case written for NY Magazine in 1980 by Anthony Haden-Guest.

The best thing I read about Harris was this short article by Norah Ephron who also died in 2012:

…on March 12, 1980, when all of New York awoke to the news, this was what we knew: that Jean Harris, 57, the headmistress of the Madeira School, had driven from Virginia to Scarsdale, New York, and killed her former boyfriend, a best-selling diet doctor named Herman Tarnower, 69, by shooting him four times.

There it was: socialite held in doc slaying. It was a tabloid dream. The doctor lived in an “exclusive” Westchester home, the socialite headed a “posh” girls’ school.

We were thrilled. When I say we, I mean me, but I also mean every woman who has ever wanted to kill a bad boyfriend.

There was a kind of giddy exhilaration that passed through the city. I’m not just projecting. Everyone called everyone up. The day was completely blown discussing it. We were all thinking, You go, girl, even though that expression had not yet been invented.

It was clear there would turn out to be another woman (there was), and that she would be younger, prettier, blonde, and probably his receptionist (all true). But as it turned out, Jean Harris did not want to be a celebrity murderess like Roxie Hart, or even a poster child for women whose antidepressant supplies run low. She was a proud, prickly woman, a classic headmistress. The night of the murder, she’d worn a headband. She insisted to police that she hadn’t meant to kill Tarnower; she’d brought the gun to Scarsdale only to kill herself. She claimed that Tarnower had tried to take the gun away from her, and she’d accidentally shot him.

Yes, that was how so many of us reacted the the news–secretly cheering Harris on for getting revenge on a manipulative, cheating lover.  And, truthfully, it was a better story if she shot him deliberately.

Here are a few links to lists of people we lost in 2012.

Chicago Tribune photo gallery

LA Times photo gallery

U.S. News list of notable deaths

TV Guide photo gallery of celebrity deaths

Which ones affected you most?