Jean Harris, former headmistress of Virginia’s exclusive Madeira School for girls, who was convicted of murdering her lover, famed Scarsdale Diet doctor Herman Tarnower, died Sunday, December 23, 2012, at the age of 89, in an assisted living facility in New Haven, Conn. Harris and Tarnower, 13 years older than she, had been lovers for 14 years, when he started flaunting his affairs with other women in her face. The independently minded Harris, then 56, aware that she was aging, felt trapped by her age and by his abuse, and melted down into a jealous rage. She confronted him at his home on March 10, 1980, and shot him. Police responders stopped Harris before she could drive away and found her gun. One of the detectives later said that Harris had confessed, “I did it. … I’ve been through so much hell with him. He slept with every woman he could.”
During the trial Harris said that Tarnower’s death was an accident, that she had intended to confront him about his infidelities and then kill herself. She testified that they had struggled over the gun and that she had accidentally shot him twice. That was a problem because Tarnower had been shot four times. Though her plight captivated the attentions of an aging generation of like-minded, independent women, the jury didn’t buy her story, and Harris was sentenced to 15 years to life for her crime of passion.
Harris made good use of her time in prison, counseling fellow inmates on caring for their children, and establishing a center where infants born to inmates could spend a year near their mothers. In 1992, after two heart attacks in prison, Harris was granted clemency by then New York governor Mario Cuomo, and released. After her release she set up a foundation that raised millions of dollars in scholarship money for children of women in New York’s prisons.