Thirty-three years ago, on March 10, 1980, Dr. Herman Tarnower, a cardiologist and author of The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet, was shot to death in Purchase, New York, by his lover, Jean Harris, who was convicted of murder and served nearly 12 years in prison.
Mrs. Harris attended Smith College, where she graduated magna cum laude as an economics major, and was serving as headmistress of the Madeira School for girls in McLean, Virginia. She divorced her husband in 1965.
She met Dr. Tarnower in 1966, and they began a 14-year relationship. Although he showered her with expensive gifts, he was known to have many relationships with other women, which she reluctantly tolerated.
However, she became embittered when Tarnower--who had proposed to her, given her an engagement ring, but never married her--would go to parties with other women, while she stayed home and worked on the manuscript for the diet book that made him famous.
“I was very much in love with him,” she said during her murder trial, adding that “I have been publicly humiliated.” Dr. Tarnower prescribed Mrs. Harris many medications in the course of several years.
In 1980, as Madeira students were preparing for spring break, some staged a sit-in denouncing their headmistress, which troubled Mrs. Harris. On the evening of March 9, several faculty members claimed she seemed despondent.
On March 10, 1980, she drove to Tarnower's home in Purchase, New York, with a handgun in her possession. Mrs. Harris later said she planned to commit suicide after talking to him a final time.
When she arrived at the house she noticed another woman’s lingerie in the bedroom. An argument followed, and Tarnower reportedly told her: "Jesus, Jean, you're crazy! Get out of here!"
Harris shot Tarnower four times, mortally wounding him. She was arrested and booked for second-degree murder. She pleaded not guilty, insisting the shooting was an accident, that the gun went off while he tried to grab it from her.
She was released on $40,000 bail and signed into United Hospital in Port Chester, N.Y., for psychiatric evaluation and therapy. The case went to trial on November 21, 1980, and lasted 14 weeks, one of the longest trials in New York State history.
Mrs. Harris took the stand and testified in her own defense, but the jury convicted her of second-degree murder. She was thus not eligible to inherit the $220,000 that Tarnower left her in his will.
The judge ordered her confined to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County, N.Y., for the mandatory minimum of 15 years to life. Several appeals followed, but the higher courts determined that she had received a fair trial.
NY Governor Mario Cuomo commuted the rest of her sentence on December 29, 1992, as she was made ready for quadruple bypass heart surgery. She was released from prison and died at 89 on December 23, 2012.
Mrs. Harris's story was told in 1982 by Diana Trilling in Mrs. Harris and in 1983 by Shana Alexander in Very Much a Lady: The Untold Story of Jean Harris and Dr. Herman Tarnower.
Her murder trial was depicted in the 1981 made-for-TV movie The People vs. Jean Harris. She was portrayed by Ellen Burstyn, who was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award.
In 2005, HBO films produced Mrs. Harris, which depicted her relationship with Tarnower from beginning to end. It starred Annette Bening and Ben Kingsley. Both actors received Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for the movie.