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The Headmistress and the Diet Doctor

From the March 31, 1980 issue of New York Magazine.

It was the last Friday of the term, and tinged with discontent. This marijuana business, the expulsion of a handful of seniors for flirting with the weed, had some of the girls nervous, mutinous. But Jean Struven Harris, headmistress of the Madeira School, did not flinch. Her vision of Madeira was, as always, pure, crystalline, hostile to error. She spoke of Duty, and of Caliber, and, above all, of Integrity.

But—some of the girls noticed—Jean Harris seemed unusually ill at ease. Run-down. That Friday, she dropped in at the infirmary, where a nurse gave her some shots for anemia. She proceeded with the day’s business calmly enough—she had announced that she intended to stay on campus for the three-week break—but, showing some distress, she unexpectedly canceled a 3:30 appointment.

The girls left Madeira that Saturday morning, except for some 40-odd juniors who had holiday internships on Capitol Hill. One of the juniors went to see Jean Harris on Sunday. Jean Harris lived in a two-story red-brick house called “The Hill,” and she had said that it was “always open.”

It was seldom open quite so literally, however. The door was open wide, the girl says, and the usually meticulous place was the biggest mess you can imagine. “Clothes were thrown all over the floor,” she recalls, “and the kitchen looked as if she hadn’t been in there for a week.” Jean Harris herself was nowhere to be seen, and the girl departed, puzzled, her problem unresolved.

Jean Struven Harris spent much of Monday writing. She wrote a letter, extraordinarily long and rambling, and then she put the sheets together in no particular order and stuffed them into a manila envelope. She addressed the letter to Dr. Herman Tarnower and dropped it off at the small post office on the Madeira campus.

Just to make completely sure, she sent it by registered mail, which requires a signature. No prevarications, no excuses. Herman Tarnower, best known as the millionaire creator of the “Scarsdale Diet,” had been her lover for fourteen years. But, since her coming to Madeira, perhaps even since his newly found celebrity, he had been slip-sliding away. There was Another Woman. Her shining world—Duty, Caliber, Integrity, those safe and shining abstractions—lay about her in ugly shreds and splinters.

That night Jean Harris was expected for dinner with John and Kiku Hanes. It was a typical “intelligent” Washington dinner, a sit-down for fourteen, nothing to do with Madeira, no alums, no parents, just well-informed people, like Jean Harris.

“I had spoken to her the day before,” Kiku Hanes says. “She was looking forward to it. There was an empty place, but I wasn’t worried at all. I know what being a headmistress is like.”

In fact, Jean Harris did dress as if for dinner: a trim ensemble of black jacket, white shirt, black skirt. It seems she changed her mind. She wrote some further notes, these detailing her inner ferment, and she scattered them around the small and comfortable house that (she wrote) she had no intention of ever seeing again.

Jean Struven Harris fetched her gun, a Harrington & Richardson .32-caliber revolver, which she had acquired a couple of years back at Irving’s Sport Shops in Tysons Corner. It was still in its box. She dumped it in her car, an unshowy blue-and-white 1973 Chrysler, and took off on the five-hour drive.

The weather, so unseasonably mild, broke while she was still on the road. An inconsiderate thunderstorm lashed the rich suburbs, and she arrived to find Dr. Tarnower’s house, that half-million-dollars’ worth of neo-japonaiserie where she had spent so much pleasant time, muffled with black and steaming blankets of rain.

The burglary call came through to the Harrison police at 10:59 P.M. When he arrived, patrolman Brian McKenna found the angular body of Herman Tarnower, 69, sprawled crooked and awkward in an upstairs bedroom, dying in beige pajamas. Tarnower tried to speak, but managed only random sounds. Jean Harris stood there, distraught, her natty outfit rain sodden. The headmistress of Madeira School, whose roster of pupils, past and present, reads like a Fortune-hunters’ 500, was booked for Murder Two.

The headmistress and the millionaire doctor, the headlines ran.

Certainly, it has a better sound to it than the sleazy mayhem that usually occupies the tabloids and the TV news. There’s a ring of that comfortably titillating British detective-story world, those clubs and country houses where the upper middle classes plot one another’s baroque demises. No wonder that cigar box of a courtroom in Harrison allured such media luminaries as Shana Alexander (who wore black mink), sitting behind the defendant, just as she had done through the seven months of the equally classy Patty Hearst trial: the Shana Alexander position.


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