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The Headmistress and the Diet Doctor

And add to Agatha Christie pinches of Cheever and John O’Hara. Consider the venues: Shaker Heights, Cleveland; Grosse Point, Michigan; Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia; a smart girls’ schools in Virginia; and Westchester County. Was ever a crime of passion more fashionably suburban than this?

But there is much more to this odd affair than class. Kennett Rawson, who published the Scarsdale diet book in hardback, finds himself bewildered. “Tarnower was not a man who anybody ever got anything out of,” he says. “That’s what makes it so incongruous that he was involved with these torrid love affairs.”

A prominent Madeira alumna is equally puzzled. “Mrs. Harris is most genteel,” she told me.

“She’s so very proper. The whole thing sounds so incongruous.”

The echo proves to be eerily appropriate. Yes, this case does turn out to be a most incongruous affair.

The romantic liaison of Jean Struven Harris and Dr. Herman Tarnower had begun, friends say, fairly soon after her 1966 divorce. There was a certain symmetry to it. Jean Harris was a director at the Springside School, a girls’ academy in Philadelphia. She and her two sons lived in a house in one of the city’s fancier neighborhoods, Chestnut Hill. She dressed with conservative chic and took care to keep abreast of the times. A divorcee in her early forties, with her high forehead, fair hair, and pale blue eyes, she cut a fine figure. One observer saw a resemblance to middle-period Bette Davis.

Herman—“Hi”—Tarnower was in his mid-fifties. He appeared to most an austere and private figure with no capacity for small talk. He came across as a warmer man to his patients at the Scarsdale Medical Group, which he had founded with Dr. John Cannon, and which kept him comfortably rich. “He always had very attractive women friends,” says Mrs. Arthur Schulte, who had known him for years. “He was always very generous with time and money. But he never married. I don’t know why.”

It was a deeper symmetry than this. Tarnower and Harris were, in certain respects, similar. Both had achieved their positions with huge expenditures of effort, and both masked their formidable competitive streaks with a manner of cool self-containment. Quite fittingly, their relationship was, it seems, both decorous and intense.

Herman Tarnower came from a solid middle-class Jewish family in New York. And he was a driven man from the beginning. Ignoring his father’s prosperous hat-manufacturing business, he studied medicine at Syracuse, graduating in 1933. A residency in Bellevue was followed by the first of his travels, a 1936–37 postgraduate fellowship: six months studying cardiology in London, and six months in Amsterdam.

In 1939, Tarnower was back home, an attending cardiologist at White Plains Hospital. War came. The end of the war found him a lieutenant colonel stationed in Japan. He was a member of the Casualty Survey Commission, the casualties in question coming from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The experience, understandably, marked him. He would talk of it frequently.

In due course, Herman Tarnower returned to White Plains Hospital. He moved to Scarsdale. In quiet, exemplary fashion, his career progressed, carrying him toward his meeting with Jean Struven Harris.

Jean Witte Struven was born in 1924 and grew up in the fashionable Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights. She was educated at a private school, the Laurel School, and spent the war reading history and economics at Smith. Contemporaries say that she was ambitious, organized, and personable, but showed scant interest in the pleasant dillydallying of college days. She graduated magna cum laude. Shortly thereafter, she married the good-looking son of a Detroit industrialist, James Harris. They settled, of course (seeing that low-rent neighborhoods do not figure widely in this story), in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

The Harris family was every bit as socially registered in Detroit as the Struvens were in Cleveland, but James Harris was a second son, and well-bred does not invariably mean well-heeled, nor does the whole of Grosse Pointe look custom-built for the Ford family. As Jane Schermerhorn, editor of the Detroit Social Secretary, put it, the residents mostly “aspire to the life-style they can’t afford.”

The Harrises moved into a two-story “colonial” house on Hillcrest, a narrow road lined with trees and closely spaced houses, which runs into the back lot of a Sears shopping center. In 1946, four months after her marriage, Jean entered the world of private education, teaching history and current events at Grosse Pointe Country Day School.

This was in keeping with her ambitions. “It’s always been a fashionable school,” Jane Schermerhorn says. “If you couldn’t send your children to Dobbs Ferry or Andover, you sent them there. Edsel Ford worked very hard for the school and all his boys went there.”


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