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The Headmistress and the Diet Doctor

She took some time off to raise her sons, David, born in 1950, and James, born 24 months later, but remained at the school for the next several years. Bertram Shover, then the lower-level director, remarks that “she was definitely ambitious and wanted to become more than a first-grade teacher.”

James Harris, meantime, had also taken a job, though not necessarily at a level guaranteed to make an ambitious Grosse Pointer swell with pride: He became a supervisor at the Holly Carburetor Company. It seems he simply wasn’t that ambitious. “James Harris wasn’t as forceful as she was,” Bertram Shover says, “but a lot more fun to be with. I liked him a lot.” A neighbor spoke directly to the point. “All I’m saying is that everyone loved him,” the neighbor said. “She was very pretty and very brilliant, but everyone loved him. He was a nice, quiet man.”

Jean Struven Harris, however, was forging ahead. She was a good teacher, impressing parents with her creativity and administrators with her competence and drive. Although teachers made less in the private sector than at the public schools, there were other, very tangible advantages. The Harris boys were enrolled free, for instance, and, as Shover puts it, there was “social prestige with the job; an entry into social circles.” She became increasingly active in such pleasant milieus, and increasingly independent. Shover remembers that in 1958 she went to Russia, quite alone, and gave a well-attended lecture about her experiences on her return. Jean Harris was very good at giving lectures.

In 1964, however, Mrs. Harris had to deal with certain obstacles. She was one of three recommended as Bertram Shover’s assistant, but lost by a nose. Also that October, she filed for divorce, complaining of “extreme and repeated cruelty.” It was stated that the weekly salary of James Harris was $203.80 gross, $165.30 net, and that he had a net worth of $27,000, including a $900 Renault. Jean Harris—who listed her own salary as $132.90 per week—asked for custody of the two boys and possession of the house, upon which she requested that James Harris continue to pay the mortgage. James Harris agreed to the cruelty complaint but said that his wife was guilty of the same. The court found against him, and ordered that he make weekly payments of $54. The divorce was granted February 23, 1965. In June, Jean Harris decided to leave Grosse Pointe. In the years ahead she was often to allude, with justifiable pride, to the way she brought up her boys. Of James Harris, who died in 1977, she seldom, if ever, spoke.

Jean Harris moved to Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, in September 1966, and took up a post as director of the middle school at the Springside School for girls. She is remembered as rather a formidable person there, a keen administrator and a tough disciplinarian. “It was a reign of terror. We were glad when she left,” one of her pupils told a Philadelphia reporter. Her views regarding cigarettes, let alone beer or pot, were inflexible, and her eye vis-à-vis dress lengths was as beady as Women’s Wear Daily’s. More ominously, one pupil reports that she was “very, very high-strung.”

Socially, she was active, of course. Philadelphians recall frequent visits from one escort in particular: Dr. Herman Tarnower. To the few permitted any insight into the relationship of these two very private people, it seemed a fitting arrangement. True, Tarnower was a decade and a half older and showed every sign of being a committed bachelor, but he had a shrewd eye for a handsome woman.

Impelled perhaps by memories of Japan, he had recently taken one such lady friend to the Far East. They had made the then unusual trip to mainland China, and Tarnower would sometimes discourse on his dinner with Zhou Enlai. It was this woman friend who was now being phased out in favor of another woman: Jean Struven Harris.

It was true that those who didn’t know the vulpine and thin-featured Tarnower often found him forbidding, what with his formal manners, his probing stare, his correct English clothing. “I don’t think anybody knew him very well,” says Kennett Rawson. “He was very self-contained, very opinionated. Nobody talked to him. He lectured you. He reminded me of the Hollywood idea of a Prussian major general.” Said an acquaintance, “He hated chitchat, gossip, small talk.” But what of that? There wasn’t too much of the chitchatter about Jean Struven Harris.

Also, the eminent cardiologist’s intimates had a different view. What else are intimates for? “He was a very outgoing guy. A very humorous guy,” says architect Robert Jacobs, a close friend of Tarnower’s. Jacobs attended many of the doctor’s excellent dinner parties, where the wines would be chosen with expertise, and the food—prepared by Dr. Tarnower’s French-born cook-housekeeper, Suzanne van der Vreken—was likewise. The parties were also where the ascetic gourmet’s guests—“usually six to eight, all interesting people”—would eschew froth, hewing to the issues of the day. Mrs. Schulte also notes an absence of frivolity, saying that Tarnower “didn’t like fiction. He liked reading biography, history, books about people who had achieved something, made a difference in the world” but agrees that the doctor always liked a laugh. “He had a very quick sense of humor,” she says. “My husband had been his closest friend for 25 years. They used to throw semihumorous insults at each other.”


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