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The Headmistress and the Diet Doctor

Here are hints of the singularity that put off so many, but drew some—including, one must presume, Jean Harris—so close. Those superlative medical skills, which showed the kindlier side of Tarnower’s nature—“He was one of the last old-style doctors,” says a patient, “he really cared”—ran alongside a sort of competitiveness, a controlled aggression.

To a certain extent, this showed itself in traditional upper-middle-class pursuits. Tarnower drew most of his friends from either his patients’ register or his country club, the Century, which is to say, the same list. He was a seventeen-handicap golfer. “He was excellent at gin rummy,” says Robert Jacobs. “He was excellent at backgammon. He was excellent at everything he did.”

And some of the things he did were more exotic. He loved to travel. The travels yielded objets d’art. Tarnower brought back numerous Buddhas from the East, for instance. One such holy figure, covered with a crackle of gold paint, sits on an islet in a pool on Tarnower’s cultivated six-acre estate. The doctor would sometimes row across and contemplate. Agatha Christie herself would have gloried in the touch.

Hi Tarnower’s other pursuit was in a contrary direction. He liked to hunt. He fished for marlin in the Bahamas, bonefish off Mexico, shot birds in North America, and went on six African safaris with Arthur Schulte alone. There are few varieties of legal game that the imperious hat manufacturer’s son did not, at one time or another, add to his bag, the choicer items being brought back so that they might adorn his Purchase house, alongside the stone and golden Buddhas and the large collection of guns.

Jean Harris, understandably, was fascinated. The relationship grew deeper. When she left Springside in 1972 to become head of the Thomas School in Rowayton, Connecticut, Philadelphia acquaintances speculated that it was to be closer to Tarnower. She bought a house in Mahopac, just a 45-minute drive from both the doctor and the school. (This is the house in which her son, David, a banker in Yonkers, now lives. It is also where Jean Harris had been staying during the trial hearings.)

Thomas was a private girls’ school and was in a sorry state. It was a bad time for private schools generally, with enrollments declining, and the posh boys’ schools—Exeter, Saint Paul’s, Choate—going co-ed. Jean Harris was supposed to turn it around. The reputation she earned was familiar—efficient, though inflexible—but there was a disturbing new ingredient. She could be temperamental, sources say. Moody. A former staffer said that she would “scream at students.”

In 1975, at any rate, the Thomas School closed. Jean Harris, whose sons were now both in their twenties, left private education and took a $32,500-per-year job with the Allied Maintenance Corporation. Allied does such necessary, but unglamorous, tasks as supplying janitors to Madison Square Garden. Jean Struven Harris of Shaker Heights, Grosse Pointe, and Chestnut Hill, was a supervisor of sales. The money was good, but, after eighteen months, when she heard that there was an opening at the head of the Madeira School, one of the glittering prizes of the profession, she did not hesitate before applying.

The Madeira School was started by Miss Lucy Madeira in a Washington, D.C., townhouse in 1906. Considering what was to come, it is a pleasant touch that Lucy Madeira was a determined young woman with a strong inclination to the theories of Fabian socialism. Portraits of Madeira show a pleasant Late Victorian face with a smile of steely shyness and the round, thin-rimmed specs so popular later with that girl’s school problem, the Woodstock Generation. Her will is still much a factor in the school. “She had these sayings,” an alumna tells me, “like ‘Function in Disaster’ and ‘Finish in Style.’ Just mention them to any Madeira girl—she heard those phrases over and over and over again.”

The first disaster was the Depression. Lucy Madeira wished to move, expand. Funds were not forthcoming. Help came. Eugene Meyer, owner of the Washington Post presented several hundred acres of unused woodland alongside the Potomac, which is where Madeira School is today.

In many respects, the Fabians might be pleasantly surprised by the New Woman as she has emerged from Madeira. Alumnae include Eugene Meyer’s daughter, Kay Graham; Ann Swift, now a diplomatic hostage in Tehran; and Diane Oughton, a member of the Weatherman collective, who died so brusquely in an exploding Greenwich Village townhouse and who, friends say, cherished fond memories of the school to her rigorously Marxist end. Students today include the daughters of ABC reporter Sam Donaldson, commentator Eric Sevareid, Republican senator from Wyoming Malcolm Wallop, and a granddaughter of Nelson Rockefeller.


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