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The Headmistress and the Diet Doctor

That great Fabian George Bernard Shaw might have found himself more ambivalent about other aspects of the school. It is, of course, true that the first visible sign on the campus reads, STOP: HORSE CROSSING, just as it is true that the most splendid new building is a $3.5-million indoor riding ring, but Madeira alumnae are sensitive to the merest hint that it’s a fairly fancy setup.

“We are not a finishing school,” alums told me over and over. Madeira has a one hundred percent college-entrance rate. Madeira is practically a natural resource where the Ivy League is concerned. Madeira integrated during the last decades, the administration told me, and now has twelve black pupils. Indeed, they are actively looking for more, but there is a sort of problem, given the fees—“$6,100 a year for boarders, after taxes”—and the shortage of scholarship endowments. As to the other all-girl schools, Madeira tends to be a bit sniffy. “Foxcroft?” said one. “That’s a glorified riding academy.” I repeated this remark to another alum who had, till then, been talking of Madeira rather as if it were the Académie Française. She struck like a terrier embedding its teeth in my calf. “We always beat Foxcroft,” she said.

But, for all its equable progress, some felt that the years since Lucy Madeira departed had represented a decline. Many of the problems had been classic. One senior official, it was found, had a drinking problem. The late sixties and early seventies brought contemporary travails. “We could get expelled for smoking a cigarette,” one ex-pupil remarks. “But there was no shortage of druggies.”

The headmistress then was Barbara Keyser. Barbara Keyser was a girls’ school headmistress in the indomitable British mold—unmarried, wholly engrossed in her role. Many swore by her, but some were intimidated. “She was really quite a threatening figure,” one pupil says. “She looked and acted like a drill sergeant.”

Many say that girls’ schools in those turbulent years needed a hand. It was, after all, at this time that a dead baby in a plastic bag was discovered at that genteel Connecticut school, Miss Porter’s. Anyway, when the problem did come to Madeira, it was less natural, more horrible. A man had taken to roaming the grounds. It seemed to go on and on. A malaise overhung Madeira until the deranged male was caught, and locked up.

What happened next is not crystal clear. At any rate, the man was at large and the school wasn’t told. Hitherto harmless, he struck. One of the pupils was assaulted and tied to a tree. She died of exposure. It seemed that the sickening event preyed on Barbara Keyser’s mind. She did everything that could be done, but the memory didn’t leave her. It hung about the school like memories of a bad dream.

Barbara Keyser retired three years later, in 1977. The board of alumnae in charge of choosing a successor thought long and hard. They decided they knew exactly what they were looking for. A woman was needed with managerial skills appropriate to the modern business of education. Also, one of them says, “we wanted somebody womanly.”

There were 100 applicants. “The committee investigated in depth,” an alumna says. And Jean Struven Harris seemed perfect. The business background at Allied Maintenance. The marriage, the family. Nobody, it seems, got an adverse reading from the former schools. The Thomas School, anyway, was closed. Jean Harris was appointed headmistress of Madeira, taking a salary cut of some $10,000 a year. Things seemed rosy.

Things were less rosy between Jean Harris and Herman Tarnower. They were still close. Tarnower had accompanied Harris to the 1974 graduation ceremonies at the Thomas School, for instance, and she frequently left Madeira for weekends in Purchase. But two things were happening. Herman Tarnower’s affections were quite perceptibly cooling. Also, Herman Tarnower had become a celebrity.

The celebrity business first. There was nothing new about the Scarsdale Diet, of course. Tarnower had been circulating it as a single mimeographed sheet for years, though his expertise was not the belly but the heart. Yet the diet got good word of mouth. In early 1978, the Times featured it in a piece, mentioning especially its exemplary effects on a vice-president of Bloomingdale’s.

This article was read by Samm Sinclair Baker. Baker says he has written 27 books. A couple of mysteries first, then five books on Creative Thinking, and so into medicine by way of “a book on skin problems written with a couple of dermatologists.” The Scarsdale Diet was a natural.

“We met in May ’78 and we liked each other immensely,” Baker says. “He was a total gentleman. Very straight arrow.” He discovered that Tarnower had discussed the idea of a diet book with his neighbor, Alfred Knopf. “But Knopf was discouraging,” Samm Sinclair Baker says. He discussed things with Tarnower, mainly the strictly formal problem of how to turn a mimeographed sheet into a full-length book—“I said what we will do is answer all your readers’ questions as though they were your patients”—and, writing night and day over four months, they delivered the book on October 1. “We were both workaholics,” Baker concludes with satisfaction. The book, which carried a prominent acknowledgment to Jean Harris, sold 750,000 copies in hardback, two million in paperback, and made Herman Tarnower very celebrated and even richer.


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