Scarsdale Diet doctor’s killer inspired feminists, TV movies
NEW HAVEN, CoNN. — Jean Harris, the patrician girls’ school headmistress who spent 12 years in prison for the 1980 killing of her lover, “Scarsdale Diet” doctor Herman Tarnower, in a case that rallied feminists and inspired television movies, has died. She was 89.
Harris died Sunday at an assisted-living facility in New Haven, her son, James Harris, said Friday.
She had claimed the shooting of Tarnower, 69, was an accident. Convicted of murder in 1981, Harris suffered two heart attacks while serving her sentence in the Bedford Hills women’s prison north of New York City. She was granted clemency by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo when she underwent heart bypass surgery in December 1992.
She later founded Children of Bedford Inc., a nonprofit organization to provide scholarships and tutoring for children of female prison inmates.
Her trial for shooting Tarnower, the millionaire cardiologist famous for devising the Scarsdale Diet — a weight-loss book and sensation of the 1970s named for the New York suburb where he practiced — brought feminists rallying to her defense.
They pictured her as a woman victimized by a male-dominated society, adrift because she was getting older and her lover of 14 years was brushing her off in favor of his younger office assistant. In addition, they said, she was in the thrall of antidepressant drugs Tarnower had prescribed.
The case inspired two television movies, “The People vs. Jean Harris” and “Mrs. Harris,” which ran on HBO in 2006.
Harris always maintained that she went armed to Tarnower’s Westchester County estate in Purchase on March 10, 1980, to confront him over his womanizing and kill herself, but unintentionally shot him four times in a struggle over the gun. She later acknowledged she was “certainly guilty of something. I caused the man’s death.”