Jean Harris on Trial for Murder of Dr. Harold Tarnower

People v. Harris, 445 N.Y.S.2d 520 (App. Div. 1981)

Jean Harris met Harold Tarnower in 1966. She was an educator, divorcée, and mother of two. He was a lifelong bachelor, cardiologist, and later became the bestselling author of The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet. The pair began a relationship that would include luxurious getaways, posh dinner parties, and—on Tarnower’s part—a number of affairs with other women.

In 1977, Harris accepted the headmistress position at Madeira School in McLean, Virginia. The job was stressful, and Harris’s anxieties were aggravated by Tarnower taking up with yet another woman. This one was half his age.   

On March 10, 1980, Harris drove five hours to Tarnower’s home in Purchase, New York. She brought a .32 caliber revolver, later testifying she intended to kill herself after a final conversation with Tarnower. Instead, she shot Tarnower in the hand, arm, and chest at close range. She claimed on the stand that all four shots she fired were accidental.

The People vs. Jean Harris would take 14 weeks, at the time one of the longest trials in New York history. She was convicted of second-degree murder on February 28, 1981, and received the minimum penalty of 15 years to life. She served 11, spending her sentence working to improve educational opportunities at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women.

Jean Harris was the only defendant Dengrove visited in prison, and the only one with whom Dengrove ever portrayed herself in a sketch. “I guess in the Jean Harris case I felt, like every other woman did, ‘there but for the grace of God go I,’” Dengrove said.