On March 10, 1980, New York cardiologist Herman Tarnower, who little more than a year earlier had been catapulted to national fame, in the wake of the publication of his book “The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet,” was shot to death by his spurned lover, Jean Harris. The killing, and the subsequent murder trial of Harris, a respected and respectable headmistress of an exclusive girls’ prep school, transfixed the United States for the next year.
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Much of the coverage of the Tarnower killing had a blame-the-victim quality to it. And indeed, the Diet Doc, as the tabloids often referred to him, was easy to dislike.
The dislikable doctor
Born in Brooklyn, on March 18, 1910, to Jewish immigrant parents, Tarnower was a striver. A brilliant student, he had earned his bachelor’s degree at Syracuse University in two years while playing varsity basketball, and supporting himself by gambling at billiards and card games.
After graduating medical school at Syracuse, in 1933, Tarnower did his internship at Bellevue Hospital, in New York, specializing in internal medicine and cardiology. He opened a medical practice in suburban Westchester before being drafted into the U.S. Army Medical Corps, during World War II.
In her 1983 account of the affair, journalist Shana Alexander made a convincing case that Tarnower was ambitious to a fault, especially as what he most aspired to was social status and power. He practiced many hours to lose his Brooklyn accent, and he read Country Gentleman and Connoisseur magazines in order to know how the other half lived. When he joined them, he would hunt game in Africa, and go fly-fishing in Iceland, bringing his trophies back to his 6.2-acre estate in Purchase, New York.
In Scarsdale, a tony New York suburb, where Tarnower founded what he called the Scarsdale Medical Group, he tended to the medical needs of bankers, corporate lawyers, publishers, and he was at their call 24/7, making house calls and delivering urine and blood samples (“if it was blue enough,” wrote Alexander) to the lab. For cardiac-risk patients he printed up a sheet with a high-protein, low-fat and carbohydrate diet he had devised; in a greatly expanded version, this became the “Scarsdale Diet.”
The lonely headmistress
Tarnower never married, and apparently had no desire to do so. Instead, he had serial companions, who accompanied him on international travel and at elegant, intimate dinner parties at his two-story brick and glass home.
His relationship with Jean Harris, who was 23 years his junior, was different, at least for her. They had met in 1966, a year after she went through a divorce. At one point, Tarnower had proposed marriage, giving her a ring that reportedly cost him $50,000. When she hesitated, he withdrew the offer, though she kept the ring.
The relationship continued, but Herman carried on seeing other women, while Jean kept looking for signs of love and commitment from him.
Even before Harris moved from nearby Connecticut to McLean, Virginia, to take over leadership of the Madeira girls school, in 1977, Tarnower had begun spending time with his office secretary, Lynne Tryforos, an attractive and light-hearted woman in her 30s. Though the Tarnower-Harris relationship continued too – she was, for example, involved in the writing of his book, which was published in late 1978 – she felt increasingly abandoned and desperate.
On March 9, 1980, Jean Harris drove the 264 miles from Virginia to Tarnower’s home with a revolver, saying later that her intention had been to kill herself in his presence.
But when she arrived, and found underwear belonging to Tryforos in his bedroom, Harris became enraged. A struggle ensued, and the gun was fired – with four bullets entering Tarnower. He died on the way to the hospital.
Harris claimed that Tarnower’s shooting was an accident, which the jury didn’t buy. It convicted her of second-degree murder, and she was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
Incarcerated in a minimum-security women’s prison, Harris became a mentor for younger prisoners, organizing programs to help them obtain degrees, and for the mothers among them, a parenting program and an in-house nursery.
Harris had the last three years of her sentence commuted in 1993, and lived quietly in Connecticut, until her death, on December 23, 2012, at age 89.