Crime History, March 10, 1980: Headmistress of Virginia boarding school kills ‘Scarsdale Diet’ doctor

On this day, March 10, in 1980, the headmistress of an exclusive school for girls in suburban Washington drove to New York and murdered her lover, a best-selling diet doctor.

The case, as writer Nora Ephron called it, was a “tabloid dream:” It involved a celebrity victim, a love triangle involving a younger woman and the head of a boarding school that catered to the rich, wealthy and politically connected.

Jean Harris

Jean Harris

Jean Harris was the headmistress of the esteemed Madeira School in McLean. Dr. Herman Tarnower, a well-known cardiologist, was the best-selling author of the Scardsdale Diet.  They had been lovers for 15 years, and Harris had helped Tarnower write his best-selling diet book, “The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet.”

Throughout their relationship, though, Tarnower had other lovers, which always caused tension between the couple.

When he started dating a much younger secretary in his office in 1979, tensions eventually boiled. Harris found the woman’s lingerie in his bedroom, and Tarnower finally broke off his affair with Harris.

Harris, 57 and divorced, didn’t react well. On the night of March 10, 1980, she wrote a will, funeral instructions and a letter resigning her job and drove to Tarnower’s home in Purchase, N.Y.

Wearing her conservative headband and strand of pearls, Harris raised her pistol to her head, but the doctor tried to grab it from her and the gun went off and killed him, Harris testified.

A jury convicted Harris of murder, and she was sentenced to life in prison. But she was pardoned by New York Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1992.

Harris died in a assisted living him in New Haven, Conn., in 2012. She was 89.

— Scott McCabe


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