Jean Harris, 'Scarsdale Diet' Killer and Cultural Flashpoint, Dies at 89
A school headmistress who was convicted in 1981 of killing her famed dietician boyfriend, she was portrayed in several awards-nominated TV movies.
Jean Harris, whose 1981 trial for murdering her famed cardiologist boyfriend captivated the nation and inspired several telefilms, died on Sunday at the age of 89.
Harris' legal saga lasted an entire year, from March 1980 to 1981. A headmistress at a private school in Virgina, she was the long-time girlfriend of Dr. Herman Tarnower, a well-known physician who popularized the "Scarsdale Diet," and was charged with killing him after an altercation over one of his long-term lovers, of which he allegedly had many.
The trial, during which Harris claimed she accidentally shot Tarnower as they wrestled over a gun, captivated the nation. She became a symbol for repressed women, and after she was convicted, she worked to better the conditions of women in prison, an effort that included creating a daycare to children born to imprisoned mothers. She also helped imprisoned women work toward college educations and GEDs. Sentenced to 15 years to life in 1981, she was granted clemency by New York Governor Mario Cuomo in 1993.
Hollywood grabbed on to the national event; the telefilm The People vs. Jean Harris, a two-part, four hour film, premiered in 1981, and earned star Ellen Burstyn both Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for her turn in the title role.
Bustyn also appeared in a brief cameo in a 2005 HBO film about Harris and Tarnower's relationship, called Mrs. Harris, and earned another Emmy nod for her role as one of Tarnower's past lovers. Annette Bening, who played Harris in that film, earned both Emmy and Golden Globe nods, as did Ben Kingsley, who played Tarnower.