Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Jean Harris Case

Deciding on Suicide

On Saturday, in between writing her letter and talking with distressed and angry students, Jean Harris started composing a will.  For quite some time, she had been considering suicide and had purchased a gun for that grim purpose.

However, she did not make a final decision to cash in her chips on life until the morning of March 10 when she read a letter from a student she had previously aided.  The young lady wrote, in a mild and friendly manner, of her disagreement with the decision to expel the four pot-smoking girls.  The girl told Jean, "this isn't a 'hate' letter at all.  I just feel that you are not handling the situation correctly. . . . "  She went on to argue that since so many Madeira students smoked grass, it was "hypocritical" to so harshly punish four of them.

The letter devastated the headmistress.  "It sort of put a box on my life," she recalled.  In her fragile emotional state, this gentle criticism from a student she very much liked was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

Jean Harris decided to kill herself.

Before she died, she wanted to touch bases with the man who had been the love of her life. She phoned him, begging to see him that night.  He put her off, telling her it would be more convenient if they chatted on the morrow. 

She pleaded some more and he finally said, "Suit yourself."  Calmly, even serenely for, believing herself to have no future, she also thought of herself as having no worries, she made the five hour drive to the home of Herman Tarnower.  She planned to enjoy a few final moments with her longtime boyfriend, then, without letting him know of her intentions, she would go to the pond that was on his estate.  The pond had a tiny island in the middle of it upon which sat a statue of Buddha that Tarnower had brought home from a trip to China.  She was fond of the little lake and the area surrounding it because of its natural beauty and suggestion of tranquility.  At that lovely pond, she decided that she would put a bullet through her head.

It was after 10:00PM when she arrived at her lover's home and let herself in through the garage.  She carried a pocketbook with the loaded gun in it and a bouquet of flowers as she climbed up the stairs.  She found Herman clad in blue pajamas and curled up in bed. 

What happened next depends on whether you believe Jean Harris's version of that night or that of the prosecution. 

In Harris's version of the event, she greeted him and he snapped, "Jesus, Jean, it's the middle of the night!"

She told him she did not plan to stay long.  "I just came to talk with you for awhile," she said.

"Well, I'm not going to talk with anybody in the middle of the night!" he grumbled and resolutely shut his eyes.

"I brought you some flowers," Harris whispered hopefully.

Tarnower ignored her.

"Won't you talk to me for just a little while?" she pleaded.  She did not want to die before hearing some warm and reassuring words from him.

He continued to ignore her.

Again she broke the silence.  "I left a shawl here," she said.  She left both pocketbook and flowers with Herman and went to a dressing area where she retrieved the item.  Then she headed for a bathroom.  As she flipped on the light, a sudden fury overtook her.  She saw a negligee and slippers that she didn't recognize and a box of pink curlers that was all-too-familiar.  These were Lynne Tryforos's things.

Harris screamed as she picked up the negligee and ran back to the bedroom where she tossed it on the carpet.  Then she was back in the bathroom and hurling the box of curlers through the open door.  There was a loud crash as the box broke the dressing room window.

She was still yelling when Tarnower, now out of the bed and wide awake, slapped her mouth, very hard. Jean fled back to the bathroom where she picked up a jewelry box and flung it at her own aging image, breaking a mirror.  Once again the doctor hit her, hard, on the mouth.

As suddenly as it had begun, Jean Harris's fury was spent and the resigned spirit of suicide had taken its place.  She sank down in front of Herman Tarnower and said, "Hit me again, Hi.  Make it hard enough to kill me."

"Get out of here," he replied.  "You're crazy."

When she realized Tarnower would not hit her "hard enough to kill" her, Jean said, "OK, I'll do it myself."  She pulled the gun out of her own pocketbook and put it against her temple. He struck her hand and the gun fired, hitting him through his hand.

"Jesus Christ, look what you've done!" he screamed as blood streamed down his arm.  The wounded doctor rushed to the bathroom and the suicidal headmistress got on her hands and knees to search the floor for the weapon.  She could not find it and was seized by panic.  Finally she located the gun under one of the beds and fished it out.  As she was about to raise it to her head again, a sudden terrible pain in her upper arm caused her to let it fall.  That pain was caused by the powerful grip of Herman Tarnower.

Tarnower then sat on the edge of a bed, his injured right hand wrapped in a towel that was rapidly turning dark red with his blood.  He held the gun with one hand and with the other pushed a buzzer to call the live-in cook/housekeeper and butler/gardener who had served him faithfully for many years, Suzanne and Henri Van der Vreken.

Jean Harris was frantic now.  "Hi, please give me the gun!" she shrieked.  "Give me the gun, or shoot me yourself, but for Christ's sake let me die!"

Again her lover called her "crazy" and told her to get out.

Jean Harris, dressed for the show (AP)
Jean Harris, dressed for
the show (AP)

At this point, Jean Harris says she has amnesia.  There is a space of time that she cannot recall but believes that she grabbed the gun and engaged in a fierce tug-of-war over it with the injured Herman Tarnower.  Her memory comes back at a moment when the two of them were squeezing together, struggling over the weapon, and Harris felt something very hard and solid sticking into her stomach.  Thinking it was the gun she pulled the trigger and there was a loud bang and Harris thought, that didn't hurt at all!

For good reason, for she had just shot the doctor for the fourth time. 

While her injured boyfriend knelt on the floor of his bedroom, moaning in agony, Harris again attempted to take her own life.  She put the gun to her head, pulled the trigger and heard the harmless click of an empty chamber.  She made a frantic effort to pull out spent cartridges so she could reload.  She ran to the bathroom, banging the gun on the side of the tub in the hope of dislodging the spent cartridges.  She was not able to do that and ended up breaking part of the gun. Finally, she turned her attention to the man who had gotten the bullets, then screamed, "Somebody turn on the goddamn lights!  I'm going for help!"

The prosecution had a different view of Herman Tarnower's untimely demise, theorizing that Jean Harris descended upon the sleeping man who put up his hand in a futile, irrational effort to ward off a bullet.  She pumped the gun twice more, then ran into the bathroom where she threw Lynne Tryforos' things around.

Regardless of which scenario actually occurred, Herman Tarnower sustained four bullet entry wounds (although only three bullets actually lodged in his body). He died that night. Jean Harris, the headmistress of the exclusive Madeira School who had been nicknamed Integrity Jean for her exacting moral standards, was arrested for murder.

Calls were placed to Dr. Tarnower's many prominent friends and patients, telling them the sad news.  The wealthy Peg Cullman, whose husband had long been a patient and buddy of Tarnower, was vacationing in sunny Barbados when she got an early phone call relating, "I didn't want you to hear it on the radio, but Hi's been shot and they're holding Jean Harris."

"Oh, my God," she gasped.  "It's finally happened."

The sense of inevitability in that last sentence is strangely appropriate for the roots of the tragedy ran deep into the backgrounds of these two seemingly successful yet deeply flawed individuals.

 

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