Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Jean Harris Case

A Girl Called 'Struvie'

Jean was born in 1923 to Albert and Mildred Struven, an affluent couple living in a Cleveland suburb. She was the second of the four children they would have, three girls and one boy, the very youngest.

At six feet two inches tall, Albert Struven towered over his four-foot-eleven wife. The successful civil engineer towered over her in personality as well, being an old-fashioned and dominant man. He was known as very intelligent but humorless and hard to please, although both his wife and daughters tried valiantly to do so. He had a terrible temper, was given to furies of yelling, and was once hospitalized for manic-depressive disorder.

Since Dad worked long hours in his role as family provider, Mom did most of the actual raising of the children. Mildred Struven was a Christian Scientist. When the children were sick, they were prayed for, read to, and lovingly reassured rather than medicated. Mildred did take her son, little Bobby, to the hospital on one occasion because it looked like his chicken pox simply would not heal. It was lucky that she did for if she had not, the doctors believed the illness would have killed the youngster.

Religion appears to have been something that split the family for while the mother was a Christian Scientist, the children attended an Episcopalian church. Perhaps in this, as in most things, the father had the last word. The Struven household, like most families of the era, was deeply patriarchal.

Young Jean was considered a well-behaved and bright child. Early on, however, she displayed a self-righteous and stubborn streak along with a hot temper. Like her Dad, she was nicknamed "Struvie."

Struvie was a classic high achiever, active in student government and class plays. She made good grades but had trouble with spelling. She also enjoyed having a good time listening and dancing to music, going on hayrides, and ice skating.

In her junior year of high school, Struvie won an essay contest for a piece that now seems oddly, even darkly, prescient. It was titled "The Man I Took For Granted" and was meant to be a tribute to Jean Harris's father partly inspired by Clarence Day's then-current best-seller, Life With Father.

She wrote: "Oh, Mr. Day, had I your talent with which to tell the story of an equally deserving father! . . . I have not the eloquence to bring it forth. Or perhaps this realization is not entirely an appreciation of father, but a step toward appreciating men in general. It is possible some day my subject will be, not 'The Man I Took For Granted,' but 'The Man Who Took Me For Granted.'"

Jean Struven attended the distinguished and prestigious Smith College. There she shone, majoring in economics, and graduating magna cum laude in 1945. She very much enjoyed two subjects, geology and art history, and always encouraged other people to take those types of classes for general requirements. Soon after graduation, she married Jim Harris, a handsome Navy veteran who worked as a sales engineer and enjoyed outdoors activities. The two plunged headlong into domestic life, Jim puttering in the garden, putting up storm windows, and cheerfully washing the car on weekends, Jean enthusiastically and energetically cooking and cleaning and, quite often, painting the walls. She worked as a schoolteacher for the first few years of their marriage and then decided to quit and devote herself to fulltime homemaking.

Their first child, David Harris, was born in 1950 and their second and last, Jimmie Harris, came into the world two years later. Although their mother was quite busy caring for two such young children, she found a way to use her adoration of tots to bring in a little extra family income by starting up a home kindergarten.

The happiness of the Harris family was not to last. As the children grew up, Jean and Jim began fighting and, perhaps worse, going through periods when they simply had little to say to each other. There was no dramatic moment, no "other man" or "other woman," just a kind of erosion of feeling until in 1964 Jean decided to call it quits. Her divorce was final the next year and Jean Harris was now a most attractive first-grade schoolteacher and divorced mother of two.

Soon a close friend named Marge Jacobson phoned and told Jean excitedly, "I got a guy for you" and introduced her to Dr. Herman Tarnower. Marge would ever after recall their meeting as an "instant take!"

 

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