Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Jean Harris Case

Growing Up Tarnower

Herman Tarnower was born in Brooklyn in 1910 to Dora and Harry Tarnower, Jewish immigrants to America.  As the only boy of four children, he was doted on by his parents.  Alert and intelligent as a boy, he was expected to do his financially struggling family proud.  Herman was often reminded of the value of a dollar and importance of being frugal.  Athletic and sharp, the teenaged Herman excelled at playing pool and cards and used funds from his winnings to attend Syracuse University.

His first year was painful because other students made fun of his pronounced Brooklyn accent.  Herman plunged into a speech course until his voice had the necessary tone of "refinement" to make him acceptable to those he wanted as his fellows.

Never averse to taking risks, Tarnower frequently hitchhiked until he got his first car.  He was to tell Jean Harris that he had spent a college summer vacation hitchhiking all around the country.

Medicine was always his goal and Herman, often affectionately called "Hy," was able to shoulder enough of an academic load that he finished his premedical training in two years, half the time it usually takes.  While Herman was in Europe on a postgraduate medical fellowship, Harry Tarnower had a fatal heart attack.  His mother handed her son the $5,000 from her husband's life insurance policy to start his medical practice.  In return, he supported his mother, who lacked experience and skill at work outside the home, until her death.

Herman Tarnower had definite ideas about the kind of life he wanted.  Being a doctor of the upper echelon in society was of primary importance to him.  To that end, he set up his practice in the Scarsdale and White Plains areas of New York specializing in cardiology and internal medicine.

Then World War II broke out and Herman Tarnower joined the U. S. Medical Corps in Louisville, Kentucky, where he soon earned a reputation as an excellent physician.  He would be transferred three times to different military hospitals where he was always very respected as a doctor.  At the Fort Knox military hospital, he was made chief of medical service.  He was promoted to lieutenant, then captain, and finally major.  He was selected as one of only two doctors to head a study of the possible after-effects of radiation suffered by the civilians at Nagasaki.

Soon after the Nagasaki study, Tarnower left the service and returned to Scarsdale to found the Scarsdale Medical Center.  Later, he would start the first cardiopulmonary laboratory in the state between Albany and New York City and begin a cardiac unit at White Plains Hospital.  He was appointed medical director at big name companies including the Nestlé Corporation.  Although there were fellow physicians who were critical of him, most of his colleagues, like virtually all of his patients, believed he was a top-of-the-line doctor.  Virtually no one questioned his dedication to medicine and patients remember him fondly as having a warm and soothing bedside manner.

He cultivated the wealthy as his patients and adopted a snootiness in his social dealings, becoming known as imperious and haughty for, when he was not acting as a physician, he impressed most people as an unusually cold individual.  Dr. Tarnower loved giving elaborate dinner parties for his many rich friends (who were also frequently his patients) as well as hunting, fishing, playing cards, and traveling.

Throughout his adult life, Herman Tarnower appears to have been very promiscuous, enjoying sex casually with any willing women who attracted him.  Unlike many promiscuous men, however, he was not a deceiver and did not promise fidelity to any of the women who shared his bed, nor was he jealous and possessive. 

 

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