Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Jean Harris Case

Jean and Hy, An Item

Jean Harris was entranced by Hy, his air of self-confidence, even arrogance, and his dominant, take-charge manner.  Harris has said that while she was working in a "man's world" in which she had to be competent and self-sufficient, she craved a traditionally submissive, even masochistic role in her private life.  An old-fashioned sexist, Tarnower was always "the boss" with his girlfriends. Hy seemed equally smitten with Jean and the frugal doctor was uncharacteristically generous and tender with her, sending her gifts of books and flowers and showering her with praise.   The two were soon seen about town, dining at the finest restaurants and dancing the nights away.

In 1967, Hy surprised all of his friends by proposing marriage to Jean Harris, who eagerly accepted.  However, to the even greater surprise of both her friends and his, the wedding was delayed ­ by Jean!  The reason she gave a friend was that she simply could not pull her teenaged sons out of school and send them to another.  It would, she believed, be too much of an upheaval for them.  Another reason, perhaps her "real" motive for what struck many as a stupid move was, as noted in Shana Alexander's Very Much A Lady, that Jean "was not entirely certain she wanted to surrender her own independence."

By the time summer rolled around and the Harris boys had completed the school year, Tarnower had developed cold feet.  To his credit, he did not try to hold onto Harris but told her that she should start seeing other men who did not have his bachelor's resistance to matrimony.

It was have been both good and well-intentioned advice.  Jean did not take it but faithfully continued her affair with Tarnower, who soon returned to enjoying his promiscuity.

Before beginning her affair with Hy, Jean decided that she wanted to branch out from teaching to school administration because the pay was just a teeny bit better.  To that end, she began applying to a variety of institutions.  She was hired as Director of the Middle School at Springside, a female academy in a hoity-toity Philadelphia suburb. 

Love with Tarnower had some practical perks and one of them was accompanying him on his world travels.  Jean relished the view she was getting of a variety of countries and cultures.  Hy was a great traveling companion, she said.

Jean would change jobs several times during their fourteen-year-long affair.  When Springside's headmistress retired in 1970, Harris had her fingers crossed that she would get the job.  She was passed over and understandably stung by the rejection.

A youthful Jean, Headmistress (AP)
A youthful Jean, Headmistress

However, she was soon able to realize her dream of being headmistress at the small, exclusive Thomas School.  Located in the quaint, affluent village of Rowayton, Connecticut, the school boasted what Shana Alexander has rightly described as a "singularly opaque" motto: "To learn and discern our brother the Clod, our brother the Worm, and our brother the God."  Harris took on her duties with characteristic fervor, determined to make the unaccredited girls' school into the very best in adolescent education.

During this time, Harris battled depression and the lethargy that accompanies it.  She sought help from Dr. Herman Tarnower.  He prescribed a drug called Desoxyn. Desoxyn is methamphetamine, a drug easily sold on the streets as "speed" because, unlike other anti-depressants, it does not require time to build up in a person's system nor does it affect only those who are already depressed.  Rather, anybody can take it to get "high."  Tarnower reasoned that "Integrity Jean" would not share her pills with others nor sell them on the streets nor take more than he recommended and, indeed, she did not.

After his death, Tarnower would be criticized for prescribing a drug that is so often sold and used for recreational purposes.  Additionally, some observers thought it was "hypocritical" that a (however legal) "speed freak" should have reacted so strongly against pot smoking.


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