Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Jean Harris Case

What Lucy Madeira Wrought

Lucy Madeira founded the school for girls in 1906. Graduates of Madeira were expected to enter the most exclusive women's colleges (virtually all institutions of higher learning were sex segregated in that era).

The Madeira School was first located in a row house in downtown Washington, D. C.  In 1931, it moved its present campus, nestled near the famous Potomac River.  The Madeira School consists of beautiful red brick buildings built in Georgian-style and includes a large stable and an indoor riding ring.  Its most famous graduate is probably the The Washington Post's Katherine Graham.  About two-thirds of its pupils are boarders and the rest "day students."  The school has always prided itself on having rigorous coursework with a stronger emphasis on mathematics than is typical for an all-female institution and an atmosphere of no-nonsense discipline.

The motto of the Madeira School is Festinate lente, Latin for "Make haste slowly."  The motto was regarded by Madeira's people as especially applicable when the school, like everything else in the United States, experienced the convulsions of the 1960s.  People at the school also often quoted from two other pithy sayings from Lucy Madeira: "Function in disaster, finish in style" and "Keep calm at the very center of your being."

When Jean Harris assumed the role of headmistress in 1977, the school was suffering a bit of a decline.  It no longer reliably placed young ladies into Ivy League schools and was plagued by disciplinary difficulties.

Jean Harris had her hands full.  How well did she do?

According to one document, not very well.  The Madeira board had commissioned Russell R. Browning Associates, a professional evaluation group, to study the state of their school.  The Browning Report came out in May, 1979.  It recommended the dismissal of Headmistress Jean Harris.

Harris was understandably upset at this recommendation.  As she usually did in times of crisis, she ran to her boyfriend for reassurance.  Herman Tarnower offered these words of comfort: "Hell, they'll never fire you.  They're too lazy to look for a new head."

For the first time, Harris learned that she had not been the unanimous choice of the Madeira board, as she had been told, and that some who had first supported her had come around to opposing her.  Harris was worried.  Would she soon be unemployed?  The specter of simply being out to sea hung over her as did the prospect of no income (she had very modest savings).  So much of her life seemed to be crumbling around her.  Her depression got deeper.  She purchased a gun, thinking that if life ever got too much for her, she would have a simple, easy means to end it.

 

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