Scarsdale Diet Doctor Is Killed by His Lover

Herman Tarnower, the creator of the famous Scarsdale diet, was shot and killed by his lover, Jean Harris, the head of an exclusive Virginia girls’ school. Harris became jealous over Tarnower’s relationship with a younger woman. The well-publicized trial included scandalous testimony on the doctor’s sex life and his fourteen-year relationship with Harris.

Summary of Event

Herman Tarnower, a cardiologist, practiced medicine in Scarsdale, New York, where he developed his famous diet and best-selling book, The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet (1979), cowritten with Samm Sinclair Baker. Tarnower did not specialize in weight-reduction programs but believed in good nutrition. His diet derived from concern for his patients’ health and from numerous requests for copies of his weight-loss plans. [kw]Scarsdale Diet Doctor Is Killed by His Lover (Mar. 10, 1980)
Tarnower, Herman
Harris, Jean
Scarsdale diet
Tarnower, Herman
Harris, Jean
Scarsdale diet
[g]United States;Mar. 10, 1980: Scarsdale Diet Doctor Is Killed by His Lover[01860]
[c]Murder and suicide;Mar. 10, 1980: Scarsdale Diet Doctor Is Killed by His Lover[01860]
[c]Law and the courts;Mar. 10, 1980: Scarsdale Diet Doctor Is Killed by His Lover[01860]
[c]Sex;Mar. 10, 1980: Scarsdale Diet Doctor Is Killed by His Lover[01860]
Tryforos, Lynne

Jean Harris, an educator and head of the Madeira School for Girls in McLean, Virginia, suspected that Tarnower, her lover of fourteen years, was leaving her for a younger woman. A confrontation between Tarnower and Harris ended with Tarnower being shot and killed. Harris claimed she had intended to commit suicide but instead accidentally shot Tarnower when he attempted to take the gun away from her.

Harris’s early career was marked by intense devotion to her work and very little social life. That changed at a party in December, 1966, when a friend introduced her to Tarnower. Harris, divorced and with two children, was attracted to the gregarious doctor and began dating him in March, 1967. The couple continued to see each other for the next fourteen years. Although they considered marrying each other, Harris ultimately rejected the idea because Tarnower clearly enjoyed being unmarried. Also, Harris wanted to remain independent. Tarnower, who was not possessive, encouraged Harris to see other men while he began to date other women. Harris, however, would not date others, creating an imbalance in the relationship. She initially did not seem to mind Tarnower’s interest in other women, and he certainly did not attempt to conceal his other sexual affairs. Harris knew as well that Tarnower was seeing his secretary, Lynne Tryforos.

Harris said that she began receiving disturbing phone messages from an anonymous caller around the time Tarnower was beginning to date Tryforos. Harris was told by the caller that she was getting old and needed instruction in sex, messages that were demeaning and humiliating and made her feel powerless and pathetic. Curiously, Harris did not suspect that Tryforos made the calls; she could not even identify the caller’s gender. Harris and Tryforos, though, did engage in several angry phone calls at other times.

In 1979, The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet became a best seller, making Tarnower a millionaire. Harris had provided significant help during the production of the book, and Tarnower thanked her in his acknowledgments. For Harris, however, the acknowledgments meant little at this time: Tarnower had decided to take Tryforos instead of Harris with him on his book tour, leaving her feeling excluded from her lover’s life. Depressed and exhausted, she despaired of competing with Tryforos for his attention. She also hated the idea of him choosing a woman who was so poorly educated and who seemed to lack sophistication. Others, however, said Tryforos made a good impression as a modest and impeccably groomed professional woman.

Harris had found her career as head of a girls’ school stressful, especially at Madeira, where she spent a good deal of time restoring the school’s fading reputation. At such moments, she relied on Tarnower for reassurance, but he seemed unconcerned about her worries, even as she feared she might be fired after receiving a poor performance review in May, 1979.

The following year, on March 10, 1980, Harris’s suicidal thoughts intensified after she had run out of the antidepressant medication that Tarnower had prescribed for her. Suffering emotionally, she wanted to take her own life, and to do so at Tarnower’s residence in Purchase, New York.

Harris said that she found Tarnower sleeping upon her arrival at his house. When she woke him, he advised her to get some sleep. She then went into his bathroom and noticed hair curlers that were not hers. She threw them at a dresser and broke its mirror. Tarnower, now awake, hit her on the face and told her to leave. She pulled out the gun in her purse, put it to her head, and, as she fired, Tarnower deflected the shot, which hit his hand. The two continued to struggle, leading to a shot to the doctor’s torso. Harris admitted to the police who were first on the scene that she shot Tarnower. He died later that night, and Harris was arrested for his murder. She was released on bail and then entered a psychiatric treatment facility. She repeatedly denied that she intended to murder Tarnower and insisted on testifying on her own behalf at her trial, which began on November 21, 1980. She pleaded not guilty by reason of temporary insanity and claimed Tarnower’s death was accidental. In the meantime, sales of The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet soared during public discussion of the case.

Jean Harris en route to sentencing at the Westchester County Courthouse, 1981.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

While it could not be proven that Harris planned to murder her lover, a jury found her explanation of Tarnower’s death unconvincing. Expert testimony for the prosecution suggested that the doctor had been shot in bed and that his wounds were inconsistent with the story of a struggle for the gun. Although an expert for the defense challenged the prosecution’s expert, the defense expert admitted he was not completely certain of his analysis of Tarnower’s death. The prosecution’s experts, however, said they had no doubts about their analyses.

After eight days of deliberation, the jury found Harris guilty of second-degree murder. She was sentenced to fifteen years to life in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security women’s prison in New York. Harris appealed her verdict three times to no avail, and her requests for clemency were denied until December 29, 1992, when New York governor Mario Cuomo commuted her sentence. She had suffered two heart attacks in prison.


The Harris-Tarnower murder case received enormous press attention. Harris, a high-achieving professional woman, seemed nevertheless in thrall to the arrogant but charismatic Tarnower. Her conflicted nature made her an appealing figure with a complex psychology. Reporters wrote about Tarnower’s success with women, a success that seemed built upon his candor. Women had to take him as he was: a man who did not promise fidelity but who nevertheless created a charm that attracted women such as Harris, who sought relationships with powerful men.

Although Harris did not believe she could survive prison, she managed to do so, and she even wrote three books: Stranger in Two Worlds (1986), her autobiography; They Always Call Us Ladies: Stories from Prison (1988), which looks at an inhumane prison system in which guards and administrators abuse their authority; and Marking Time (1991), a collection of letters written to her biographer, also a friend.

A model prisoner, Harris worked with incarcerated mothers and presented parenting and sex-education classes. She founded the prison’s Children’s Center. Following her release from prison, she lectured and worked to raise funds for educating the children of incarcerated women. Tarnower, Herman
Harris, Jean
Scarsdale diet

Further Reading

  • Alexander, Shana. Very Much a Lady: The Untold Story of Jean Harris and Dr. Herman Tarnower. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. Originally published in 1983, this work is more of a biographical study than the book by Diana Trilling. Alexander, who became Harris’s friend, provides a revealing and intimate look at Harris’s life.
  • David, Jay. The Scarsdale Murder: The Slaying of Dr. Herman Tarnower of “The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet.” New York: Leisure Books, 1980. One of the first books written about the Harris case; this is now chiefly valuable for its use of news items and magazine profiles.
  • Harris, Jean. Marking Time: Letters from Jean Harris to Shana Alexander. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1991. The story of how Harris’s biographer became a friend of her subject.
  • _______. Stranger in Two Worlds. New York: Macmillan, 1986. Harris’s autobiography, including her early life, career, the killing of Tarnower, and her life in prison.
  • Hendin, Josephine G. Heartbreakers: Women and Violence in Contemporary Culture and Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. A literary study of cultural representations of women convicted of violent crimes. Brief but pointed discussion of Diana Trilling’s book on Jean Harris. Argues that violent women not only challenge ideas of femininity but also present new forms of behavior and self-identity.
  • Spencer, Duncan. Love Gone Wrong: The Jean Harris-Scarsdale Murder Case. New York: New American Library, 1981. Like Jay David’s book, this is chiefly valuable as a collection of contemporary writings about Harris and Tarnower in periodicals.
  • Trilling, Diana. Mrs. Harris: The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981. One of the best books on Harris and Tarnower by a distinguished literary and cultural critic.

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