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- March 31, 1980
- Vol. 13
- No. 13
The Killing of Scarsdale Diet Doctor Herman Tarnower Leaves a Single Haunting Question: Why?
Having established that she had shot Tarnower with her own gun, police faced only one remaining mystery: Why? The answer to that riddle may well lie in an understanding of the three principal players—one dead, one out on bail, one in seclusion—who acted out what seems increasingly a suburban gothic tale.
By all accounts, Tarnower was a charming and magnetic man. The son of a New York millinery manufacturer, he excelled academically, and after interning at Bellevue, he set up a cardiological practice in exclusive Scarsdale. Business was good—so good that the seven-figure success of his diet book in 1979 struck him as redundant. His tasteful brick-and-glass contemporary house was filled with art treasures and animal trophies bagged on frequent travels around the world. With the same passion and finicky taste, acquaintances say, he collected women.
Born in Cleveland, graduated magna from Smith, Jean Harris is thought to have met Tarnower while she was living in Philadelphia and teaching at a fashionable girls' school. As an applicant to be headmistress at Virginia's posh Madeira two years ago, she impressed school authorities with her genteel bearing, obvious intelligence and strong convictions. She didn't disappoint them: A strict conservative, Harris organized raids on dormitories in search of marijuana, expelled several girls who were caught with it, and even deleted from chapel services hymns she considered too boisterous.
That strong-minded, old-fashioned sensibility, friends say, was deeply offended by Tarnower's refusal to marry her. "She came from a background that said women marry men—they don't have affairs," comments one recent confidant. "But she loved him, so she hung around." Recalls another Virginia friend: "She said to me about the girls, 'I don't approve of all this sleeping around. I don't understand it.' But she was doing it herself. She couldn't resolve that conflict."
Out of the adoring female satellites who circled Tarnower, one came to eclipse the rest. Lynne Tryforos joined the staff of his Scarsdale Medical Center eight years ago; their romance reportedly began four years later, and a recipe in his book gives a nod to it: "Spinach Delight à la Lynne" (it's creamed spinach made with yogurt). Like Harris, Tryforos is a slim blond divorcée, but the resemblance ends there. Acquaintances describe Harris as "an alabaster queen," "brilliant," "intense," while Tryforos is known in Scarsdale as "attractive," "lovely" and "sunny." She had dropped out of Endicott Junior College to marry Nicholas Tryforos, co-owner of a florist shop. Four years ago they divorced and Lynne moved into a small Scarsdale house with her two daughters, 14 and 10. Then when Harris left for Virginia, she became Tarnower's most frequent date in Westchester. She appeared with him at the chic gatherings (including his last dinner party) that were once Harris' exclusive domain.
At about the same time, colleagues noticed that Harris seemed anxious and depressed. At Madeira, she complained, "People haven't really invited me to dinner—they tend to see me as an employee." Her relationship with Tarnower was cold comfort. "She was getting older and she was desperate," says a friend. "Tarnower must have been her last chance. He looked like a lizard, but he had everything she wanted—money, a prestigious career, standing. If she let him go, that meant giving up her dreams."
Harris had already returned Tarnower's gift of a diamond ring, reportedly worth $50,000, and her defense attorney has suggested that she drove to Westchester the day of the shooting to get Tarnower to kill her. A psychiatrist who has met her finds that plausible: "In giving him the weapon, she was in effect saying, 'Please kill me outright, because you're killing me anyway.' She wanted to show him how he had made her feel."
Whatever her motivation, Harris killed Tarnower, destroying her own hopes and those of her rival. After the funeral, Tryforos took her two daughters out of school and went into seclusion, her love dead, her future uncertain. For Harris, now hospitalized and awaiting trial, the prospect is even bleaker. "She's ruined her life and she knows it," sums up one friend. "She can't go back to the world that she came from. She will never be accepted in people's living rooms again."
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