Schoolmistress Jean Harris Gets An 'a' for Effort in Prison
But since receiving a 15-years-to-life term and being moved to the maximum security Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, the patrician Smith alumna has blossomed into a model prisoner. She has gained back some of the 10 pounds she lost during her three-month trial—and, more important, recovered her composure. Says a prison guard in amazement: "She may have had an arrogant attitude before she got here, but she left it at the gate. Mrs. Harris is getting along great."
Meanwhile the flock of entrepreneurs who descended on the Harris case practically at the outset have begun cashing in. This Thursday and Friday, NBC will air a frenetically produced miniseries, People vs. Jean Harris, based on highlights from the trial's 10,000-page transcript. The producer paid the standard $1.50 a page for the material. Ellen Burstyn was cast as Harris in the program, with Martin Balsam as defense attorney Joel Aurnou. This month New American Library will publish Washington Star reporter Duncan Spencer's quickie paperback on the case. In close competition, with hardcover books, are journalist Shana Alexander and the venerable essayist Diana Trilling. Billionaire Norton Simon agreed last month to pay the 75-year-old Trilling $1 million to turn her opus, Mrs. Harris, into a movie starring his wife, Jennifer Jones, 62. Even though Alexander, 55, is the only writer who has interviewed Mrs. Harris in jail, Simon says he wasn't interested in her book, Travesties, "because Shana definitely wants Mrs. Harris' acquiescence on everything she writes." (Retorts Alexander: "Nonsense.")
The publicity blizzard has left its object unmoved. Harris has rejected all offers for movie and book deals, according to attorney Herald Price Fahringer, who is arguing her appeal. Sometime this fall the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court will consider Harris' plea to upset her conviction.
Meanwhile "Integrity Jean"—as Madeira students nicknamed Mrs. Harris for her fierce devotion to discipline—has adjusted well to the grim monotony of prison. Up at 6:30 a.m. and in bed by 10 p.m., she works half the day distributing food to patients in the infirmary and the other half tutoring in high school equivalency classes. Reportedly liked and respected by her fellow inmates, she has even organized jogging sessions for prisoners in the corridor outside her six-by-nine-foot cell. "She's very energetic. She has no timidity or passivity. She is really gung ho," says a Bedford Hills prison official. Most of the 422 inmates are young, black and poor, but Jean Harris is not entirely unique in the prison population. "We have a few people of her caliber," says one guard. Included are a 64-year-old schoolteacher who shot to death her common-law husband, and a 54-year-old registered nurse who killed her husband's first wife with an overdose of insulin. "There are women here for Mrs. Harris to relate to," the guard says. "You know, they can talk about where they bought their clothes on the outside."
Harris continues to insist that Dr. Tarnower's death was a tragic accident (the result of her bungled suicide attempt), but his friends dispute that account, as did the jury. "Jean doesn't understand why Hi's friends won't see her," says Vivian Schulte, at whose Palm Beach home the couple often holidayed. "Jean is a marvelous woman. I'd like to visit her in jail, but it would hurt my husband too much. Arthur is very embittered. He was Hi Tarnower's best friend."
Nonetheless, Harris hopes to be vindicated. Until she is, though, she has returned enthusiastically to her profession. Nowadays Prisoner 81-G-98 is as concerned with her inmate students as she was with those at Madeira. "Mrs. Harris kept telling me how horrible it was that the prisoners were illiterate," says courtroom artist Ida Libby Dengrove, who visited her in Valhalla. " 'These girls,' Mrs. Harris said, 'don't even know what a pronoun is!' "