To the outside world, Jean Harris was the finishing-school headmistress who killed her diet-doctor lover, thereby becoming a kind of hero to women who also had suffered the cold indifference of a philanderer.
“We were thrilled,” the late, great Nora Ephron recalled. “When I say we, I mean me, but I also mean every woman who has ever wanted to kill a bad boyfriend.”
But inside the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility where Harris served 12 years, she was best known for assisting Sister Elaine Roulet at its children’s center, teaching and guiding incarcerated mothers. Harris became a driving force and guiding hand behind the center’s innovative nursery, which had only two infants when she started and ended up handling as many as 30 at a time.
New York State gives incarcerated new mothers the choice of either immediately handing over their babies to foster care, or nursing and caring for them for a year behind bars. Harris and Sister Elaine did all they could to encourage the moms to keep their babies in defiance of an ignorant adage in the correctional services that babies born in prison never smile.
“It’s the baby with no mother, no mothering who will never smile,” Harris once exclaimed.
The hope of Harris and Sister Elaine was that the bond established in that first year would survive in both the mother and the child, through the cruelties of the separation to come. Harris taught the mothers prenatal and postnatal care as well as basic sex education. She also helped women prepare for high school equivalency exams. And while boosting their literacy, she had them read stories aloud into a tape recorder. The recordings were then sent to their children. One 23-year-old inmate already had seven kids.
Harris later said that her most popular class for expectant mothers was Fingerplay, where she taught them movement coupled with such nursery rhymes as “I’m a Little Teapot” and “This Little Piggy,” so they could in turn teach it to their children.
“They insisted that we not skip a single one. They said: ‘This is something I can do with my little baby,’” Harris told a gathering at the Yale Law School after her sentence was commuted in 1992. “It means so much to a child to go to kindergarten and say, ‘I know this because my mommy taught me!’”
Harris may have found the work at the center to be a way she could fit into prison life, which by her own account was not an easy adjustment. She had been a stickler for rules while running the Madeira School outside Washington, D.C., expelling four of the top seniors after a few marijuana seeds and pipe stems were discovered in their room. But she did not take well to prison regulations enforced by those whom, in her words, “I don’t have much use for.” She bristled at a prohibition against wearing jewelry.
“If you’re going to take my picture, I’m going to wear my pearls,” she told a Newsweek photographer, producing a single strand from her pocket and donning them before she would allow him to take a prison portrait.
She continued to wear her pearls along with a black velvet headband through the days ahead, furthering a misapprehension among her fellow inmates that she was some kind of rich society dame. Her WASP demeanor and reserve kept her fellow inmates from realizing that she had only tended to the children of the well-to-do, that she had actually been a working single mom raising two boys with all the pressures and worries that entails. The first time she was assigned to wash floors, an inmate asked if she had ever done that before.
“I’ve probably washed as many floors as any woman in here, but I’m sure they would never believe that,” Harris wrote in a published letter to the late author Shana Alexander.
Just as she had among the wealthy, Harris found a place as an educator among the incarcerated. And she could not have been more needed than she was at the prison and the children’s center whose spirit was announced by a hand-painted banner on the wall.
“JOY IS UNBREAKABLE SO IT IS SAFE IN THE HANDS OF CHILDREN.”
On another wall was hung a gaily colored quilt made by Harris. She also knitted hats and scarves for seemingly every child who came on the regular weekend visits on buses provided by Catholic charities. She helped arrange for households in the surrounding community to lodge inmates’ children during a three-week summer day camp held at the prison every summer.
The hosts, of course, got thank-you notes in the same neat hand once seen by those who had hosted Harris at dinner parties during the Madeira days. Notes also went out to those who sent gifts for the prison kids at Christmas time and to everyone who donated to the Children of Bedford foundation, which she established with the $100,000 in earnings from the first of two books she wrote on legal pads while behind bars, Stranger in Two Worlds.
The second book was They Always Call Us Ladies: Stories From Prison. She, who had expelled kids for pot seeds, wrote with great compassion about women who were serving draconian sentences for working as drug mules for men who then abandoned them, leaving them to go 20 years or more without so much as a visit. Other women had fallen victim to taking drugs and to prostitution. Many had been abused and battered. More than 60 percent had kids.
"Caring takes a heavy toll in here,” Harris wrote. “There’s so much to care about.”
She evidenced particular tenderness in describing a woman cradling a fellow inmate who had just suffered a grand mal seizure.
“It is a sight too sad to see,” she wrote. “It is a sight too beautiful to miss. It is Mary and Child on a prison cell floor. There are no lambs today, only cockroaches to play the role.”
She retained such a horror of cockroaches that she often slept with the lights on. And, for all her empathy, she still seemed to feel as much a stranger in the world behind bars as she had ultimately felt in the world of Madeira and of her doctor-lover, 70-year-old Herman Tarnower of the Scarsdale Diet fame.
In 1986, the state Division for Women held a hearing at Bedford Hills about the impact of domestic violence. Those in attendance included Barbara Treen, a longtime activist on behalf of incarcerated women and a member of the parole board. She chose to sit amongst the inmates in the bleachers and she found herself next to Harris.
In the view of Treen and many others, Harris had herself been a victim of psychological abuse by a lover who answered her devotion with callousness and intensified it all by putting her on amphetamines.
“He was so disrespectful to the relationship and to her,” Treen says. “She kept thinking she had to be better, she had to be stronger; and that meant she had to withstand it all and he had his total freedom. And she finally just snapped.”
Yet, as Harris now sat at this hearing in her trademark pearls and headband, she appeared to remain surprisingly detached, as a dozen of her fellow inmates told harrowing tales of physical and mental abuse.
“There wasn’t one bit of evidence that I could tell that she identified with any of the stories of battering,” Treen recalls.
One inmate whom Harris seemingly could not teach was Harris. She did offer glimpses in her writing of what she endured, but her anger always turned back on herself, as if she were the one who should be loathed.
“To be jeered at and called ‘old and pathetic’ made me seriously consider borrowing $5,000 just before I left New York and telling a doctor to make me young again—to do anything but make me not feel like discarded trash,” she wrote in one particularly heart-rending passage. “I lost my nerve because there was always the chance I’d end up uglier than before.”
And, as she refused to consider herself a victim, Harris also continued to insist she had intended to take her own life and had never meant to kill Tarnower that night in 1980 in the bedroom of his home in Purchase, N.Y. She said this even though one of the three bullets that struck him had pierced his open, up-raised palm, what one cop at the scene not long after the killing described to me as a “no, please don’t!” wound. The jurors who subsequently convicted her after a 14-week trial said they tried to reenact her version of the shooting and found it not credible.
Harris still maintained that the gun had failed to go off when she pointed it at herself, yet seemed to go off by itself repeatedly when it was pointed at Tarnower. She continued to pronounce him the person she loved most in the world with the exception of her two now-grown sons.
Her refusal to just say she did it precluded her from simply saying she was sorry she did it, and she was twice denied clemency. It was finally granted in recognition of all the good she had unquestionably done in prison. Her 15 years-to-life sentence was officially commuted on Dec. 29, 1992, just as she was about to be wheeled in for open-heart surgery.
After her full recovery and at-long-last release, Harris remained active in the Children of Bedford foundation and spoke on occasion at such venues as the Yale Law School. She otherwise lived quietly with a golden retriever she named Lanie in honor of Sister Elaine.
On Dec. 23, six days shy of the 20th anniversary of her release, Harris died at an assisted-living facility in New Haven, Conn. She was 89. Her death was announced by one of her sons, who did not offer any details regarding her funeral.
Harris is also survived by a redemptively abundant number of women and children who received at least a chance for a better life because of her. They remember not a tormented woman with a gun in her hand, but a lady who put one hand on her hip while raising the other with her elbow bent, singing “I’m a little teapot …”