Jean Harris made national news in 1980 as the defendant...

Jean Harris made national news in 1980 as the defendant in a high-profile murder case of her ex-lover Dr. Herman Tarnower, the well-known cardiologist and author of the best-selling book The Scarsdale Diet. She was convicted of second-degree murder. Credit: Newsday File

Jean Harris, the exclusive girls' school headmistress who spent 12 years in prison for the 1980 killing of "Scarsdale Diet" doctor Herman Tarnower, died in an assisted-living facility in New Haven, Conn., on Sunday. She was 89.

Harris was arrested for fatally shooting the Westchester cardiologist, her longtime lover. The case, involving a love triangle, captivated the nation for more than a year, from Harris' arrest to her sentencing for second-degree murder on March 20, 1981.

She maintained the slaying was accidental and that she meant to shoot herself. Her supporters saw Tarnower as an emotionally abusive bachelor who was having an affair with his office assistant, Lynne Tryforos, a woman half his age.

After serving almost 12 years of a 15-year-to-life sentence, on Dec. 29, 1992, Harris was told that then-Gov. Mario Cuomo had granted her bid for clemency.

Her doctors told her the news as she was being prepared for quadruple-bypass surgery following the second heart attack she had while being held at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Cuomo had rejected two previous bids for clemency.

"She thought maybe someone had mixed up the message," Alice Lacey, head of the Jean Harris Defense Fund, told Newsday at the time of the surgery. "She had pretty much given up hope."

Cuomo said in a statement that he granted Harris clemency because of her work on behalf of fellow inmates and their children. Harris, former headmistress of the Madeira School for Girls in McLean, Va., created an organization called the Bedford Hills Children's Foundation to aid in the education of prisoners' children.

Harris' murder case ignited a social debate over the status of women, with her defenders seeing her as symbolizing the plight of an aging and independent woman who was mistreated.

The case inspired two made-for-television movies, "The People vs. Jean Harris," which aired not long after her 1981 conviction, and "Mrs. Harris," which ran on HBO in 2006.

Born Jean Struven on April 27, 1923, she grew up in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, attended private schools, graduated magna cum laude from Smith College and married industrialist James Harris.

The couple lived in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and had two sons. She and Harris divorced in 1966. A few months later, she met Tarnower, 12 years her senior, at a party on Park Avenue in New York.

Harris is survived by two sons, James and David; a sister, Mary Lynch; a brother, Robert Struven; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

With AP

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