A man went to get his hair cut the other day in a chic unisex salon. As his locks was being snipped and styled, he heard someone mention the 'Harris trial.' Everyone in the place burst into chatter. Nearly everyone had an opinion: Jean Harris should be acquitted; Jean Harris should be acquitted; Jean Harris should be convicted; she should go to jail; she should get counseling; her life is ruined anyway; that doctor treated her so terribly; yes, but that's no excuse for killing someone . . .
The trial of former Madeira School headmistress Jean Harris, accused of murdering her lover, the author of the best-selling "Scarsdale Diet," has been going on for over three months now, and arm-chair juries and judges have been renering their verdicts for at least that long. Now that the real jury is deliberating Harris' fate, the informal debates around dinner tables and offices have reached a new intensity. tThere seems to be little consensus according to sex; men as well as women think the well-educated, well-groomed Harris should be released, and just as many think she should pay for shooting Dr. Herman Tarnower, her on-again, off-again lover for 14 years. Nor does the much-vaunted notion of Harris as a feminist symbol -- the emotionally oppressed, mistreated older woman seemingly rejected for a younger one and forced into forming a self-defense by threatening suicide -- seem to be very popular.
The only thing that seems certain is that a lot of people have been following this case with the zeal of true addicts. For some, it's a secret vice -- "like watching 'Dallas,'" as one feminist put it. Others unashamedly rush for their newspapers each day, searching for the latest dispatch from the White Plains, N.Y., courthouse. "It's my favorite soap opera," raved one young woman.
"For me, the interesting thing about the Harris trial is that it is so terrifically absorbing to so many of my friends," said Midge Decter, a writer and social critic. "I have not been following it as passionately -- much to my bewilderment. It seems to me her story is rather standard . . .
This is a lady who couldn't stand it. She was having a lengthy affair with an older man who evidently had a lot of other women. Shootings like this must happen all the time. People say it's a class matter, but jealousy is not a class matter. There are murders among the upper classes all the time. Most of my friends are rather cynical about her account [of what happened]. I think the interest is far more dirty-minded and voyeuristic than anything else."
"It's seeing the upstairs from the downstairs," said sociologist Amitai Etzioni. "If it was a carpenter's mistress who shot her janitor boyfriend it would not capture public attention. The fascination is with this hoity-toity lady who runs a finishing school who turns out to have clay feet like the rest of us. People find it reassuring."
"The men I know think she killed him, and the women I know believe her story [that the shooting occurred while Harris tried to kill herself in front of Tarnower]," said Margo St. James, head of the San Francisco-based C.O.Y.O.T.E., the prostitutes' lobby."The men react with horror at the thought that a woman might off one of their own. Their little testicles may drop at the thought . . . I would acquit her. The fact that she shot so many times indicates she was out of her mind.
"There's a good object lesson here. Men should be careful how they arrange their mistresses. He led her one. He exploited her on the book number. For nearly 15 years she dedicated herself to him, and these women expect to be rewarded in some way. He was cruel to her in the meanest way."
Harris' lawyer Joel Arnou would probably agree with St. James. In his summation Monday, he spoke passionately (in between great stretches of tedious testimony recapitulation) about the pressures and disappointments he claims led Harris to try to take her life, weeping occasionally when he came to a particularly touching anecdote. He quoted her last words to a Madeira School colleague on that fateful day last March: "Please don't go. I'm so very depressed," he said, his voice cracking. "Please don't leave me."
"This is a story of love. This is a story of love gone wrong," he said to the jury later. "Love from a woman who had more love to give than a man could accept."
Prosecutor George Bolen tried to contribute his share to the soap opera by recreating in loud burst the scenario as he saw it. "She accepted the fact that he was a bachelor dedicated to his work . . . what's so wrong with that?" Bolen said. "Would we be equally quick to condemn and accuse a woman who chose not to get married? . . . She accepted that he would do what he wanted with his own life . . . She had no objection to other women as long as he didn't get serious about them."
"It seems to me a classic case of a used and abused female in the traditional sense," said Richard ("Racehorse") Haynes, the Houston lawyer who successfully defended multimillionaire T. Cullen Davis against charges that he murdered his step-daughter and tried to hire someone to murder the judge in his divorse case. "While I don't condone the taking of another life, it seems to me she had no alternative. Were I a juror I would be inclined to acquite."
As Haynes sees it, Tarnower should not be absolved from responsibility for what happened. "He had the wherewithal to outline the parameters of the relationship. He flaunted the fact that she was at his mercy. He discarder her like she was biodegradable . . . A woman her age [57 now] would be more susceptible and more likely to be a victim than today's young woman. I'm sure she was grieved over the fact that she was a "mistress' -- for a woman of her background that would be a heavy load of guilt about her own conduct. Apparently the deceased did what should never be done -- to flaunt his infidelity and insincerity in the face of the lady."
"I think she could have had a good palimony case," said attorney Marvin Mitchelson, who is known for such cases. "He promised her a lot and broke his promises." Mitchelson predicts a hung jury -- the combination of sympathy for Harris and the unavoidable fact that Dr. Tarnower is dead will inevitably collide, he said.
"It would be pretty hard not to find her guilty of something," she said. "All these bullets were fired, and somehow most of them end up in him. You have to believe her whole story, and the evidence seems against it. But she's got a strong sympathy case . . . It's obvious she became too obsessed with their relationship. You know, I've handled 3,000 divorce cases, and in every one, one person is on top in the relationship. Obviously he controlled that relationship, and she was subservient to it. When you lose yourself in someone else you have no values to fall back on. You become irrational, and you don't think clearly.
Feminist Betty Friedan, author of "The Feminine Mystique," agrees with Decter, whose views she does not often share, that the case is not one with feminist implications. Nor is it a case that has particularly attracted Friedan.
"The only thing I can say is that Mrs. Harris seems to have put herself into some sort of weired victim psychological state vis-a-vis this creepy doctor," she said. "I hate the fact that women have been turning their aggressive energies inward on themselves to the extent that it sometimes result in violence like this. I suppose some women identify with this case in terms of it being a symbol that men better not treat them with such contempt . . . it shouldn't have to result in murder to make such a point."
"There's a part of every woman in Jean Harris," said Margaret M. Graham, president of the National Association of Junior Leagues and a one-time patient of Dr. Tarnower. "But I don't think it has any implications for the women's movement. This is an individual case."
"The guy was a bastard!" said Dominique d'Ermo, the French owner of Dominique's restaurant. "To make love to her all those years and then find somebody younger and kick her out.He didn't behave like a gentleman. In France she would be acquitted right away -- there would be no case -- it would be in court one hour! He was a dirty old man -- beside those two, he had some others who knows. It's a different culture -- a lot of people here think you make love only after you marry . . . I hope she writes a book and makes a movie and make a lot of money."
"All I can say is that this was one of those alienated relationships that develops under capitalism," said Toba Singer of the D.C. Socialist Worker's Party. "We think this society oppresses women. Women are taught they are the property of men, they grow up hoping they will be possessed by men. When their expectations are disappointed it often results in violence . . . In Cuba this sort of thing is very rare. With a worker's government you don't see that much alienated behavior. This sort of thing happens among the working classes all the time. It's a reflection of bourgeois norms being imposed. It only gets romantic publicity when the upper classes are involved. Even then it isn't taken very seriously."
In some ways it wasn't so much that Harris herself was upper-class -- she came from a middle-class family and was graduated from Smith College -- but that she was responsible for the education of the daughters of the upper class. Tarnower, too, came from more humble beginnings than where he ended up, bloodied in the bedroom of his $500,000 home in Purchase, N.Y.
Richard Wheeler is the headmaster of Foxcroft School -- a competitor of Madeira in the world of expensive girls' prep school and a neighbor in the sense that Madeira is in McLean and Foxcroft is in Middleburg.
"Jean Harris was a good professional friend of mine," Wheeler said. "So my feelings about the case are still very shocked and confused. I offered to testify for her as a character witness. If Dr. Tarnower were my friend I might feel differently . . . I'll tell you one thing, although there is a healthy rivalry between our schools there has been no gloating over this. The students don't talk about it, and the faculty doesn't either. Our faculty and their faculty have meetings together all the time, and no one ever mentions it."