"That poor woman," said the man on the phone. "Any man who treats a woman like that got what he deserved. That jury shouldn't have convicted her. Look at Cullen Davis and the Hill-Robinson murders in Texas. When the men go on trial for crimes of passion, the jury lets them go."
"What did he do that was so strong?" asks the bachelor. "There were other women in his life, but what was their relationship? They weren't married. She lived down here. She knew there were other women. There are different kinds of relationships. Different levels of bonding. And he left her $220,000 in his will. I wish someone would treat me that badly."
"I was shocked," said the married professional woman. "I thought she'd walk. If it wasn't an accident, it was certainly temporary insanity. And besides," she added with a knowing smile, "he had it coming."
Jean Harris, former headmistress of Tony Madeira finishing school, has been found guilty of second-degree murder, and the debate rages on. Everyone seems to have an opinion, even those who thought they didn't care. Men particularly seem to be reading something profound into the verdict. They seem to be taking it with a touch of humor. America is once again safe for philanderers. They joke when they talk like that, but there is something to it. What, they say, if she'd actually gotten off? What happens to the next guy who fools around?
I will make a confession here. When the Jean Harris murder trial started last October, I had a hard time getting interested. Finishing school headmistress of not, she was basically an older, clearly rejected woman who didn't know when to give up, who lacked the emotional fortitude to disengage herself from a ruinous relationship. She was 57 years old, going on 15. Her lover, at 69, was never going to make anyone forget Robert Redford. In fact, if she was plain, he was downright unattractive. Yet an audience that worships youth turned their story into a hit play. Toward the end, you couldn't go to a dinner party without the Harris trial coming up and now we are still debating her fate, unable to believe her story yet willing to suspend that disbelief just long enough to say that, well, he had it coming to him. What gripped us about the Harris trial? Why the need to find some larger meaning? Why was there some misguided attempt -- which mercifully never took hold -- to make this into a feminist cause, a watershed in the war between the sexes?
What did he have coming to him, really? None of his behavior seemed particularly commendable, but if women started bumping off every man who cheated or otherwise abused them -- well, we'd most likely have to legalize polygamy in order to continue the species.
There is, said the newspaper editor, nothing like sex and murder to make a great story. But this was sex and murder among the wealthy, the socially connected, and from the very word go this story was destined for the front pages. What the story lacked in suspense at the beginning, it rapidly compensated for with its addicting abundance of sordid details about the private lives of the rich.
It brought out the voyeur in all of us. And if we were thinking, there, but for the grace of God, go I, so, too were we secretly delighted to discover that there's a little tacky in all of us. As the courtroom drama unfolded and we got our daily fix, there was no need to be fair or judicious in our reactions. Herman Tarnower, his character cut and bleeding on the courtroom floor, became evil incarnate, the worst of men, a heartless womanizer who toyed sadistically with Harris' affections. As an audience, we were under no obligation to step back for a moment and say, hold on: Maybe he was letting her hang around, giving her a portion of his life out of kindness, because she would fall apart if he made a clean break. Tarnower never had a chance to defend himself, but if he came off as an unsympathetic character, so to a lesser degree did Jean Harris, whose last line of defense was to put the Other Woman down as a whore, a socially inferior woman, a member of the lower class. Jean Harris, murder defendant, was first and foremost, a raging snob.
This was, by today's standards, a simple story, and perhaps there lay it's greatest appeal. It was an old-fashioned love triangle involving people that few of us are gong to lose a whole lot of sleep over. It was a newspaper editor's dream story, the kind that hooks readers, the kind that sells newspapers. It was a throwback to simpler times when the great questions facing the nation were not how to avert economic disaster and nuclear war, but whether Sam Shepherd killed his wife. The Harris trial made infinitely more arresting reading than did stories about SALT II or the economy, and so we gobbled it up, hungry for each morsel. In the end there were no great human verities, no profound truths to be found and there were never going to be. Whatever passions we bring to the debate about Jean Harris' fate are tempered by the wonderful knowledge that for most of us in this world none of this really mattered. Unlike the rest of today's news, this was a story we could relish. For once we were reading about something awful that in no way could ever touch our lives