It has always been something of a weeper, the Jean Harris affair, a good one-handkerchief trial.
The defendant, at the mention of her "suicidal depressions" or her dying lover, has put on her dark glasses and dabbed at her eyes with a bit of wadded pink tissue. Across the courtroom, the sister of Dr. Herman Tarnower, the man Harris is accused of shooting, has likewise wept at the mention of her brother's name.
But today, the seventh day of the Harris murder trial, the proceedings changed from one-handkerchief status to two, maybe three, climaxing in a moment of seasonal schmaltz approaching Kitsch.
A Christmas stocking did the trick: A large red Christmas stocking such as one might make for a child, with the name "Herman" across the top in multicolored letters. It was decorated with felt appliques relating to the globe-trotting doctor's life -- a giraffe, an elephant, a set of gold golf clubs. It was obviously handmade. And the sight of it, introduced as evidence, was obviously more than Harris could bear. She put her head wearily down on the back of her chair and quietly cried as her lawyer -- dramatic and pugnacious Joel Aurnou -- stood protectively at her side, his hand on her shoulder.
Could the witness -- Suzanne Van der Vreken, housekeeper to the late Dr. Tarnower -- identify this object, which had been found in the doctor's house? he asked.
"That was a Christmas stocking that Mrs. Harris made for Dr. Tarnower about 10 years ago," the housekeeper said.
Other exhibits had merely been held up to the court clerk and entered in evidence. In the case of the Christmas stocking, the defense attorney ordered it passed to the jurors, who examined it one by one, as Harris, obviously upset, quietly dabbed at her eyes.
Former headmistress of the Madeira School in McLean, Va., Harris 57, has been accused of second-degree murder in the shooting of best-selling diet doctor Tarnower, a charge that carries a sentence of 25 years to life. The prosecution, noting that Harris had been involved in a love-triangle with Tarnower and a younger woman, Lynne Tryforos, 37, charges that Harris shot Tarnower in a jealous rage. The defense maintains the shooting was "a tragic accident." But that defense position has been weakened considerably by star prosecution witness Van der Vreken. It was Van der Vreken who told the jury that Harris, angry and aware of Tarnower and Tryforos, had threatened to "make their life miserable." It was also the Belgian-born housekeeper, her manner cool and disdainful, who had given the jury some particularly humiliating information about Harris. She testified that Tarnower had instructed Van der Vreken to lie about his whereabouts when he wanted to avoid speaking to Harris.
Today, as cross-examination of Van der Vreken continued, defense attorney Aurnou tried to undercut her testimony.He produced a stack of Harris' clothing which had been left in Tarnower's home, including the Christmas stocking, in an apparent attempt to show Harris and Tarnower had established a cozy domestic nest of longstanding. He brought up minute differences between the testimony she had given the grand jury and answers she gave him. At times he seemed to suggest there had been something wrong in her behavior toward Harris, that she had been, perhaps, a deceitful servant in cahoots with a duplicitous employer.
Having established yesterday that Tarnower often slept one night with Harris, the next Tryforos, and that Tryforos might have at one time destroyed Harris' clothing when she found it in the doctor's home, Aurnou today tried to show what steps the doctor and his housekeeper took to keep each of the women unaware of the other.
"What happened when Mrs. Tryforos stayed over but Mrs. Harris' things were in the bedroom?" said Aurnou.
"Dr. Tarnower asked me to put them away, to put them in the closet," said Van der Vreken, suffering a from a sore throat and visibly tiring.
"You mean he told you to hide them?" taunted Aurnou.
Aurnou also tried -- unsuccessfully -- to pin down the housekeeper on the subject of Tarnower and women beside Harris and Tryforos. But though he quoted grand jury testimony in which Van der Vreken said the doctor dated other women, Van der Vreken, a tough, unflappable witness, refused comment. She said that in 1978 through 1980, the doctor had had no overnight women guests other than Harris and Tryforos. She also tried strenuously to avoid any discussion of whether Harris had been aware of the doctor and other women. a
"Did there come a time when you personally observed something that indicated to you that Mrs. Harris was aware that Dr. Tarnower was dating women other than Lynne Tryforos?" asked Aurnou, after a number of other questions had been overruled.
"I'll try to answer this in the right way," said Van der Vreken, in her heavy accent. "When I talked with Mrs. Harris, Mrs. Harris only talked about Lynn Tryforos with me . . . never another woman. . . ."
The verbal parrying, which has continued for two days now, was typical of Van der Vreken, a woman given to tightknit dresses and a large cross who has consistently proven that she can give as good as she gets.
Sparring with Aurnou on the stand yesterday, she defended herself smoothly and with a certain Gallic sophistication when he tried to criticize her on the subject of lying to Harris about the doctor's whereabouts.
"Somebody told you to lie and you did? To a woman you had known for 14 years?" asked Aurnou, in theatrical dismay.
"Aaah, well, I'm sure she lied to me sometimes, too," said Van der Vreken.
Today, she held up equally well. As the attorney badgered her on a point, she made a suggestion.
"Maybe it was lost in my accent," she said.
"Or lost in your recollection?" said Aurnou.
"No, my accent," the witness said.