"If you want to know what I think, I think the guy deserved to die!"
The woman says this with a blistering vengeance. She is standing at the sink briskly chopping the six walnut halves for her Scarsdale diet lunch.
"Listen to this," she says, turning back the pages of the paperback to the acknowledgments. She reads down the list: "Suzanne . . . Phyllis . . . Terry . . . Elizabeth . . . Janet . . . Barbara . . . Elaine . . . Frances . . . June . . . Sharon . . . Ruth . . . There are 35 women's names! The creep should have worn a scarlet B for bastard."
The woman puts the last scoop of cottage cheese on the platter and brings it to the table saying, "I don't know if she did it on purpose or not, but I hope she gets acquitted."
I smile at her for a moment, because this irate friend is so rarely belligerent. She is an academic who normally adds historical foot notes and "allegedlys" to her measured opinions. But today she sounds like some advocate of capital punishment for Lotharios.
This is what the story of Jean Harris and Hy Tarnower has done. Turned us into voyeurs and partisans of this most compelling case of the "wronged woman."
The papers had been full of more details. There was the engagement ring that led to no wedding. There was the trip to Paris clouded by the letter from another woman. There was the night she stayed in, writing diet recipes while he went out partying.
The murder trial resonates with jealously, rejection, pain, insensitivity. With her 14 years and his other women. Her pride and his other women. Her self-esteem and his other women. It strikes too many familiar chords simply to play in the background.
So Jean Harris has become a kind of upper-crust blues heroine. Everywoman whose man done her wrong. Everywoman who ever found the inscription on the cuff links, the letters in the drawer, the clothes in the closet. Everywoman who responded by saying only, "I wish -- the same old wish -- there were more ways I could do things for you."
She was 43 when she met the New York cardiologist. Whatever the scars of her childhood and marriage, she was and is also a vital, witty magna cum laude from Smith, dubbed Big Woman by her sons and Integrity Jean by her students.
It was this woman who was attracted to and wooed by the urbane man with his roses, his wine cellar, his dinners, his trips . . . and his little black book.
I don't know whether she came to this relationship with her own low crop of self-esteem or whether he eventually cut her down to size. He sounds like a bait-and-switch artist of great experience -- a man able to hook women on charm and promises of stardom and then transfer them back into his chorus line. We've all seen men like that.
But I still don't see this as some classic heroic tragedy. I see it as the sorry common soap opera of the woman who hung on too long for too little.
We've all seen them. The woman who gradually settles for what a man gives rather than what she wants. The woman whose self-image slowly splits into warring halves: headmistress of Madeira and scorned mistress of Scarsdale; Integrity Jean in her work life and Jealous Jean in her love life. We've seen what's left for the losers in this internal war of the ego, a final revealing request: "I wish immediately to be thrown away."
By 57, after 14 years, Jean Harris had learned too well how to swallow mouthfuls of humiliation in return for tidbits of attention. By 57, she had learned to misuse her pride to pretend she didn't mind. It's not all that unique. Inevitably when anyone tamps down jealously, anger and pain, the pressure builds up. Cover 14 years of it with pills or pride, and sooner or later it will explode into some form of destruction.
So forgive me if I don't think Jean Harris is Everywoman Wronged. To me, she's Everywoman who didn't know when or how to go. She's Everywoman who ever stayed with a bastard "because I love him" -- and called this romantic.
She is, finally, Everywoman who ever hung onto a relationship by her fingernails while her self-esteem eroded like a crumbly windowsill on the 18th floor.
Eventually, like all of them, she fell into an abyss.