The tip-off on the Harris case came with the old lady. She was so old, she had to walk in on the arm of a niece.

She was so old you would have thought, by now, the passions would have cooled.

But she had the energy to rant and rail against Herman Tarnower, the man Harris was accused of shooting, in a fine, colorful rage.

"She gives him the best years of her life, and he give her the dirty end of the stick," she said. "He got what he had coming."

She cursed and carried on. She had so much to say, so strongly, that within five minutes the mob of reporters left, sick of her.

And then she got to the heart of it, the reason she was really there.

"My husband was a bad one, too," she said.

So it went throughout the trial. Everyone brought to it their own feelings on love, their own wounds, their own vengeances so that it was, finally a Rorschach test of the heart.

The problem was that what everyone made of her was not necessarily Harris.

The flaw in Harris' claim of a "tragic accident" was that her lover sustained four wounds.

The flaw with the idea of Harris as helpless victim or feminist heroine is that she stayed with a man who treated her badly for years.

He broke off an engagement six months after they met, and she stayed. He told her he was marrying another woman and she stayed. He told her he did not want to see her if she continued to bother his latest girlfriend and she stayed.

It is true that in the beginning she was a victim, for she was the unknowing object of attack.But in the end, she had gone beyond being a victim to being a professional victim. She knew what was coming, and she stayed. She agreed to be victimized. She agreed to the terms.

The week before the Scarsdale shooting, Jean Harris made a speech on accountability to her students at the Madeira School. The theme was that everyone is responsible for his actions. But Harris, on the stand in her murder trial, impressed the courtroom as a woman who never took responsibility for her actions.

Confronted by the prosecutor about having taken drugs prescribed for her by Tarnower in somebody else's name, she denied responsibility.

"Well, I guess that makes Dr. Tarnower a criminal," she snapped.

Asked if she knew what the effects of the drugs were, she pushed that aside, also. She knew the doctor would do what was best for her, she said.

She was also a woman out of touch with her feelings, the queen of self-deception and denial.

Was she enraged when she tore her rival's negligee from her lover's door and threw it across the room? the prosecutor asked.

"I wasn't angry," she said, sounding like a character out of "Ordinary People." "I was upset."

The Scarsdale Letter, which she wrote to her lover the day of the shooting, she described as a "whining letter" that she did not want her lover to see because her intentions with him were also to "amuse."

When the letter became public, it shocked the courtroom. "Psychotic whore" it said. "Slut." "Your psychotic whore." All the repressed rage had suddenly erupted to the top.

It should not have been that hard to sympathize with Harris -- as she told her story on the witness stand, most did. There was so little self-respect to the woman; so much the person who stays with a man who treats her badly because, somewhere in her soul, she feels that is what she deserves, or the best she will ever find.

"I was a person, and no one ever knew," she had written. "I had always felt inadequate. My intent was always to amuse, never to anger."

She was, besides, a weary, middle-aged woman, facing a young, male prosecutor -- sympathy was intrinsically on her side; it should have been the prosecutor who had trouble.

But under questioning from the prosecutor, Harris lost a lot of the sympathy, she had inspired. She was self-righteous, condescending, nasty. She presented herself as a lady and her younger rival as "the sort of person I wasn't used to rubbing up against," but on the stand, she took cheap swipes at the other woman often.

Her love for Tarnower, which she seemed to perceive as an unusually high-minded, pure love, was seen more and more as an immature, adolescent love in which the lover is idealized, romanticized.

"I felt like that once, but I was sixteen," visitors said and again.

Nor was Harris an agreeable person. She was domineering, unwilling to accept the fact that Tarnower wanted her out of his life.That was the paradox: on one hand, she refused to take responsibility for her life; staying with the relationship, viewing herself as helpless victim -- and therefore blameless.

On the other hand, she had to be in control. Her attorney could not control her -- she talked more than any defendant should on the stand; she had to be led physically away from the press by her lawyers.

And she would not, though she perceived herself as victim, allow Tarnower to leave.

When he told her he preferred the company of someone else at a testimonial dinner, she refused to accept it.

"I have been publicly humiliated again and again, but not the 19th of April," she wrote, the weekend before the shooting. " . . . I have earned the right to watch it. . . ."

So why did we all care so much? Why, on the day the verdict came in, were such diverse characters in the courtroom as the imperious and tart-tongued Diana Trilling, essayist and social critic, and Jimmy Breslin, cigar-chomping Daily News columnist who talks like one of his barroom characters and has yet to be seen in public with his tie tied?

The answer is somewhere between love and voyeurism. Everybody, one time or another, had written a letter with elements of the Scarsdale Letter or loved someone who did not love him/her back, or been the jilter or jiltee. Everybody has had some terrible humiliating scene he or she would just as soon forget; has carried on, a blathering fool for love.

Add to that the fact that this was a peek at the rich and famous: what is so satisfying as the idea that the rich suffer, too? And, of course, had Harris not been who she was, no one ever would have known of her in the first place.

A poor woman could not have had the money to afford to keep a trial going for five months. A poor woman's story would not have had the glitter that kept us reading -- it took Jean Harris' life, with those trips around the world, those scenes in Paris hotel rooms. A scene in a row house, for some reason, does not have the allure.

But Harris as a feminist, Harris as heroine?

Better to appreciate the story for what it was -- the sad history of an uppercrust neurotic, and if Harris must be a role model, a role model of what a woman should not be.

Or better just to kiss it off, the way a Madeira student did shortly after the shooting:

"She was just a nice lady, who went crazy over some guy."