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'The Myth of Me' : Aftermath: Jean Harris rejects the labels thrust upon her after the Scarsdale Diet Doctor murder in 1980, saying she's just 'a tired old lady.' But she has energy to speak out for other women still in prison.

July 19, 1993|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONROE, N.H. — From her cabin high above the Connecticut River, Jean Harris can see two mountain ranges, three white church steeples, one tiny village and two covered bridges.

What she cannot see is her past. And that, of course, is why she has come here.

After serving 12 years in a maximum-security prison for the 1980 murder of Scarsdale Diet Dr. Herman Tarnower, Harris' failing health and model work with prisoners' children finally won her release in January. By April, she was an official citizen of New Hampshire--the state with the motto "Live Free or Die."

For a woman who fully expected to die in prison for killing "the only man I ever loved," living free is precious indeed and Harris is doing it very well.

From her prison cell, the view outside was spoiled by coils of barbed wire. Here, the nearest barbed wire is the few strands used to pen in some milk cows down the road.

In prison, she routinely endured strip searches and scrubbed showers for the privilege of a few minutes of bathing alone. Here, she showers when and for as long as she wishes.

In this place that "feels awfully close to heaven," Harris says she is finally losing the hell that was her past.

On a lazy summer morning, the only thing rushing is the river far below as Harris, 69, her voice small and girlish, calls out from behind the screen door. "Hello, hello. I see you've found me."

Except for her sons, Jimmy, 40, and David, 42, who bought this cabin for her years before she was free to live in it, Harris has entertained very few guests here. And that is intentional. Her family and an oversized golden retriever puppy are company enough, she says, for a person who lived in close quarters with 620 other people for more than a decade.

"I can't tell you how wonderful it is to be alone," sighs Harris, who had been sentenced to 15 years to life.

For years, her favorite fantasy of freedom was exactly this. The mountains, the quiet and taking a walk with a dog--" never with a leash."

Is she bored? "Impossible!"

Is she lonely? "Not yet."

Is anything missing? "Yes, 12 years of my life."

*

Jean Harris is slight and delicate and today, very sad looking, especially around the eyes.

The woman who was once called "America's favorite convict" and likened by some romantics to Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina insists she is now "just a tired old lady."

While those who benefit from her tireless efforts for prison reform say her energy remains boundless, there is no question that prison and the tragedy that landed her there have aged her.

"I honestly believed I would die in prison," says Harris. And she nearly did. She suffered three heart attacks. But even worse for her health, she says, were the three clemency rejections by Gov. Mario Cuomo, who maintained she was no different from other women who kill.

Then last Dec. 29, as Harris lay on a stretcher being readied for heart bypass surgery, Cuomo granted her fourth request. "I woke up at 3 a.m. and made the decision at 4 a.m.," the governor told the Associated Press. At noon, Harris, weeping with joy and surprise, was wheeled into the operating room.

Cuomo said he agonized greatly over his decision to commute her sentence. Harris, always the lady, notes that she agonized as well.

Although tens of thousands of people had worked for her early release and one of her sons even set up a table on a Manhattan street corner to collect signatures on petitions to free her, it was apparently Harris' state of health that finally convinced Cuomo.

There is no history of heart disease in her family, says Harris. And her doctors maintain it was the "distress of confinement" that provoked her heart attacks.

But Harris' heart had caused her problems before. And it was broken many times before she ever went to prison.

*

Born into an upper-middle-class Ohio family, Jean Struven was a bright and beautiful girl who went to Smith College with Barbara Bush (whom she admires very much) and Nancy Reagan (whom she does not). She graduated magna cum laude and married soon after "because that's what girls did."

In 1965, after a quarrel over her failure to get the boys to brush their teeth before bed, Harris announced to her husband: "Jim, it's 10:30 and starting right now I'm not your wife anymore."

She was 42 and she was starting a new life. That new life included not only a new career as an educator and later headmistress of the exclusive Madeira School for girls in McLean, Va., it also was the beginning of a romance with New York cardiologist Herman (Hy) Tarnower, then 56.

The doctor was a wonderful dancer, a witty conversationalist, fabulously wealthy and, according to Harris, "a great lover of life."

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