- Mrs Harris by Diana Trilling
Hamish Hamilton, 341 pp, £8.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 241 10822 5
Mrs Jean Harris, a trim widow of 56, was a woman who had reason to congratulate herself on making a success of her life. She had risen from undistinguished but respectable suburban beginnings to the position of headmistress of the select Madeira School for girls, in McLean, Virginia. She had married young and had two fine sons. She had kept her looks, and, apart from the occasional bout of depression or fatigue, her health. She was well respected in the academic world, was an active fund-raiser, and presented to the girls in her charge a picture of independence, decorum and high moral standards. So high, indeed, were these moral standards that the penalties she inflicted on her girls for such relatively unimportant misdemeanours as drinking beer or smoking marijuana met with some criticism, not only from the girls themselves but from her colleagues and from the school board. Yet such criticism was powerless to modify Mrs Harris’s actions, for it was clear, even to those who did not warm to her, that Mrs Harris was a lady whose behaviour was so impeccable that she expected no less of others. Mrs Harris did not drink beer or smoke marijuana. But she did something else. On the night of 10 March 1980, Mrs Harris took a gun, got into her car, drove for five hours to Westchester, woke her lover of 14 years, Dr Herman Tarnower, from his sleep, shot him, then left him dying on the floor while she went back to her car and began to drive away. She did not intend to escape. In any event, the police were already approaching, alerted by Tarnower’s housekeeper, Suzanne van der Vreken. Mrs Harris was taken to the police station and in due course brought to trial. She was convicted of murder in the second degree and condemned to serve a sentence of a minimum of 15 years.
It was thought that Mrs Harris had been driven to this grave act by one particular circumstance. Although apparently resigned to her lover’s compulsive philandering, she found it very difficult to bear when he switched his attention from other women to one particular other woman, Mrs Lynne Tryforos, who was very much younger than Mrs Harris herself. Mrs Harris had the terrible feeling that she was being discarded, that Dr Tarnower, a confirmed bachelor, might indeed marry Mrs Tryforos. What gave her this impression was not only the relative inaccessibility of Dr Tarnower but the knowledge that on 19 April 1980 he was to be honoured at a dinner given by the Westchester County Heart Association and that his partner at the top table was not to be Mrs Harris, his stylish companion of 14 years, but the very much less distinguished Mrs Tryforos.
Mrs Harris’s despair and fear can be imagined. She was not well, was overworked, worn out. Recently, and on more than one occasion, her professional judgment had been called into question. She was tired of the rigorous respectability demanded of her – ‘I was a person and no one ever knew,’ she was to write to a colleague. Certainly a woman of her temperament and behaviour must have been in an extremity of suffering to have performed an act so apparently out of character. For it was Mrs Harris’s character that was her strongest recommendation. Here was no common or garden killer, it was thought, but a tragic heroine, an Anna Karenina, an Emma Bovary, driven to commit the ultimate crime by her desperation and her sadness. Until the trial – indeed, until the end of the trial and the reading of the only significant document in the case, the Scarsdale Letter – Mrs Harris was in some way perceived to be intrinsically harmless. And at this stage she puts one in mind of one of Henry James’s minor characters, Mrs Carrie Donner, who was reported to be ‘wild’. ‘Wild?’ muses James’s surrogate silkily. ‘Why, she’s simply tameness run to seed.’
Not so Dr Tarnower, rich and celebrated physician, and author of The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet. Tarnower at home might have been invented by Philip Roth, as an honorary member of the Tarnopol or Zuckerman families, the one who makes good, along slightly crossed tribal lines. With his Japanese-style suburban estate, his disaffected Belgian houseman, his appreciation of women half his age, his gourmet dinners, and his genial habit of presenting his guests with an inscribed copy of his diet book – in paperback – Tarnower does not cut a convincing figure as the victim in the case. Nor is he attractive enough to gain one’s sympathy. Penurious beginnings had exploded into an elaborate and sybaritic style of life which Tarnower greatly enjoyed. He seems to have been a genuine man of pleasure and thus to have exerted a disagreeable power, for men of pleasure have minimal consciences and fallible memories. The aging and tiring Mrs Harris was a nuisance to Dr Tarnower. When, as she said, she woke him from his sleep and asked him to kill her with her own gun, he was quite simply exasperated. He gripped Mrs Harris’s hand or arm in order to stop her shooting herself, and she, involuntarily or reflexively, pulled the trigger. Dr Tarnower sustained one wound in the hand and three in the chest, from which he died shortly afterwards, and, apart from the necessity of establishing the burden of proof, his death seemed to pose a moral question: whether the sort of woman Mrs Harris was should be allowed to murder the sort of man Dr Tarnower was, with the further implication that she should, in all justice, be able to claim some kind of immunity for having done so.