MRS. HARRIS: The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor by Diana Trilling
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MRS. HARRIS: The Death of the Scarsdale Diet Doctor

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In this tour-de-force account of the Harris case, one image lingers: at a recess in her trial for the murder of Dr. Herman (the Scarsdale Diet) Tarnower, following expert testimony about bloodstains on her dead lover's sheets, Jean Harris stands with her lawyers at the defense table and, with deadpan detachment, examines the sheets, tracing with her fingers the patterns of the blood. All through the trial, Trilling was struck by Harris' ""manifest disengagement"" from the emotional reality of the events involved, and in the end this feeling may have swayed the jury. It certainly affected Trilling, who owns up to an early pro-Harris bias (the popular press, after all, had turned her into ""a kind of secular mater dolorosa"") which dissipated once the trial started and Harris' ""impenetrable self-absorption"" and ""unflagging snootiness"" were put on display. Perhaps a psychiatric plea would have worked; by not offering it, Trilling suggests, the defense challenged ""the very idea of an acceptable norm of human feeling."" Even so, the defense had a good chance for acquittal--there were so many unanswered questions. If she intended to kill Tarnower, why send him a registered letter he'd never receive? (But if she meant to kill herself, why the extra 34 bullets in her car?) What tipped the scales with the jury? Maybe it was the famous ""Scarsdale letter,"" which shattered the ""lady"" image on which Harris' ""class"" defense was based; maybe it was the false theatricality of her lawyer's closing argument (""the old-fashioned movie practice of criminal law""). On the facts, Trilling concludes that Harris ""deep in her mind and heart"" wanted to kill Tarnower, that it's ""possible"" she did so intentionally, but that the charge (second-degree murder) was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt. On Harris-as-symbol, Trilling is critical: ""we are confusing an irremediable and fatal collision between one man and one woman with a remediable attitude toward women in our society."" On almost anything, Trilling has a classic throwaway line: Tarnower's overdone, pseudo-Japanese house (""a sort of domestic pagoda""); straightarrow prosecutor Bolen (""his clothes and hair look attached by tabs""); Grosse Pointe and the Madeira School (""patrician zoos""); Harris as star witness (""the role. . . suits her the way ecstasy suited St. Theresa""). How many writers, mired in physical evidence mid-trial, would step back to notice that the defense ballistics expert on the stand has ""the vaguely dilapidated look of one of the better-situated persons in a Chekhov story""? A fascinating account of the trial, and a brilliant analysis of Harris' personality--across the board, a dynamite book.

Pub Date: Oct. 28th, 1981
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich