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Jean Harris, convicted of murdering "Scarsdale Diet" doctor, dies

By Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Jean Harris, a former girl's school headmistress who was convicted and imprisoned for the 1980 murder of a best-selling diet doctor, has died, The New York Times reported on Friday.

Harris died on Sunday at an assisted-living facility in Connecticut, the Times said, citing her son James. She was 89.

Harris served 12 years in prison for the murder of her lover, Dr. Herman Tarnower, author of the hugely popular "Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet."

The case - with elements of violent jealousy, a celebrity victim, a love triangle involving a younger woman and the head of an exclusive boarding school - provided newspaper headlines and tabloid fodder for months.

The head of the posh Madeira School in McLean, Virginia, Harris was convicted of Tarnower's 1980 shooting death and sentenced to 15 years in prison for murder.

She was granted clemency by then New York Governor Mario Cuomo and released in 1993.

At the time of the murder, Harris, 57 and divorced, and the never-married Tarnower, 69, had been dating for more than a decade.

The doctor, who first published the "Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet," in 1978, had also been carrying on an affair with his younger receptionist.

On the night of March 10, 1980, a distraught Harris wrote a will, funeral instructions and a letter resigning her job before driving to Tarnower's home in suburban Purchase, New York, testimony at her trial showed.

Harris testified she went there with a pistol and the intention of killing herself.

An unlikely-looking murder defendant in her conservative headband and strand of pearls, Harris testified she put the gun to her head, but the couple struggled over the weapon which then went off.

Tarnower was struck by four bullets and died.

Looking back at the case earlier this year in a New York magazine article, the late author Nora Ephron called it "a tabloid dream."

"The doctor lived in an 'exclusive' Westchester home; the socialite headed a 'posh' girls' school," she wrote. "We were thrilled. When I say we, I mean me, but I also mean every woman who has ever wanted to kill a bad boyfriend."

While in New York's maximum-security Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, Harris created programs for inmates and their children, including a program allowing newborns to stay with their incarcerated mothers for a year and parenting classes.

A Children of Bedford Fund that Harris launched has raised millions of dollars to help inmates' children attend college, the Times said.

While in prison, Harris also became a cause celebre by a host of supporters, including her trial judge, who argued for her release.

Writing in support of Harris in 1988, the late newspaper columnist Murray Kempton wrote: "The only question the governor of New York ought by now to ask himself about Jean Harris is not whether he should grant her clemency, but why he already hasn't.

Cuomo rejected her applications for clemency three times before commuting her sentence when she was 69. She had suffered two serious heart attacks while in prison.

Following her release, Harris lived in New Hampshire, where she gardened, spoke publicly about the issues of women in prison and cared for her beloved golden retriever, the Times said.

Harris wrote a book about her experience, published in 1986, entitled "Stranger in Two Worlds."

Authors Shana Alexander and Diana Trilling wrote books about the case. Actress Ellen Burstyn played Harris in the 1981 made-for-television movie "The People vs. Jean Harris," while Annette Bening played her in the 2005 TV movie "Mrs. Harris."

(Reporting, writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; desking by G Crosse)

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