annotation by Tina Rubin
Author Shana Alexander tells the “real” story of the 1980 murder of Herman Tarnower, the doctor behind the Scarsdale diet sensation, by Jean Harris, his lover of fourteen years. Written like a nonfiction novel in the style of Capote’s In Cold Blood, the book gripped me from the outset. Excellent journalist that Alexander was (she was the first female to write for Life magazine), she clearly asked the tough questions that she knew would shape a compelling narrative.
Jean Harris was the headmistress of an exclusive Virginia girls’ school and, as the title suggests, very much a lady. How did such a well-bred woman become a murderer? I was intrigued by Harris’s descent into hell because it sounded much like the journey of the main character in the novel I’m writing. I want my protagonist to ring true, and Alexander provided the real-life character study I was looking for. She portrays Harris as a successful, professional woman with a good upbringing, and no history of mental illness, who becomes victimized by her own unquenchable hunger for Tarnower’s love.
As it turned out, Harris killed Tarnower by accident while she was trying to commit suicide. This was a different story than I expected, yet even so, I gained insight into the factors that shaped Harris’s character and caused her to make the choices she did. Much of her background was similar to what I had attributed to my main character, so I had the satisfaction of knowing that psychologically I was on the right track. Harris’s father was impossible to please, her older sister was clearly the favorite, and she nurtured a romantic notion of love that could only disappoint. The picture that emerges of Herman Tarnower, too, is similar to my antagonist: intelligent, talented, and arrogant to the extreme. This is a man who goes out of his way for no one. Continue reading