2013 Interview (Outstanding women and their contributions series) Jean Harris

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Jean Harris is a beautiful woman of 87 living with her lover of 15 years, Arturo.  She is the author of a few published books, educated at Brooklyn College and the New York Public Libraries and a pioneer, a frontrunner on so many levels.  Four Improbable Goddesses, Bread and Isaac, Magic and Coincidence, Family Tales are all her published work that she has written over the years.

Her first marriage of 42 years to Ed Harris in 1958 was a partnership that yielded a dynamic professional fundraising career for Ed , and for Jean who was encouraged by Ed, there would come to be who  five retail stores in Walnut Creek.  “My husband from day one always felt I had better things to do with my time;   we had a housekeeper every day of our lives together.”  They had three sons.   At age 70, Ed began a painting career which produced a body of work  that is provacative,  profound and as fresh and full of impact today as when he painted them twenty-three years ago.  Jean was fifteen years younger and  at age 67, her husband passed away.   She was financially set with her many stores and in the family  Walnut Creek Spanish mission style home full of Ed’s paintings.  Ed’s paintings and the home they shared are extraordinary and represent  a rich history of their life together.  Her life has been a continuation of many things she loves in her life after Ed’s passing.  She was content in her home and had many friends as well as her business to keep the flow of her life going.

For nine years after Ed’s death, Jean felt her life so full that she wasn’t looking for a companion and dating seemed alien to her.  She spent the time editing her journals.   At one particular dinner party, one of the guests immediately caught her eye and she entered into a conversation with him that would change her life.  Arturo was a brilliant scientist, fairly shy, and Jean began to ask him questions, one leading to the other.  The questions that absorbed Jean’s attention during the party led to the discovery that they were born one month apart, and their parents were in Palestine at the same time.

Arturo

To this day, the conversation with Arturo that came from those questions brought a second life to Jean.  Arturo,  whose wife died of cancer a few years before he and Jean met, were on for a great adventure.     “We were 72 when we began our love affair, and it was absolutely amazing. Everything was better.  We felt more, we went deeper and were so thrilled and happy, as we are today.  We had a lotta fun, we have fun now, but for many years we had an amazing sensual life,” Jean smilingly reports.  Today as we are talking, she mentions this is the one year anniversary of their sharing her home.  Arturo has a beautiful home in Orinda and they used to enjoy a routine  of visiting each other’s homes, arriving around 3 in the afternoon, having dinner, making love or watching a film, reading together and spending the night together in his home or hers.

It is a total pleasure to be in the sunshine of the spacious ranch home she shares with Arturo.   Jean still has a housekeeper come in every day, and throughout their day friends come and visit and are warmly received.  The interests she and Arturo share are evident by the books, artwork and photos of events throughout the family’s  lives.

Jean enjoys telling the story of the how the romance with Arturo began after that dinner party where they met.  It’s a unique and magical story.  She and Arturo met for lunch after they met at the friend’s dinner party, and enjoyed each other’s company immensely.   But Arturo  told her at that first lunch  that he needed to let her know that he had a commitment.  He wanted to be honest about the fact that he was seeing the best friend of his wife, who was a friend to both of them  throughout his wife’s cancer treatment and her passing. Jean backed off immediately honoring what was clearly a deep connection.

Still, though she had been content with her life before she met Arturo, now she was less interested in her work, restless- and sold her last shop.  This particular year, Jean met with three girlfriends from New York, LA and Spain who got together for a trip to Rome.  There she shared with her girlfriends that she had met someone special, and she wanted to find someone like Arturo because he was just the kind of person she wanted to spend her life with.  They were at the Trevi Fountain and so she took some coins and she wished that the woman that Arturo had spoken of would somehow just go away.  Not anything bad to happen to this woman Arturo had spoken of, but she would just move or leave.  Jean returned from Rome, and received in a note from Arturo saying  he was no longer in a relationship with the woman, and if she was interested he would like to see her.  They spent two days of love and joy together in a reunion that followed.  Jean says – “When you’re married you have so many people and so many things you’re responsible for.  Arturo and I had just the pleasure of each other that was and continues to be the focus of our attention.”

Jean’s mother and father

As Jean speaks of her mother, It’s easy to see that the life that Jean  was influenced and inspired directly from her mother’s life.   In the early 1900’s, her mother  at age 13,  left Palestine and her family and came alone to New York City.  Her mother learned the language, went to school, found her apartment, got a job  and became the first woman buyer of ostrich feathers  in the garment district of New York City.  The rest of her mother’s family would perish in the halocaust thirty years after she left, and Jean feels the magic and courage that it took for her mother to come to New York City and to have escaped her own death  had she stayed.

Jean’s  father also came from Palestine and he arrived in Galveston, Texas at age 16 and made his way to Brownsville where he became a baker.  He heard there was a need for soldiers to find Pancho Villa  in Mexico, and though he had never been on a horse, he was placed in the calvary.  He was the only jewish soldier and was made fun of until he started baking for the troops;  then he was promoted to Sargent as a cook because he turned out to be particularly skilled in the work of the baker for the troop.  But soon, her father was on his way to Fort Dix, New Jersey where he would join the army corp in Europe.     A friend gave him the name of his own girlfriend in New York who would fix him up with another girlfriend in a friendly guesture.    Her father arrived in NYC with that name, and  not knowing how to get to where he was going, asked a person on the train for directions.  Then he felt a tug at his sleeve.  It was Jean’s mother who told him the directions he had been given were wrong, and gave him accurate directions as well as her address because she lived in that same neighborhood.  She asked him to look her up since he would be in the neighborhood.

The next day, her father arrived at her door box of candy in hand for her mother.  They talked for the two days he had before he was to leave.  Then he left for World War I for a year.  During that time, they wrote two or three letters a day.   When he returned, they were married two days later.

“Life begins any time,‘” Jean says in telling this story about her parents.  She has lived the life of a woman aware of her choices and the synchronistic events that often followed those choices.   At 18, in rebellion and eager to take on more of her life, she married a young man and that turned out to be a disaster.  She was wise enough to know she wasn’t ready for a family and went right to Margaret Sanger’s Women’s Clinic and got a diaphragm, the only means of birth control at the time.     She managed to get a divorce a year later in Florida; anyone who knows the history of women at that time  knows those acts of self determination were unique;  a divorce, for instance,  was impossible in New York so she had to go to Florida.  Her actions reveal a  trust in herself making decisions true to who she was.

Then Jean met Ed;  they were soon married.   This was 1929.  Jean, like her mother, determined her life by ingenuity, instinct and with a great sense of joy and optimism in her choices.   

An influence in her life, Jean says, is that  her father read Upton Sinclair,   social critic of the times.   That influence of self education and self direction about the world was where Jean’s life began.    Jean and Ed were a married couple who looked outside the box of commonly shared opinions and thinking.   They raised three sons.  Ed was a phenomenally successful professional fundraiser, and encouraged Jean’s success in her own business, and how she developed her own life.  Jean and Ed met as equals and enjoyed their evening together sharing their work and their lives.  They studied with Wilhelm Reich, a new age therapist in the 1960’s as subjects in Reich’s book.   His controversial orgasm therapy and radical views of the sexual behavior and meaning was a step out into the creative life that  Jean has sourced throughout her life.

In a sense, the concept of liberation, women’s liberation and ability to choose for Jean, and her mother was not based on an ideology but trust of themselves as  they headed in the directions they chose for their lives.    Trusting their own direction and establishing their own destinies by that openness to thinking newly about how they wanted to live their lives was far more interesting to them than following the traditional paths of marriage and family.

When asked what she observes about the women and their issues today, Jean offered:

“I think a lot of women are too Influenced by the media with  precooked ideas, looking for the answers outside themselves.  They are conformist, and  don’t think for themselves.  They try to follow a pattern.   You have to make up your own way, your own pattern.  You choose what’s important.  We never joined country clubs or had crystal but favored  yearly trips to Europe, and a wide range of people we cared about.”

In speaking with Jean, it is obvious in her expression that she cares that all women give themselves the opportunity to have a life of their own choosing.   It’s never too late to find that experience for yourself is the message from Jean.   That is Jean’s gift to all who know her, and evident in her full expression of life at age 87.

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2 thoughts on “2013 Interview (Outstanding women and their contributions series) Jean Harris

  1. I am so touched by reading about a women who deeply influenced my life, teaching me valuable lessons and I cherish so many memories of Jean. I managed her store on Bancroft in Berkeley and later the store that Ed designed in Danville. I worked with Marc and he gave my daughter, Dana, piano lessons. Marc was so talented as well as his parents and Josh, with his music was another talent. Adam & my husband, Steve, built a gazebo in our back yard. I have many modeling photos of me in Jean’s clothes which were way ahead of the present fashion trend. Beautiful clothes, not found in any other shops. Just today, (Mother’s Day) Dana and I were looking at a pic of me in one of Jean’s classic tweed coats and Jean, with her famous smile, is next to me. Such blissful memories. I have lived in Marin now for 28 years and was so startled to see this notice in the Marin IJ -so maybe one or more of the boys live here also ?
    I would be honored to celebrate her life at the chosen time.
    Thank you, Jean……….
    with loving kindness, Linda Burnett

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