Thursday, December 27

Now Listen to This!

Although it came out several years ago, I just now saw (on cable), the film Mrs. Harris. It’s the story of Jean Harris who killed her lover, diet doctor Herman Tarnower, back in 1980. Annette Bening played Mrs. Harris, Sir Ben Kingsley played Dr. Tarnower.

Here’s the short-hand version. She was the principal of an exclusive girls’ school in Virginia; he was a womanizing cad who gained fame by inventing something called “The Scarsdale Diet,” and writing a book about it which sold millions of copies, turned him into a household name, and made him wildly rich. During their 15-year relationship he played her for a fool and ran around with countless women. Finally, on the night of March 10, 1980, she went to his home to confront him. Next thing you know he’s dead, shot four times, and she’s under arrest.

But this isn’t about him—or about her—or about them. It’s about Milton Lewis. If you’re a New Yorker (pronounced Noo-Yawker) you already know the name. Milton was a superstar reporter for WABC-TV in New York from the mid-sixties through the mid-eighties: an old newspaperman who started during the depression as a copyboy with the New York World and later at the New York Herald Tribune where he worked his way up to reporter and spent 34 years. He was a character out of Damon Runyon. He was a Noo Yawker. He was about 5’4”, rumpled, and cranky. And he was a helluva reporter.

He was the one broadcast reporter in town best plugged into the world of organized crime, and proud to be a burr under the saddle of the mob bosses. (I remember one night, on set, he looked into the camera and said, “Today in court Carmine ‘The Snake’ Persico…who doesn’t like it much when I refer to him as ‘The Snake’”…).

Since I was a newcomer to New York and to Eyewitness News he was predictably impatient with me. I’m not sure he ever called me by name. He’d call in to the desk on the two-way radio and ask to speak to “The incumbent assignment manager," his voice dripping with sarcasm.

He knew and enjoyed his role as our brash, “Listen-Sister-Get-Me-Rewrite” old newspaperman, our throwback to the Ben Hecht Front Page days of newspapering. But he also embraced the power and the visibility TV gave him, and knew how to play his new role to the hilt.

His catch-phrase for an exclusive story was, “Now listen to this.” Then he’d drop his bombshell. His job was to sit on the set next to anchor Roger Grimsby every night and throw Grimsby a tag line he could react to—if he so chose. And it really made no never-mind to Milton Lewis. He was there to toss the softball. Grimsby could hit a homerun, swing and miss, or leave the bat on his shoulder—it was all the same to Milton.

Back to the Harris case, one of Milton’s finest hours and one of his scoops. I wasn’t at Eyewitness News at the time of the shooting, but I was sure there for the trial. I saw to it that every day Milton and one of our best crews went to the courthouse along with a live truck and courtroom artist Marilyn Church.

I won’t take time here to rave about Marilyn—the country’s preeminent courtroom sketch artist. If you go to the internet you can spend thousands on some of her original artwork: “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz; John Lennon’s killer Mark David Chapman; mob boss John Gotti; “subway vigilante” Bernard Goetz.The picture above is one of her Harris trial sketches: a series of seven available for $18,500.

Or you might just want to buy her book: Art of Justice: An Eyewitness View of Thirty Infamous Trials, written with long-time reporter Lou Young.

Anyway. As the trial got underway, the big question was would Mrs. Harris testify in her own behalf? Of course, it was Milton Lewis who provided the definitive answer in an exclusive report, sitting on-set next to Grimsby:


I’ve learned that Mrs. Harris WILL take the stand. She’s going to testify that she didn’t go to the Tarnower home to commit MURDER; she went there to commit SUICIDE! And while she and the good doctor struggled over the gun…

…it ACCIDENTALLY went off…

…hitting him FOUR TIMES.


Two updates. New York Governor Mario Cuomo commuted Jean Harris’ sentence after 12 years in prison. She’s 84 now.

I did a “Google” search on Milton Lewis and came up with a fairly recent article written by one of his grandchildren that says he’s 94 now, living in the Jewish Home on Silver Ave in San Francisco, and still feisty.

I can imagine him haranguing the staff: "Now Listen to THIS!"