Taylor Swift’s, new song titled ‘The Last Great American Dynasty’ is about Rebekah Harkness, the scandal-ridden socialite who once owned the Watch Hill, Rhode Island mansion Swift purchased in 2013
Taking a break from her deeply intimate, autobiographical anthems, Taylor Swift’s eight album,’Folklore’ is a collection of songs written ‘from the perspective of people I’ve never met.’ One such person is Rebekah Harkness, an eccentric socialite who Swift described as ‘a misfit widow getting gleeful revenge on the town that cast her out.’
That ‘town’ is Watch Hill, Rhode Island – an affluent coastal village where Swift purchased a cliff side mansion in 2013 that was once owned by Rebekah and her husband William Harkness, a Standard Oil heir who was one of the wealthiest men in America.
The newlywed couple purchased the 40-room mansion in 1947 and called it ‘Holiday House’ where Rebekah entertained Salvador Dalí, her personal yogi B.K.S. Iyengar and her pet raccoon.
Married just seven years, Harkness inherited her husband’s vast fortune after he died from a heart attack in 1953. In widowhood, she renovated the Rhode Island mansion to accommodate 8 kitchens and 21 bathrooms, an arrangement that ‘effectively kept her from having to see her three children on anything like a regular basis,’ said the New York Times.
Though she was a gifted sculptor, composer and generous patron of the ballet; it’s the more lurid details of Harkness’ life that have come to define her legacy.
She once rang J. D. Salinger’s doorbell dressed as a cleaning lady. She also spiked the punch at her sister’s debutante ball with mineral oil. She cleaned her pool with Dom Perignon, dyed chocolate mousse blue and made enemies when she dyed her neighbor’s cat lime-green in revenge. She killed her goldfish by filling the tank with scotch and took pleasure in moving massive amounts of money between bank accounts in order to confuse her accountants.
Rebekah Harkness became one of the wealthiest women in America after she inherited her husband’s vast Standard Oil fortune when he died in 1953. The couple married in 1947 and purchased the seaside Rhode Island home that Taylor now owns and named it ‘Holiday House.’ After William Harkness’ death, Rebekah’s spent his fortune living a lavish life on champagne and drugs with houses around the world where she entertained Salvador Dalí, her personal yogi B.K.S. Iyengar and her pet raccoon
Harkness is most well known for the chaotic legacy she left behind. She once rang J. D. Salinger’s doorbell dressed as a cleaning lady. She also spiked the punch at her sister’s debutante ball with mineral oil. She cleaned her pool with Dom Perignon, dyed chocolate mousse blue and made enemies when she dyed her neighbor’s cat lime-green in revenge
Swift purchased ‘Holiday House’ for $17 million in 2013. The lyrics to her song read: ‘Bill was the heir to the Standard Oil name and money/ And the town said, ‘How did a middle-class divorcée do it?’/ The wedding was charming, if a little gauche / There’s only so far new money goes / They picked out a home and called it ‘Holiday House’
With millions to burn her life descended into chaos and excess, defined by drugs, insanity, suicide, subsequent marriages, and homes all around the world. She indulged in the luxuries her frugal dead husband frowned upon: a ski chalet in Switzerland, a palatial penthouse in Madison Avenue’s exclusive Westbury Hotel, endless amounts of champagne and curious ‘vitamin B injections’ from New York’s infamous Dr. Feelgood.
Swift’s lyrics read: ‘There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen/ She had a marvelous time ruining everything.’
Her son Allen said that she surrounded herself with ‘all the fairies flying off the floor, the blackmailing lawyers, the weirdos, the people in the trances.’
Harkness was the second daughter of three children, born in 1915 to a socially prominent St. Louis family. She was raised by a nanny who was vetted by her work in an insane asylum. Her father, a successful stockbroker, was known to be a ‘tyrant’ who alternated between terror and complete disregard, while her mother was too preoccupied with her own social calendar to care for her own children.
Rebekah attended finishing school at Fermata in South Carolina where her fellow classmates were fixtures in American aristocracy: Roosevelts, Auchinclosses and Biddles. She wrote in her scrapbook that she set out to ‘do everything bad.’
Her group of female friends formed a ‘kind of sub-culture of local debutantes’ and called themselves the ‘B***h Pack,’ reported the New York Times. They delighted in good-natured rebellion, especially at society events where they performed striptease dances on top of dinner tables, to the shock and horror of other guests.
Her first marriage was to W. Dickson Pierce, an ‘upper-class advertising photographer’ whom she had two children with: Allen Pierce and Ann Terry Pierce. Like her own mother, Rebekah was emotionally distant.
She met William Hale Harkness, the dashing heir to the Standard Oil empire in 1947 while summering at her parent’s vacation home in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. William Harkness’ great uncle had originally staked John D. Rockefeller in the founding of the company in 1870.
He was 15 years her senior but the two married in a private ceremony attended by her two children and William’s daughter from his first marriage – Elizabeth ‘Buffy’ Grant Montgomery, (she grew up and married the actor Robert Montgomery and was mother to actress Elizabeth Montgomery).
Swifts lyrics read: ‘Bill was the heir to the Standard Oil name and money/ And the town said, ‘How did a middle-class divorcée do it?’/ The wedding was charming, if a little gauche / There’s only so far new money goes / They picked out a home and called it ‘Holiday House.”
The couple shuttled between their ‘Holiday House’ and their colossal Park Avenue duplex where William set out to make Rebekah a proper society matron. She had birthed another daughter, Edith Hale Harkness who spent her whole life in and out of mental institutions.
She married twice after William’s death, both times to different doctors. Both ended in divorce.
Rebekah Harkness and her Harkness Ballet Company photographed at the Rhode Island estate in 1964. Harkness launched her own ballet school and company after a dispute with Jerome Robbins and the Joffrey Ballet School when they refused to rename their company in her’ honor. Jane Remer the assistant director of the company recalled: ‘I sat at a desk worth more than my apartment! On any given morning when she and I had something to talk about, Rebekah would come down in her pink and blue leotards and literally stand on her head, and we would have the conversation with her standing on her head. It would be all very Proustian and never made too much sense’
Her final partner was Bobby Scevers, a man 25 years her junior who was a ‘self-declared homosexual,’ according to Rebekah’s biographer, Craig Unger. After Rebekah’s death from stomach cancer in 1982, the New York Times wrote: ‘Mr. Scevers has a stunning way of placing himself squarely in the center of every sentence he utters; he appears to believe that Rebekah Harkness’ death happened more to him than to her.’
Taylor Swift’s, new song titled ‘The Last Great American Dynasty’ is about Rebekah Harkness, the scandal-ridden socialite who once owned the Watch Hill, Rhode Island mansion Swift purchased in 2015
There was no love lost between Scevers and Harkness’ children. He declared them to be ‘the most worthless, selfish, useless creatures I’ve ever seen.’
But few people lived more tortured lives than Harkness’ three children. Edith attempted suicide a number of times and failed before she eventually succeed in 1982 after her mother’s death. She jumped off roofs and overdosed on pills and lived through both events. Craig Unger said Rebekah asked: ‘How should she do it? Is there a chic way to go?’
According to Unger, Bobby Scevers responded chillingly: ‘I’m glad Edith is gone. I can’t believe it took her this long to succeed.’
Rebekah’s only son, Allen Pierce was convicted of murder in the second degree after shot a man during a brawl. He was jailed for ten years in a Florida prison and unable to attend his mother’s funeral in 1982. ‘Her son Allen says the years he spent in prison were the happiest of his life. He likes to talk about blowing people away,’ reported the New York Times.
Rebekah’s daughter, Ann-Terry Pierce gave birth to a severely disabled child, named Angel who died at the age of ten. At first, Rebekah showed genuine affection for the child but according to the New York Times, ‘Her passion, such as it was, burned itself out quickly, coincidentally with the baby’s pulling a ribbon out of her hair.’
In 1961, Rebekah Harkness decided to sink her excess money into the the Robert Joffrey ballet company that was run by celebrated choreographer Jerome Robbins at the time. In requisite fashion, she did it in ‘grand – if occasionally Marie Antoinette-ish -style,’ reported the New York Times.
She was ‘generous, wasteful, willful, demanding and delusional;’ and eventually severed ties with Joffrey when they refused rename the company in her honor.