The Last Great American Dynasty: The Untold Story of Rebekah Harkness

The Last Great American Dynasty: The Untold Story of Rebekah Harkness

On her surprise indie-folk album folklore, Taylor Swift unveils the tragically beautiful tale of one of the wealthiest women in America of her time, who also happened to be the previous owner of Swift’s Rhode Island home.

I’ve spent my summers on the beaches of Watch Hill for as long as I can remember, riding the same waves my mother did at my age. I’ve watched the village change even in my own lifetime – beach crowds grew thicker, glitzy boutiques replaced bait and tackle shops downtown, the timeworn hotel my mother waited tables at was renovated into a 5-star celebrity vacation destination. But even still, I always saw that town as my own hidden gem on the east coast.

After two decades on that beach I had grown accustomed to the sight of the Harkness House and its silent watch over East Beach. It was predominantly dormant, and undiscussed apart from the occasional old story of one of my aunts or uncles sneaking past the groundskeepers to get a closer look. I remember the buzz circling the town in 2013 when word got out that the house had been purchased for $17.75 million in a rumored cash deal by none other than Taylor Swift herself. The house came to life that day – the tabloids absolutely eating up its annual star studded Fourth of July pool parties. What much of the world didn’t understand at the time was this wasn’t new life Swift had brought to the Harkness House, but a revitalization of the absolute whirlwind of effervescence it hadn’t seen in over half a century. 

On July 24th, Taylor Swift shocked the world with a surprise sixteen-track album – the eighth studio record of her career. Entitled folklore, the album was produced by Aaron Dessner of The National, and included a Bon Iver feature. My little folk-loving heart was prepared to embrace what promised to be the most unique Swift record to date. While critics praised the album and fans decoded lyrical Easter eggs, curiosity spiked surrounding one track that NME asserts to be “a contender for the best Taylor Swift song ever written”. The story of the track “the last great american dynasty” follows a socialite from St. Louis named Rebekah, outlining several of her most famous escapades taking place at her “Holiday House” before bringing the tale full-circle with the line, “Holiday House sat quietly on that beach / Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits / And then it was bought by me”.

It was not long before fans drew the connection between Swift’s Rhode Island home and its previous owner. I wonder now if it was the sprawling coastline views of the Atlantic, the five acres of land, or rather Rebekah Harkness’s unrestrained spirit and memories of lavish parties living on in the mansion’s 1930 walls that drew the American pop-star to that secluded corner of the world.

 The track opens with Swift singing:

“Rebekah rode up on the afternoon train, it was sunny
Her saltbox house on the coast took her mind off St. Louis
Bill was the heir to the Standard Oil name and money
And the town said, ‘How did a middle-class divorcee 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 reference to St. Louis hints at a darker past growing up as an eccentric child in an uptight upper class family and being largely raised by a nanny who was selected due to her experience working in an asylum. The character named Bill is in reference to Rebekah Harkness’s second husband, William Hale Harkness, who was in fact the heir to Standard Oil. The couple was married just seven years before William passed away of a heart attack, leaving the Harkness fortune and Holiday House to Rebekah. The widow went on to marry twice more, for a total of four marriages throughout her lifetime. Many believe that this is when the reckless spending began. It was also the start of the most impactful period of Rebekah’s life, now having the freedom and resources to indulge in the creative passions her husband discouraged. She formed her own ballet company, Harkness Ballet, which is perhaps her most well-known legacy. Holiday House was quickly transformed into an artist’s colony, with her dancers rehearsing on the property at all hours of the night. She purchased the local firehouse to convert into an Art Center to house her sculptor pursuits, as well as several other luxury homes across the world. It was also around this time that stories of her growing eccentricity and disorderly antics fueled rumors of the widow’s madness.

“Rebekah gave up on the Rhode Island set forever
Flew in all her Bitch Pack friends from the city
Filled the pool with champagne and swam with the big names
And blew through the money on the boys and the ballet
And losing on card game bets with Dalí

It’s in this verse that we begin to see more of Swift’s personal connection to Harkness. The “Bitch Pack” group of friends was often the object of scrutiny from the press in the case of both women. For Swift, it was the crowd of A-lists in attendance at her holiday festivities and at her side at award shows and high-profile events. For Harkness, it was a group of debutante friends from St. Louis infamous for their pranks and crude displays of behavior. The line about the pool was likely in parallelism to her celebrity pool parties, and while I don’t imagine Swift utilizes the same wasteful practices, it’s entirely true that Harkness used to clean the same pool with champagne (actually, it was Dom Pérignon). It’s unconfirmed that Harkness and Dalí ever placed card game bets together, however their friendship did go as far as him designing her $250k urn (it spun upon its base, as to allow her to dance forever).

Rebekah Harkness died of cancer in 1982 in New York at the age of 67. Tragically, she had recklessly spent much of her fortune at this stage, and her ballet school had all but lost its status. Hers is a story as tragic as it is beautiful, which caught the attention of one of our generation’s greatest storytellers and has been forever immortalized as a thing of wonder.

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