How eccentric socialite Rebekah Harkness inspired a Taylor Swift song

As the saying goes, well-behaved women seldom make history. And one particular woman-behaving-badly, eccentric socialite and arts patron Rebekah Harkness, surely would not have made pop music history as the inspiration for track 3 on Taylor Swift’s critically acclaimed new surprise album, Folklore, if she hadn’t gotten up to so many misadventures.

Those infamous antics (with and without Harkness’s own squad, the “Bitch Pack”) included filling her fish tank with Scotch, cleaning her pool with Dom Pérignon, spiking the punch at her own sister’s debutante ball with mineral oil, performing stripteases on banquet tables, transferring huge sums of money from one bank to another just to confuse her hapless accountants, adopting a pet raccoon, stalking reclusive author J.D. Salinger (while disguised as a maid) in an attempt to convince him to turn his short stories into a musical, and dyeing her neighbor’s cat lime green. (In the Folklore song about Harkness, “The Last Great American Dynasty,” Swift changes the cat to a dog, presumably because of her well-known fondness for felines.)

All of this and more is chronicled in Craig Unger’s scandal-ridden page-turner, Blue Blood: How Rebekah Harkness, One of the Richest Women in the World, Destroyed a Great American Family, and presented as a sort of Cliff-Notes edition via a series of fascinating late-night tweets by New Yorker staff writer Rachel Syme.

Harkness, the anti-heroine of “The Last Great American Dynasty,” was born in 1915 and married her second of four husbands, Standard Oil tycoon William Hale Harkness, in 1947. (A man 15 years her senior, he died of a heart attack in 1954.) The couple took up residence in an enormous eight-kitchen, 21-bathroom mansion (an arrangement that “effectively kept her from having to see her three children on anything like a regular basis,” according to the New York Times) in Watch Hill, R.I. — and in 2013, Swift bought that Rhode Island estate, nicknamed the “Holiday House,” for a reported cool $17.75 million in cash.

“Fifty years is a long time/Holiday House sat quietly on that beach/Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits/And then it was bought by me,” Swift sings on “The Last Great American Dynasty” — a reference to the protests in Watch Hill when a superstar of Swift’s notoriety invaded the quiet beachfront neighborhood.

While Swift’s Fourth of July soirees at the Holiday House have become the stuff of Instagram legend, they’re clearly nothing compared to what the previous lady of the house got up to. (The flamboyant Mrs. Harkness reportedly entertained guests ranging from Salvador Dalí to B.K.S. Iyengar.) In “The Last Great American Dynasty,” Swift sings of Harkness’s decadent parties: “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.” (A dancer herself, Harkness was a sponsor of the Joffrey Ballet until the company refused to rename itself in her honor; she then withdrew funding and hired most of the Joffrey dancers for her own company, the 40-member Harkness Ballet. The petty move generated outrage, with most members of the dance community understandably taking Robert Joffrey’s side.)

Still, Swift seems to see something of a kindred spirit in the reckless Rebekah, likening her own press battles to the public scorn that Harkness faced back in the day. At first, Swift sings, “Who knows, if she never showed up, what could’ve been/There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen/She had a marvelous time ruining everything,” but then, at the end of the “The Last Great American Dynasty,” Swift switches to the first-person, coyly crooning, “Who knows, if I never showed up… I had a marvelous time ruining everything.”

However, the parallels between the lives of Harkness and Swift pretty much end there. Not everything was so “marvelous” in Harkness’s ruined world. Her neglected children were tragically troubled, with one of her daughters, Edith Harkness, spending time in and out of mental institutions and eventually dying by suicide, and her son, Allen Pierce, serving eight years in prison on a reduced manslaughter charge after shooting a man dead in a brawl. In the final decade of her life, Harkness became addicted to painkillers, and by the time she died of stomach cancer in 1982, at age 67, she had squandered much of her fortune on vanity arts projects, including $38 million on the ill-fated Harkness Ballet.

Still, Harkness went out in her typically eccentric and chaotic style: After her death, her cremated ashes were stored in a $250,000 jeweled urn custom-made by Salvador Dalí called the “Chalice of Life,” which was equipped with a spinning base so that Harkness could always be dancing. According to the New York Times, however, not all of her remains would fit in the Chalice, so one of her legs, half of her head, and an arm had to be transported home in a Gristede’s supermarket bag.

Read the full lyrics to Taylor Swift’s “The Last Great American Dynasty” below:

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 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”

Their parties were tasteful, if a little loud

The doctor had told him to settle down

It must have been her fault his heart gave out

 

And they said

There goes the last great American dynasty

Who knows, if she never showed up, what could’ve been

There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen

She had a marvelous time ruining everything

 

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

 

And they said

There goes the last great American dynasty

Who knows, if she never showed up, what could’ve been

There goes the most shameless woman this town has ever seen

She had a marvelous time ruining everything

 

They say she was seen on occasion

Pacing the rocks, staring out at the midnight sea

And in a feud with her neighbor

She stole his dog and dyed it key lime green

Fifty years is a long time

Holiday House sat quietly on that beach

Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits

And then it was bought by me

 

Who knows, if I never showed up, what could’ve been

There goes the loudest woman this town has ever seen

I had a marvelous time ruining everything

 

I had a marvelous time ruining everything

A marvelous time ruining everything

A marvelous time

I had a marvelous time

Download/stream Folklore on Apple Music.

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