While stuck at home in quarantine, Taylor Swift looked to a fitting source of inspiration for her new album “Folklore”: her house itself.
One of her houses, anyway. Back in 2013, the 30-year-old singer-songwriter splashed out a reported $17 million for a stately oceanside mansion in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. Now, her home’s previous owner, the infamous late socialite Rebekah Harkness, has an entire Swift track in her honor.
The subject of “Folklore” song “The Last Great American Dynasty,” Harkness — née Rebekah Semple West — was born in 1915 to “a rich, emotionally frigid St. Louis family,” according to the New York Times, and in 1947 married William Hale Harkness, her second husband and heir to the Standard Oil fortune.
While the couple were only married for seven years — “The wedding was charming, if a little gauche / There’s only so far new money goes,” Swift sings — it was during that time that they purchased their so-called “Holiday House,” where the pop star now resides.
Even after her husband’s death in 1954 (“It must have been her fault his heart gave out,” Swift muses), Harkness threw wild parties that clearly ruffled her neighbors’ feathers, with guests her son Allen Pierce once described as “all the fairies flying off the floor, the blackmailing lawyers, the weirdos, the people in the trances,” according to the Times. On any given evening, J.D. Salinger or Andy Warhol might stop by.
As Swift mentions, Harkness was also friendly with Salvador Dalí; after she died of cancer in 1982 at the age of 67, she even requested her ashes be kept in a $250,000 custom urn of the artist’s design. Unfortunately, according to the Times, “just a leg … or maybe half of her head, and an arm” actually fit in the jeweled vessel, prompting Harkness’ daughter to tote the remaining ashes home in a Gristedes shopping bag.
As Swift recounts in her song, Harkness was a notorious (if well-intentioned) spendthrift; a patron of the arts, she founded her own Harkness Ballet in the 1960s and poured many millions into the passion project, but it folded in 1975.
Swift also mentions the debutante’s “bitch pack,” referring to her real-life group of prankster pals from school who enjoyed spiking punch bowls with mineral oil, filling swimming pools with Dom Perignon and swearing aloud on ocean liners.
In her lyrics, the star makes it clear how Harkness was perceived in the upper-crust coastal community. “There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen / She had a marvelous time ruining everything,” Swift sings.
The Grammy winner herself has caused a stir among Watch Hill locals since snapping up Harkness’ abode, turning the town into a tourist and paparazzi hotspot, hosting star-studded Fourth of July parties for several years in a row and even inspiring one neighbor to propose a “Taylor Swift” tax on second homes valued at over $1 million. (It was eventually withdrawn.)
By the end of “The Last Great American Dynasty,” Swift has woven her own story together with Harkness’, with their shared reputation for “madness” bridging the years between the two.
“Who knows, if I never showed up what could’ve happened?” she asks, shifting the pronouns of the earlier chorus. “There goes the loudest woman this town has ever seen / I had a marvelous time ruining everything.”
As for the line about Harkness once dyeing a neighbor’s dog “key lime green?” That really happened — but according to the Times, it was actually a cat. No wonder Swift, a noted cat fancier, chose to tweak the tale.
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