Meet the Rhode Island Socialite (and House) at the Center of Taylor Swift's "The Last Great American Dynasty"

Lauren Wicks
Photo credit: Jack Mitchell - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jack Mitchell - Getty Images

From Veranda

Rarely does singer and songstress Taylor Swift write songs about someone outside her immediate circle. Romance and heartbreak (and revenge) ballads make up the primary focus of most albums; however, her newest album, Folklore, which debuted today, features a song, titled The Last Great American Dynasty, about a New England philanthropist and patron of the arts, Rebekah West Harkness. What does this socialite and ballet enthusiast have to do with Swift? And why would she write a song about her?

Who Is Rebekah West Harkness?

Harkness was born an heir to a banking fortune and grew up in St. Louis, then attended finishing school in South Carolina, where she pursued her passion for music and dance. She was briefly married to a photographer before marrying philanthropist William Hale Harkness, half-brother of Henry Flagler, in 1945. Her second husband died nine years later, leaving her a $27 million fortune (worth more than $250 million today), which she reportedly squandered with amazing speed.

After an attempt at making it big as a singer and releasing several albums, Harkness shifted her talents (read: wealth) to dance and established the Rebekah Harness Foundation, which sponsored various ballet companies and took them on tours around the world with the heiress at the helm. She most notably patronized the Robert Joffrey Ballet, which performed for John F. Kennedy at the White House (per his invitation) in a one-act, $135,000 production, before eventually establishing her own ballet company where she could have total control. And what place better for the troupe to practice than at her summer home in Rhode Island? Here's where Swift gets linked into the story.

Photo credit: Jack Mitchell - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jack Mitchell - Getty Images

Taylor Swift's Watch Hill, Rhode Island, Home

Harkness inherited her late husband's Watch Hill, Rhode Island, manse, which was known by friends, family, and distinguished celebrity guests—think Howard Hughes and Salvador Dalí—as the Holiday House. It was also, infuriatingly to the neighbors, a place for the Harkness Ballet dancers to practice on the lawn. Rumor has it, the eccentric Harkness began to be pushed out of social circles not long after William Hale's death.

This was the same house Swift purchased in 2013 for nearly $18 million, where she's hosted many a summer bash with model friends and big-screen beaus. And it seems the singer has enjoyed delving into the history of its former owner, whom she refers to as "the maddest woman this town has ever seen" who had "a marvelous time ruining everything."

When describing what inspired her eighth album, which she wrote in quarantine, Swift writes:

"I found myself not only writing my own stories, but also writing about or from the perspective of people I've never met, people I've known, or those I wish I hadn't. An exiled man walking the bluffs of land that isn't his own, wondering how it all went so terribly, terribly wrong. An embittered tormentor showing up at the funeral of his fallen object of obsession. A seventeen-year-old standing on a porch, learning to apologize. Lovestruck kids wandering up and down the evergreen High Line. My grandfather, Dean, landing at Guadalcanal in 1942. A misfit widow on the gleeful revenge on the town that cast her out."

Swift highlights many of Harkness's quirks and her larger-than-life persona—filling up her swimming pool with Dom Perignon and painting an angry neighbor's dog green (it was actually a cat)—and she's not the only one to become fascinated by Harkness. Craig Unger authored Blue Blood in 1988, six years after Harkness's death (in which her remains were placed in a $250,000 urn designed by Dalí). It's a biography about the socialite with the subtitle “She had everything—beauty, wealth, and glamour—until obsession, madness, and suicide destroyed it all."

Photo credit: Zillow
Photo credit: Zillow

"Fifty years is a long time, Holiday House sat quietly on the beach free of women with madness, their men and bad habits, and then it was bought by me," Swift sings in The Last Great American Dynasty.

The singer's beloved 1930s Cape Cod Traditional sits on five acres and has more than 700 feet of beachfront bliss. The 11,000-square-foot mansion boasts seven bedrooms and nine baths. This is vastly different from Harkness's own design that included eight kitchens and 21 bathrooms, which rather effectively prevented her from having to run into her three children while they were in the house. It's no surprise it was left abandoned upon Harkness's death until Swift began hosting the next generation of A-list parties set on the Atlantic Ocean in 2013.

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