The True Story Behind Taylor Swift's 'The Last Great American Dynasty'

Savannah Walsh
Photo credit: YouTube
Photo credit: YouTube

From ELLE

When Taylor Swift bestows the world with a new album, fans spend days picking apart every relationship reference and Easter egg. But her latest, folklore has at least one song that is less a diary of Swift's life than her assessment of another's. "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," Swift details about her new record. She references the track "the last great american dynasty" specifically when she writes about "a misfit widow getting gleeful revenge on the town that cast her out."

The song begins with the lyric, "Rebekah rode up on the afternoon train, it was sunny — her saltbox house on the coast took her mind off St. Louis." It didn't take long for fans to reveal who Swift was writing about and why. Social media sleuthing quickly identified Rebekah Harkness, previous owner of Swift's sprawling Rhode Island mansion, as the subject.

Ahead, everything we know about the "maddest woman this town has ever seen" and her connection to Swift's own wild spirit.

"Rebekah" was very much a real person.

The "Rebekah" Swift chronicles in "the last great american dynasty" is Rebekah Harkness, a St. Louis heiress and divorcée who married William "Bill" Hale Harkness. According to The New York Times, Swift's lyrics about Rebekah's life and love with Bill are historically accurate. “Bill was the heir to the Standard Oil name and money, and the town said, ‘How did a middle-class divorcée do it?’” Swift sings. “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.” Per the Times, Rebekah was born in 1915 to a "rich, emotionally frigid St. Louis family." She married Bill, whose family was heir to the Standard Oil fortune, after a failed union with photographer W. Dickinson Pierce. Her husband died in 1954 of a heart attack.

Photo credit: Keystone - Getty Images
Photo credit: Keystone - Getty Images

In the years after his death, Rebekah did in fact have "a marvelous time ruining everything," as Swift suggests in the lyrics. As reported by the Times, Rebekah renovated the Rhode Island home she shared with Bill to install eight additional kitchens and 21 bathrooms. In "the last great american dynasty," Swift sings that Rebekah "filled the pool with champagne" and dyed a neighbor's dog "key lime green." In reality, the Times says Rebekah in fact "cleaned her pool out with Dom Perignon" and dyed a cat green instead.

Fascinating details that didn't make the song, per the Times: "She moved hundreds of thousands of dollars from one bank to another for the pleasure of confusing her accountants. She believed in reincarnation. She filled her fish tank with goldfish and Scotch." (Where is the HBO biopic about this woman?!)

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

Rebekah was also married four times, founded an eponymous arts foundation, and sponsored Robert Joffrey's ballet troupe for several years. Swift references these developments in the lyrics, "And blew through the money on the boys and the ballet/
And losing on card game bets with Dalí." She died of cancer in 1982, the Times reporting that her daughter Terry transported her mother's remains in a Gristedes shopping bag.

She and Bill previously owned Swift's Rhode Island mansion.

"I wonder if Taylor Swift might like to hear the story of the time a body washed up on the beach under her Watch Hill mansion," a reporter for The New London Day wrote back in 2013 when she purchased the $17 million property.

In the song, Swift sings about the couple's purchase of her future home. The lyrics read, "They picked out a home and called it 'Holiday House'/Their parties were tasteful, if a little loud." When she herself moved into Holiday House, residents in the area were wary of her presence, complete with "No Trespassing" signs in the yard that read, "I knew you were trouble when you walked in."

Swift alludes to her arrival more than 50 years after Rebekah's departure. “Holiday House sat quietly on that beach, free of women with madness, their men and bad habits; then it was bought by me,” she sang. “There goes the loudest woman this town has ever seen — I had a marvelous time ruining everything.”

Swift addresses her own headline-making exploits at the property.

Swift herself was known for causing waves at her Rhode Island mansion. Nearby residents reportedly criticized her security team's habit of descending upon the public beach. She made headlines for her splashy celebrity Fourth of July parties and paparazzi-filled walks with then-boyfriend Tom Hiddleston. And the governor of Rhode Island even proposed the "Taylor Swift" tax on second-homes that are valued at more than a million dollars.

In addition to Swift's similarly uproarious gatherings at the Holiday House, she references other elements of Rebekah's life she feels connected to. The Times article about Rebekah writes, "She married again. And again," of the heiress's four marriages. Swift has similarly received backlash for her high-profile romances with Calvin Harris, Conor Kennedy, and Joe Jonas, among others. Another lyric references Rebekah's "Bitch Pack friends from the city," a sly reference to her own squad, with members ranging from Selena Gomez to Gigi Hadid.

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