Get to know Rebekah Harkness.

By Lauren Huff
July 24, 2020 at 05:25 PM EDT
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Fans and tabloids alike know Taylor Swift's sweeping Rhode Island mansion for the lavish bashes she's held there. Turns out, the house has a history of such parties thrown by a different woman with quite a reputation, and on Swift's song "The Last Great American Dynasty" off her new album Folklore, she uses this woman as a jumping-off point to draw a comparison to herself.

"Rebekah rode up on the afternoon train, it was sunny / Her saltbox house on the coast took her mind off St. Louis," the song begins. "Bill was the heir to the Standard Oil name and money / And the town said, 'How did a middle-class divorcée do it?'"

The Rebekah in question is Rebekah Harkness, a philanthropist and patron of the arts from St. Louis. As Swift notes, she married Standard Oil heir William Hale Harkness in 1947, not long after her divorce from her first husband, Dickson W. Pierce (who himself was a descendant of the 14th President of the United States, Franklin Pierce).

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After their seven-year marriage (William died in 1954, from a heart attack), Harkness inherited Holiday House in Watch Hill, R.I. (above). As the song goes, Harkness would throw countless parties at the manse. Her son, Allen Pierce, claimed in an interview that the house saw many famous visitors over the years, including yogi B.K.S. Iyengar, eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, and artist Salvador Dalí.

According to a New York Times review of Blue Blood, a book about Harkness by Craig Unger, Harkness' behavior always kept people's tongues wagging. "She rang J.D. Salinger's bell dressed as a cleaning lady, having conceived the harebrained scheme that the reclusive writer's short stories be put to music," the Times recalls, adding, "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."

The antics of the "Bitch Pack" that Swift refers to in "The Last Great American Dynasty" are also seemingly confirmed by the Times, writing that they "clean[ed] her pool out with Dom Pérignon" and put "mineral oil in the punch at her sister's debutante ball."

The one part of the narrative Swift fudges a bit, however, relates to the spat with the neighbor. Although Swift sings that Harkness retaliated during a feud by dyeing a dog "key lime green," according to the Times, it was actually a cat. As a lover of all things feline, though, who could blame her for the switch?

Harkness' story ended on June 17, 1982, when she died of cancer at 67.  The Day writes that Harkness was truly herself, even in death. "Her ashes — at least as much of them as would fit — were placed in a jeweled chalice she bought for $250,000 from her friend Salvador Dali," the report states. "The chalice was made to turn mechanically, and Harkness liked the idea she would be forever in a pirouette."

Much of "The Last Great American Dynasty" plays with the idea of the townsfolk's perception of Harkness ("There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen / She had a marvelous time ruining everything"), and by the end of the song, Swift draws a parallel to herself as the new owner of the home. "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," she writes.

Swift's time at the property, which she's owned since 2013, certainly hasn't been without controversy. Her raucous Fourth of July parties aside, locals have been vocal about their concerns of the attention Swift brings to the community, with the governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, going so far as proposing a tax on second homes worth more than $1 million, which was dubbed the "Taylor Swift" tax. (It was later withdrawn.)

This isn't the first time Swift has written a song based around one of her famous residences. On the Lover track "Cornelia Street," she croons about the good times spent between her and her boyfriend at an apartment she rented there, and how, if they were to ever break up, she'd never be able to walk by that particular street again because of the weight of the memories it holds.

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