“Rebekah rode up on the afternoon train” is the start to the third track of Taylor Swift’s latest album "Folklore," which she entitled “The Last Great American Dynasty.”
The song gives an overview of the life story of American socialite Rebekah Harkness, who was the previous owner of Swift’s Watch Hill, Rhode Island home. But while the famous “Holiday House” may have been in part the connection that drew Swift to write about Harkness, “[Harkness’s] saltbox house on the coast” is not where her story begins. (Some fans have even gone so far as to say that not just that song, but the entire album is about Harkness.)
The St. Louis born socialite came from a well-to-do Midwestern family, thanks to the fortune acquired by her grandfather’s trust company. And like many young girls with money at that time, Harkness was sent to finishing school by her parents. Fermata School for Girls in South Carolina put her a long way from her family.
And it’s here that many of the antics that fit into Swift’s description of her began. It was said that she once went so far as to put mineral oil in the punch at her sister’s debutante ball, no doubt to the great embarrassment of her family. She wrote in her scrapbook that she wished to “do everything bad.” (Swift’s lyric “she had a marvelous time ruining everything” comes to mind here.)
Rebekah the Socialite
Though Harkness came from money, she achieved a new status level with her marriage (Harkness’ second) to William Hale Harkness, courtesy of his being the heir to Standard Oil. In the song, Swift emphasized the status change, calling the wedding “a little gauche” before citing new money only being able to help so much as the reason for the lack of taste.
But it would seem that Harkness was able to solidify her standing as a member of high society. She was pictured in a 1956 edition of Vogue Magazine in a silk black Marinbocher dress, looking every bit the finishing school product she had prided herself on wreaking havoc at years earlier.
Perhaps where the finishing school failed to show up in Harkness was at her parties. Swift describes the parties as being “tasteful if a little loud,” which seems to be an understatement when you consider that Harkness once cleaned (read filled) her pool with Dom Perignon, and likely killed her goldfish with the scotch she put in the tank. And that wasn’t her only eccentric escapade with animals, given she once dyed a cat (or as Swift would have it, a dog) green.
But on some level, maybe this is what caused Swift to feel an affinity for Harkness, which she reveals towards the end of the song. After all, who can forget Swift’s big star-studded Fourth of July parties? I for one looked forward to the uber-Americana pictures every year. But Swift, like Harkness, faced some criticism for the parties, with some people poking fun at her so-called squad of supermodel and celebrity friends. Both Swift and Harkness, it would seem, lived up to the mansion’s moniker of Holiday House.
Her Passion for the Ballet
After her husband William passed in ‘54, Harkness became engrossed with passions of her own. She loved ballet so much that she hosted a workshop for the Joffery Ballet at Holiday House. She was a great patron of the ballet, even opening up a company of her own after a disagreement with Joffery over his refusal to choreograph to her musical compositions. Nobody claims Harkness was even-tempered.
Despite her efforts’ failure (Swift does say, “she blew all the money on the boys and the ballet”), Harkness’s goal for Harkness Ballet was a worthy endeavor. She wanted Harkness House to evoke the beautiful ballet schools of Europe, so she didn’t shy away from the hefty price tag for decorating with a marble staircase and a crystal chandelier. There’s a reason one of her ballet dancers said after her death that “they were the loved ones.”
It would seem that in all areas of her life Harkness had a flair for the grand and the dramatic. She requested that upon her death she be put in a Salvador Dalí urn embellished with jewels. But much like the fact that a great deal of her ashes wouldn't fit into the urn, a great deal of her life doesn’t fit into this mostly upbeat, if eccentric, story.
If you’ve ever heard the idea about Instagram being the highlight reel of people’s lives, that’s what Swift’s song is to Rebekah’s story. So before you become too envious of Harkness, you should look at the crosses she had to bear. Her parents were distant, her daughter Edith made many suicide attempts, her daughter Terry’s child was born with severe handicaps and died at 10, her son Allen went to prison, and at the end of her life, her medicine cabinet had about 40 different vials filled with painkillers.
The last great American dynasty that was Harkness’s life is grand and eccentric at first glance and tragic when you look behind the silk curtains hanging in the ballet studio. That part of her life doesn’t fit as well with the “dreamlike” electric guitars and folk elements playing as Swift sings. But if Harkness’s patronage of the ballet at all indicates her love of beauty, my guess is she wouldn’t have Swift’s song any other way.