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We Need to Talk About the Woman Who Inspired Taylor Swift’s “The Last Great American Dynasty”

In case you missed it, Taylor Swift single-handedly saved summer when she surprised everyone with her new album, folklore. The gothic folksy album feels like a marriage of the acoustic tracks from Red and Swift’s single “Safe and Sound.”, brimming with haunting lyrics and vivid imagery. One song in particular has garnered lots of attention for its historical background. Let’s please discuss “The Last Great American Dynasty,” inspired by the woman who lived in Swift’s Watch Hill mansion before she did

Rebekah West Harkness was an heiress and divorcée from St. Louis, as the song tells us. She and her second husband William Hale “Bill” Harkness bought the Rhode Island mansion and called it “Holiday House” in the early 1900’s. As the song states, “Bill was the heir to the Standard Oil name and money, and the town said, ‘How did a middle-class divorcée do it?”. Unsurprisingly, the lavish home built in 1930 is 11,000 square feet and sits on 5.23 acres of land on the beach. Swift bought the home in 2013 for a very cool very casual $17 million.

The song is reminiscent of “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” and “Starlight” combined with a Gatsby twist, with lyrics such as “Filled the pool with champagne and swam with the big names / And blew through the money on the boys and the ballet / And losing on card game bets with Dalí”. However, unlike its predecessors, “The Last Great American Dynasty” is historically accurate. After her death, Harkness’s ashes were put in a $250,000 urn designed by Salvador Dalí, a friend of hers.

After her husband died in 1954 of a heart attack, Rebekah Harkness was known for her eccentric behavior and was looked down on as a “mad woman” by other members of high society. She and her friends, referred to as the “Bitch Pack” were known to clean the pool with Dom Pérignon champagne and often went skinny dipping. In one instance, Harkness stole a neighbor’s cat (in the song Swift says it was a dog) after a fight and dyed it key lime green.

Other fascinating antics of Harkness not mentioned in the song include a time she filled her fish tank with Scotch and goldfish. She was also once kicked off of a cruise ship for swimming naked, rang J.D. Salinger’s doorbell in a cleaning lady costume, and she even spiked the punch at her sister's debutante ball with mineral oil. Where is the Netflix series on this woman?

Harkness was also passionate about the arts, a composer, sculptor, dance patron, and philanthropist. She used her enormous wealth to sponsor the Joffrey Ballet before founding her own dance company, the Harkness Ballet. However, this wasn’t without controversy. In 1961, she stole 20 dancers from Joffrey for a summer workshop held in none other than Holiday House. Harkness founded her namesake ballet after a bitter end to her relationship with Joffrey.

As if all of this wasn’t fascinating enough, Harkness went by the nickname “Betty”. Yes, you read that right. If it’s the same Betty who inspired the song of her namesake, I don’t know for sure. But knowing Taylor Swift, nothing is ever a  coincidence.

 

Carli is a 2022 grad of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and served as the style section editor for Her Campus. After being a national style writer for Her Campus, she launched Her Campus FIT. A born and raised Jersey Girl, she is a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. In her spare time she loves running, jamming to Taylor Swift, and tracking down the best burgers. Find her on Instagram @carliannescloset.
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