Taylor Swift tells the story of “The Last Great American Dynasty” in her Folklore track about one of the wealthiest women in America, Rebekah West Harkness.
Billboard found out more information about the 20th-century socialite and how she compares to the Grammy award-winning singer.
Harkness acquired an enormous amount of wealth after her second marriage to William Hale Harkness.
The St. Louis-born patron of the arts has many more titles to her name than “middle-class divorcée,” which Swift calls her in the first verse. That’s how she was commonly regarded before marrying William Hale Harkness, the heir to the Standard Oil fortune. With Standard Oil being the largest oil refiner in the world as well as the world’s first and largest multinational company in the late 1800s and early 1900s, she became one of the wealthiest women in America.
Swift bought her “Holiday House” in 2013 for $17 million.
The Harkness couple purchased a waterfront mansion in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, which the two nicknamed the “Holiday House.” In 2013, Swift became the owner of said mansion after making the $17 million purchase in cash, according to Forbes. She sings of her large purchase in the song’s bridge, “Holiday House sat quietly on that beach/ Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits/ And then it was bought by me.”
Before Swift’s “squad” snagged all the media attention, Harkess became notorious with her “Bi— Pack” of female friends.
Harkness formed the “Bi— Pack” with her group of female friends because of how much fun they had subverting high-class events, their antics including lacing punchbowls with mineral oil, skinny dipping, dying someone’s pet green and cleaning a pool with Dom Pérignon champagne, according to The New York Times (“She stole his dog and dyed it key lime green” and “Filled the pool with champagne and swam with the big names,” Swift sings of Harkness).
Swift’s “squad” of all-star female friends — consisting of Selena Gomez, Gigi Hadid, Karlie Kloss, Cara Delevingne, Hailee Steinfield, Martha Hunt, Serayah, Mariska Hargitay, and Lily Aldridge — turned heads when they stepped out together at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards, and when she hosted them all for an infamous Fourth of July party at the Holiday House the following year. But some called it all a PR stunt.
Although Harkness reclaimed the sexist epithet, the 30-year-old pop star deflected her frequent label from haters and other artists in a lyric referring to her pack of famous gal pals in the Lover track “The Man”: “What’s it like to brag about raking in dollars/ And getting bi—es and models?/… If I was out flashing my dollars/ I’d be a ‘bi—‘ not a ‘baller.’”
Both underwent harsh criticism in the press.
Like Swift, Harkness was no stranger to making headlines and being condemned as a controversial figure multiple times in tabloids. Swift heavily focused on this facet of her celebrity life when she took on a darker alter ego for her Reputation album, a cathartic body of work where she scrutinized the media for always publicly scrutinizing her life. The Folklore singer-songwriter touches on Harkness’ blissful, exposed recklessness in the chorus of “The Last Great American Dynasty”: “And they said/ There goes the last great American dynasty/ Who knows, if she never showed up, what could’ve been/ There goes the most shameless woman this town has ever seen/ She had a marvelous time ruining everything.”
Swift later changes the perspective of the chorus to first person in showing how much Harkness’ story resonates with her, singing, “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.”
Harkness founded the internationally renowned professional ballet company Harkness Ballet.
With her enormous wealth and passion for the arts, Harkness sponsored the Joffrey Ballet before launching her own internationally touring professional ballet company in 1964 called the Harkness Ballet, according to the Harkness Foundation’s website. She housed it in the Harkness House for Ballet Arts, a training school in Manhattan, and refurbished a former movie house near Lincoln Center later entitled the Harkness Theatre to host annual seasons of the Harkness Ballet as well as traveling dance troupes across the world.
She also composed music for the ballet companies she sponsored, according to local Connecticut newspaper The Day.
The $250,000 “Chalice of Life” Harkness bought from her friend, Spanish Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, ultimately became her urn.
In Swift’s latest track, she teases Harkness for “losing on card game bets with Dalí,” the famous Surrealist artist. Whether such card game bets between the two occurred, there is one historical transaction she made: Harkness purchased his 1965 “Chalice of Life,” a butterfly-decorated vessel made of gold, diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds, for $250,000, The Day reported with The New York Times noting the price tag. The chalice eventually became her urn when she died on June 17, 1982 at age 67 from cancer.
Watch the lyric video for “The Last Great American Dynasty,” featuring the Holiday House, below.