As the saying goes, well-behaved women seldom make history. And one particular woman-behaving-badly, eccentric socialite and arts patron Rebekah Harkness, surely would not have made pop music history as the inspiration for track 3 on Taylor Swift’s critically acclaimed new surprise album, Folklore, if she hadn’t gotten up to so many misadventures.
Those infamous antics (with and without Harkness’s own squad, the “Bitch Pack”) included filling her fish tank with Scotch, cleaning her pool with Dom Pérignon, spiking the punch at her own sister's debutante ball with mineral oil, performing stripteases on banquet tables, transferring huge sums of money from one bank to another just to confuse her hapless accountants, adopting a pet raccoon, stalking reclusive author J.D. Salinger (while disguised as a maid) in an attempt to convince him to turn his short stories into a musical, and dyeing her neighbor’s cat lime green. (In the Folklore song about Harkness, “The Last Great American Dynasty,” Swift changes the cat to a dog, presumably because of her well-known fondness for felines.)
All of this and more is chronicled in Craig Unger’s scandal-ridden page-turner, Blue Blood: How Rebekah Harkness, One of the Richest Women in the World, Destroyed a Great American Family, and presented as a sort of Cliff-Notes edition via a series of fascinating late-night tweets by New Yorker staff writer Rachel Syme.
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.
When Amira Rasool climbed out of bed on Friday morning, she did not expect to be riding into battle against Taylor Swift.
Soon, Rasool, founder and CEO of fashion e-tailer The Folklore, was deluged by online buzz about the award-winning singer-songwriter’s surprise quarantine album, folklore, which she had dropped at midnight to breathless anticipation and fanfare. Rasool didn’t think much of the record’s name. Plenty of things were named “Folklore,” she reasoned. Certainly she didn’t have monopoly on the term, which refers to the traditional stories, customs, and beliefs, typically passed by word of mouth, from one generation to the next. Even an email, sent to Rasool through The Folklore’s website, inquiring about a faulty digital download of Swift’s album, didn’t give Rasool much pause. It was a little strange but she shrugged it off.
Then a friend pointed Rasool to the folklore merchandise. There, on the front of a sweater or the sleeve of a hoodie was a logo she recognized. The typefaces were different. The Folklore uses a custom roman font; folklore an italicized script that invokes the record’s soporific, indie-folk atmosphere. But the word “the” on products emblazoned with “The folklore Album,” tipped on its side and affixed perpendicularly to the rest of the phrase, was the same design element Rasool had used since 2018, when she launched The Folklore to amplify underrepresented African and African diaspora designers.
Taylor Swift has 813 voice memos on her phone. There must be so many unreleased masterpieces in there, it actually hurts me to think about it.
But "Cardigan" isn't the only song Taylor wrote so quickly — in fact, in an interview with Vulture, Dessner revealed she wrote "The Last Great American Dynasty" in the time it took for him to go for a run, and "The 1" and "Hoax" were both written in one night.
"She wrote 'The 1', and then she wrote 'Hoax' a couple of hours later and sent them in the middle of the night," he said. "When I woke up in the morning, I wrote her before she woke up in LA and said, 'These have to be on the record.' She woke up and said, 'I agree.'"
And of course, this is Taylor Swift, so while she was doing all this incredible songwriting in secret, she was also teasing us with Instagram posts claiming she had ~not a lot going on at the moment~.
If you weren't spending the weekend either partying at or fuming over The Chainsmokers concert in the Hamptons, chances are you were indulging in the emotional coziness of Taylor Swift's surprise folksy album drop (we told you Cottagecore was the aesthetic of the summer). While we all cried along to that one track featuring Bon Iver (let's not talk about it), the emergent fan favorite has no doubt been the slightly catchier "The Last Great American Dynasty," which tells the tale of real life socialite Rebekah West Harkness.
It's no coincidence that Swift feels an affinity towards the midcentury heiress - Harkness once owned the Rhode Island mansion the singer purchased back in 2013 for $17.75 million (in cash). She also, like Swift, was known to make plenty of headlines in her day.
Born to a wealthy St. Louis family in 1915, she did indeed marry the heir of the Standard Oil fortune, William Hale Harkness, in 1947 and together they settled into the beachfront property and called it "Holiday House." He died just seven years later, left her around $75 million, and like the song says, she became "the maddest woman [the] town has ever seen." In the most fabulous way possible, of course. From champagne-swimming to pet-dyeing, click through for the true stories of her lavish mischief mentioned in Swift's lyrics - and then some.