history lessons

Everything You Need to Know About the Heiress Who Inspired a Taylor Swift Song

Oil heiress Rebekah Harkness’s life inspired a stranger-than-fiction track on Taylor Swift’s new album, folklore. Photo: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Taylor Swift’s eighth album, folklore, is out of the woods and into our ears. It’s got collabs with Bon Iver and the National’s Aaron Dessner. It’s got a song about a sweater. It’s got queer undertones. It’s got … a lengthy semi-nonfictional track about Rebekah Harkness, a St. Louis–born debutante who married the heir to Standard Oil, bought a giant house in Rhode Island, lived a wild life, died, and had some of her remains toted home by her daughter in a Gristedes bag because they would not all fit the urn custom-made by Salvador Dalí. Swift later bought said house for $17 million and used it, notably, to host Fourth of July parties seen round the world.

Wait, what?
Sure, I’ll back up. The song is called “the last great american dynasty” and tells the story of Rebekah Harkness. She was a mid-century socialite whose tale aligns nicely with Swift’s demonstrated lyrical love of all things Champagne, swimming pools, and narratives about patriarchal society.

Okay. So Rebekah is from Missouri?
Yes. “Rebekah rode up on the afternoon train, it was sunny,” Swift sings at the top of the track. “Her saltbox house on the coast took her mind off St. Louis.” Born in 1915 to a family the Times described as “rich” and “emotionally frigid” her primary caretaker was a nanny who was selected namely because she had once been employed by an “insane asylum.” She attended a finishing school where her main goal, according to her scrapbook, was to “do everything bad.” (Craig Unger wrote a 14-page profile that later became a book, Blue Blood, about Harkness for New York in 1983. The details from the Times are via a review of the book.)

Talk to me about the “bitch pack” Swift is singing about. Is that real?
Actually, yes. Harkness and some of her friends were known in popular media back then as the “bitch squad.” Sound familiar? In the lyrics, Swift talks about how Harkness would bring the squad to her house in Rhode Island for lavish parties. “Flew in all her Bitch Pack friends from the city. Filled the pool with Champagne and swam with the big names.” Again, sound familiar?

When did she get divorced?
Harkness had already been married and divorced once when she married Will Harkness in 1947. That’s why Swift says people are already gossiping about Harkness and wondering how a “middle-class divorcée” managed to snag the heir to Standard Oil. Unger describes Harkness as an “embarrassing” type of guy. Embarrassing, but very, very rich. “The wedding was charming, if a little gauche. There’s only so far new money goes.” Together, the couple bought a compound on the shores of Rhode Island.

Harkness in 1966. Photo: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Ouch. But I guess she’s kinda needling herself, too, in that line, since she bought their house.
Right, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Will Harkness died seven years after their wedding. His widow then took upon renovating the house. She put in eight kitchens and over 20 bedrooms, a design move described by Unger as an attempt to see her kids at little as possible. It was during this period that Harkness became known for throwing fêtes with guests like Dalí, the artist who would later design her $250,000 jeweled urn, nicknamed the Chalice of Life. It was designed to spin on itself so that Harkness could, as the story goes, always be dancing.

Harkness dancing with her ballet company in 1966. Photo: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

What else did she do with her money?
Harkness fancied herself a patron of the arts, though her efforts, by her own choices, failed spectacularly. She spent nearly $40 million (in 1980s dollars) to effectively run a ballet company bearing her name into the ground. When a choreographer started getting good press, she fired him. (This was all after she and ballet great Robert Joffrey ended their initial partnership because Joffrey declined to perform works written by Harkness herself.) “Dancers practiced on the lawn for more than a few summers,” the Times wrote in a story about the big Rhode Island house in 2016. “Though when Mrs. Harkness planted a blue plastic Buckminster Fuller dome there as a practice space, the neighbors were outraged and sued to have it removed.”

Uh, what about that line about her dyeing a dog “Key-lime green”?
Yeah, I don’t know what to tell you about that. The Times references an anecdote about her dyeing a cat green though. There’s also a detail about a fish tank full of both goldfish and Scotch. And a time she decided to stalk J.D. Salinger at his home while she was dressed as a maid.

Did she ever remarry?
Yes and yes. Harkness had two more husbands. Both marriages ended in divorce.

So about those kids she didn’t really want to see.
Her daughter Edith died by suicide. Prior to her death, Edith jumped off a roof but survived. Same for an attempted overdose. (“How should she do it?” Rebekah Harkness was quoted asking in the Times. “Is there a chic way to go?”) Her daughter Terry, the one who reportedly carried home the Gristedes tote, gave birth to an intellectually disabled daughter whom Harkness initially doted on until the girl pulled a ribbon from her head and that was that. (The child died at age 10.) Her son went to prison for shooting a man during a fight, describing his incarceration as a happy period in his life. In fact, the happiest period in his life.

Harkness once tracked J.D. Salinger to his home to try to convince him that she should write songs based on his stories. Photo: Louis Liotta/New York Post Archives/The New York Post via Getty Images

What a life. Or lives, I guess. Is she still alive?
Harkness died of cancer at 67 in 1982. Her daughter Terry tried, unsuccessfully, to invalidate her will with the help of attorney Roy Cohn (as in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel Roy Cohn). A choreographer who was present described the scene as chaotic, with a truly wild detail about people trying on wigs as Harkness lay dying.

And Swift … lives in her house now?
Swift bought Harkness’s Rhode Island “Holiday House” in 2013. She reportedly paid in cash. Like Harkness, her arrival caused a stir. Neighbors were concerned about fans and paparazzi. They were mad she put up a chain-link fence, despite having gotten permission from the proper channels to do so. The governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, proposed (and later withdrew) a hefty second-home tax that was dubbed the “Taylor Swift tax.” No trespassing signs popped up on the property. They had a Swift lyric, “I knew you were trouble when you walked in,” printed on them.

Did she buy the house just to write this song seven years later?
Honestly, it’s Taylor Swift. Nobody plays a longer game than she does. But also, why wouldn’t you buy a fabulous seaside mansion with a truly stranger-than-fiction history and then throw days-long parties for your friends on the lawn if you had the means. Sounds fun.

Sorry, I’m just still thinking about the Gristedes bag and the fancy urn.
Let me make sure it stays in your brain forever. After some of Harkness’s remains — “just a leg is in there, or maybe half of her head, and an arm,” according to a friend — were placed in the urn, the top later came off it. No one knew how it happened.

Meet the Wild Heiress Who Inspired a New Taylor Swift Track