After Rebekah Harkness died in 1982, her daughter Terry took her mother’s remains home in a Gristede’s shopping bag, according to a story in the New York Times. Or, at least, a leg, half of her head and an arm, so the rumor went. The folks at the funeral home couldn’t fit all of Harkness’ ashes in the $250,000 custom urn made by Salvador Dalí. Dubbed the Chalice of Life, the jeweled bauble was designed to spin in its base — so Harkness could always be dancing.
In 2013, Taylor Swift bought Harkness’ former home — Holiday House — in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. “I wonder if Taylor Swift might like to hear the story of the time a body washed up on the beach under her Watch Hill mansion,” wrote a reporter for the New London Day at the time. “The product of a boating accident, not foul play.” Swift may be the gossip mill’s fodder du jour, but in her day, the former owner of her Rhode Island home may have had her beat.
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Swift tells the story of Harkness — and juxtaposes it with her own — in “The Last Great American Dynasty,” off her new album Folklore. “There goes the last great American dynasty,” Swift sings. “Who knows, if she never showed up, what could’ve been/There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen/She had a marvelous time ruining everything.”
“Fifty years is a long time/Holiday House sat quietly on that beach,” she adds. “Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits/And then it was bought by me.”
According to the Times, Harkness was born in 1915 to “a rich, emotionally frigid St. Louis family. She was brought up by a nanny who was chosen because she had worked in an insane asylum.” She and her second husband, Standard Oil heir William Hale Harkness, reportedly had a happy marriage, although “little evidence is given in support of this thesis except that the two wrote a song together called ‘Giggling With My Feet.'”
During their seven-year marriage (William died in 1954), the couple bought a massive house on the Rhode Island coast, which they dubbed “Holiday House.” There, according to The Day — who interviewed her son Allen Pierce — Harkness once entertained everyone from Dalí to yogi B.K.S. Iyengar to her pet raccoon. ”[She was surrounded by] all the fairies flying off the floor, the blackmailing lawyers, the weirdos, the people in the trances,” Allen is quoted in the Times as saying. She was also a patron of the ballet — although perhaps not that successful. Her Harkness Ballet folded in 1975.
When Swift moved to Holiday House in 2013, she caused quite the stir as well — although perhaps not as massive as Harkness. Beachgoers and residents were worried she would be encroaching on the public beach near her home and locals bristled when Swift’s home became host to all manner of celebrities (much like in Harkness’ days). The “No Trespassing” signs erected in her yard kind of put a damper on the beachy fun of the community. The governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, even proposed a tax on second-homes worth more than a million dollars — a.k.a. “the Taylor Swift tax.” (Raimondo ended up withdrawing the proposal.)
It’s fitting, then, that in “The Last Great American Dynasty” Swift ends up assuming Harkness’ mantle, 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.”
One correction, though, Taylor. Harkness dyed her neighbor’s cat lime green — not his dog. Given your propensity for felines, however, we’ll allow the edit.
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