A track off Taylor Swift’s new album, “Folklore,” tells the story of Rhode Island intrigue and one particular Gatsby-esque figure: Rebekah Harkness, a mid-century heiress who once occupied Swift’s mansion in Westerly.
Harkness was known for holding lavish, and sometimes disruptive, parties at the residence — called Holiday Hill — to the dismay of locals. There, she pranced around with husband and Standard Oil heir, William Hale Harkness, as well as other colorful types: “the blackmailing lawyers, the weirdos, the people in the trances,” according to a 1988 New York Times article. Amid her escapades, Harkness gained a reputation as an undisciplined spender and patron of the arts. (She founded Harkness Ballet and spearhead various philanthropy efforts.)
Her troubled story ended when she died of cancer in 1982 at 67.
Swift upheld the home’s opulent tradition when she bought Holiday Hill in 2013 for a whopping $17.75 million, reportedly in an all-cash deal. Now she has recounted Harkness’ story in the song, “The Last Great American Dynasty.”
“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.” Later in the song, she adds, “Fifty years is a long time/ Holiday House sat quietly on that beach/ Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits/ And then it was bought by me.”
As the song goes on, the award-winning artist continues to compare herself to Harkness. It is in some ways a fitting analogy since Swift’s arrival at the Watch Hill property wrought criticism from other residents, who disliked her “No Trespassing” signs, beach barricades, and A-list guests who meddled with the beach’s casual atmosphere.
“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,” Swift sings.
Swift released “Folklore” on Friday at midnight with little prior notice. The album is now available on all streaming platforms.
Diti Kohli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_