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The Story Behind the Song about a House: A lyrical comparison of Taylor Swift’s “last great American dynasty” with the real life of “the maddest woman this town has ever seen”

Taylor Swift graced us with her presence back in 2013 by claiming the infamous Watch Hill Mansion as her own. But like many places that have existed (and will exist) long after its current inhabitants are gone, this house has a story – one that makes even the illustrious life of Taylor look dingy and oddly banal in comparison.

It makes perfect sense that the millennial songstress might reflect a bit on one of her favorite abodes as she spends more time in it lately. She mentioned on her social medias that her recently released eighth studio album folklore is largely based on stories she had floating around in her head during self-quarantine, so it’s no wonder that the story of Rebekah Harkness, the previous owner of the mansion, would make the cut. 

It’s clear from the lyrics that Taylor definitely did some research while writing my personal favorite song on the record, “the last great american dynasty.” But how accurate was she, really? I set out to find out, and wanted to share my findings with Motif readers.

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Rebekah rode up on the afternoon train, it was sunny
Her saltbox house on the coast took her mind off St. Louis

Bill was the heir to the Standard Oil name and money
And the town said, “How
didamiddle-class divorcée doit?”

So far, all this checks out (assuming the weather that day really was sunny). Rebekah Harkness was married four times in her lifetime; Bill Harkness was her second husband. She was originally from Saint Louis, where she was born and raised by nannies, and then attended finishing school. Some reports say that the lack of emotional closeness with her parents is likely what pushed her into marriage haphazardly (allegedly, she said there was nothing better to do) over the course of her life. 

The wedding wascharming, if a little gauche
There’s only so far new money goes

They picked out a home and called it “Holiday House”
Their parties were tasteful, if a little loud
The doctor had told him to settle down
It must have been her fault his heart gave out

From what I’ve read about these people, Bill Harkness was The Great Gatsby 2.0 with more money than he knew what to do with, and that’s why people questioned how Rebekah (also known as “Betty” – yet another reference to a different song on this album) was able to nab a guy with pockets that deep. So she probably threw it in their faces a bit, making the Holiday House parties a bit extra. This lady was sassy to the highest degree, and definitely didn’t let the naysayers have their day without fighting back somehow. 

Historically, Bill did pass away from a heart attack, but I thoroughly enjoyed the way Taylor lyrically voices the snide things that unfriendly neighbors probably said about her that aren’t necessarily true, but quite probable. It is this intersection between storytelling and history that hits the sweet spot for those with a taste for local flair and pop trivia aficionados. 

And they said
There goes the last great American dynasty
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

The chorus of the song is more creative and poetic, but given what we know about Rebekah Harkness, none of this is all that surprising. Much like Taylor Swift, Rebekah likely attracted a lot of noise and traffic to the area while throwing parties and networking with high-end socialites in the performing arts — her bread and butter. Even though she had money at this point, Rebekah loved entertaining and being the center of attention. Lyrically, I’d wager that Taylor Swift infused some things that have been said about her in the media as well (“Blank Space,” anyone?). 

The similarities of the social dynamics between the two women are striking, and my favorite line is undoubtedly “she had a marvelous time ruining everything.” It’s an obvious nod to the Rhode Islanders who weren’t the stoked teenaged girls thrilled to have their favorite pop icon bunking tantalizingly close to home. Despite Swift’s legal permits being filed to put up a chain link fence, locals were still pissed and even instated a “Taylor Swift tax” as a means of coping with the chaos of more traffic and paparazzi flooding the area. 

Rebekah gave up on the Rhode Island set forever
Flew in all her Bitch Pack friends from the city

Filled the pool with champagne and swam with the big names

And blew through the money on the boys and the ballet
And losing on card game bets with Dalí

After a while, it makes sense that this rich woman would give up trying to please the locals, and fly in some of her old mischievous friends from finishing school who dubbed themselves “The Bitch Squad.” The first time I heard this song, I was convinced it was just a Swift-ism, showing off her newfound comfort cussing in her songs. So imagine my amusement when I read this was actually an historical fact. As far as the shenanigans mentioned here, it’s hard to find precise accounts, but many sources report similar things of this nature, like putting mineral oil in the punch bowls and filling a fishbowl with scotch (probably not healthy for the fish, but I rest my case). 

Ballet was definitely a crucial part of her life, as Rebekah was widely credited with being a big-name philanthropist who funded and ran her own prestigious ballet company, as well as being credited with donating two million dollars to New York Hospital for research and recovery medicine in her will. She did end up poaching dancers from the Robert Joffrey Company, which then ended her company due to some ugly allegations and split artistic decisions. I couldn’t find any specific accounts of Rebekah playing cards with Salvador Dalí, but she definitely demanded to be cremated and kept in one of his fancy urns (which she didn’t even completely fit into, so some of her limbs were allegedly kept separately in a grocery bag). 

They say she was seen on occasion
Pacing the rocks, staring out at the midnight sea
And in a feud with her neighbor
She stole his dog and dyed it key lime green
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

I am obsessed with the ghostly nature of the bridge section of this song – it’s so haunting, and the way Taylor positions herself squarely in the center of the vacuum Rebekah left at the time of her death is poignantly beautiful and slick. In many ways, it’s almost as if this house has embodied the crazy eccentricities of its occupants, dooming all its future inhabitants to a similar fate.

On a lighter note, media reports say that it was actually a cat that was dyed key-lime green, apparently. The timeline, however, is easy enough to figure out — it was indeed about 50 years since Rebekah’s death in 1982 and Taylor’s purchase of the home in 2013. Point is, Taylor and Rebekah are both eccentric creative types with a petty (yet hilarious) sort of dark side.

To get the full sense of the story, I definitely recommend listening to the song with headphones on and the world turned off. It’s such a masterful piece of storytelling, and if history class was this half this illustrious and glittering, I might’ve actually paid a bit more attention to it. 

Listen to the official lyric video of the song HERE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2s5xdY6MCeI

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