Every home has a story. But not every home has a song, much less a track on the No. 1 album in the country.
Pop megastar Taylor Swift — whose “Lover Fest” was scheduled to stop at Gillette Stadium this weekend before the coronavirus pandemic foiled those plans — released her eighth studio album last week with little fanfare or warning, nonchalantly informing the world of her new record mere hours before its release. “Folklore,” which Swift said she wrote and recorded in isolation, is more poetic than punchy pop, a stripped-down symphony of storytelling. And one of those stories is about Holiday House, Swift’s vacation home in wealthy Watch Hill, R.I. — or, more specifically, one of its former owners.
“The Last Great American Dynasty” spins the tale of Rebekah Harkness, an eccentric philanthropist and wealthy widow who was rankling the Watch Hill elite from Holiday House decades before Swift purchased the home for a reported $17.75 million in cash in 2013.
With some 700 feet of private beachfront, Swift’s seven-bedroom, 11,000-square-foot mansion has since played host to a string of star-spangled summer parties over the years, with an A-list assortment of actors, models, and musicians in attendance, including Emma Stone, Blake Lively, Ryan Reynolds, Serayah, Gigi Hadid, and various Jonas brothers.
But on Harkness’s watch, it seems, the house — and the parties — were even bigger.
Born Rebekah West in St. Louis, Harkness spent her childhood summers in Watch Hill. She married William Hale Harkness, heir to the Standard Oil fortune, in 1947, and a year later, as Swift writes, “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.” William died of a heart attack in 1954, leaving the hilltop beach house to his wife.
By all accounts, Harkness was a character. In St. Louis, when she was known as Betty West, she and her debutante friends were known as the “bitch pack,” which Swift notes lyrically. She did “the kinds of things everyone else just talked about,” wrote Craig Unger in “Blue Blood,” a biography of Harkness. One time she arrived at a party by climbing to the roof and descending the chimney. She was once bounced from an ocean liner for shouting obscenities, throwing plates at the band, and swimming nude, according to a 1988 New York Times review of “Blue Blood.” An aspiring composer, she rang J. D. Salinger’s doorbell dressed as a cleaning woman, with hopes of setting the author’s writing to music. She filled fish tanks with goldfish and Scotch, and — as Swift hints at in the song — cleaned her swimming pool with champagne.
At Holiday House, Harkness was a fairly legendary party host, entertaining guests such as Howard Hughes and Salvador Dalí, according to Unger’s biography. She expanded the house, which sits on the bluff for which Watch Hill is named, until it had eight kitchens and 21 bathrooms.
Harkness used her fortune to sponsor various ballet companies and, in the 1960s, would bring the dancers to Watch Hill for the summer. In 1966, she had a blue geodesic dome installed on her lawn for the dancers to practice beneath; outraged locals sued her, citing zoning restrictions, and Harkness was forced to take it down, according to the 2005 book “Watch Hill Through Time” by the Watch Hill Conservancy. Swift captures the tension between Harkness and her neighbors in the song’s chorus, singing: “There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen / She had a marvelous time ruining everything.”
When Harkness sold Holiday House in the 1970s, the 40-room property had swollen to such a size that it was divided into three lots, according to “Watch Hill Through Time.” The center lot, containing the house itself — now so large it had to be trimmed through partial demolition on both sides — was sold to the Wattles family, who renamed it High Watch and kept a decidedly lower profile.
As Swift sings: “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.”
Like Harkness, Swift made waves when she moved into the exclusive enclave. Her security presence reportedly irked some locals at first, and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo in 2015 floated, but eventually retracted, the idea of a “Taylor Swift tax” on second homes worth more than $1 million.
While other locals are more positive about their superstar neighbor, it appears Swift feels at least some kind of kinship to Harkness, switching to the first person in the final chorus: “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.”