Taylor Swift’s new album, Folklore, was released today, and we’re obsessing over one song in particular that tells the story of the former owners of Swift’s Rhode Island home, known as Holiday House. The song, titled “The Last Great American Dynasty,” is based on the lives of Rebekah West Harkness (known as “Betty”), a composer and philanthropist who founded Harkness Ballet,
and her husband, William Hale “Bill” Harkness, whose family founded Standard Oil. Swift purchased the Watch Hill, Rhode Island, house for $17.75 million (in cash, no less) back in 2013, and has since held numerous—very Instagrammed—Fourth of July parties there. For anyone not intimately familiar with the life of Betty Harkness, it’s the bridge of the song that will likely clue you in that this is the true story of the people who lived in what is now Swift’s very own house:
“Holiday House sat quietly on that beach / Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits / And then it was bought by me.” Holiday House is one of Taylor Swift’s many homes, and it encompasses 11,000 square feet and sits on 5.23 acres. It was built in 1930 and features approximately eight bedrooms, 10.5 bathrooms, and a stunning waterfront view. It’s not the only gorgeous house in the Harkness family, either:
William Hale Harkness’ grandfather’s younger half-brother was Henry Morrison Flagler, who, along with John D. Rockefeller, founded Standard Oil. One of Flagler’s former homes is now the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, Florida, a Gilded Age-era historic house museum that consists of 75 rooms, and it’s definitely a feast for the eyes. “The Last Great American Dynasty” sounds like something out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, with lyrics like “Their parties were tasteful / If a little loud” and “Filled the pool with champagne / and swam with the big names.”
But before all this, Swift also mentions another, more humble house that she imagines Rebekah Harkness lived in before her marriage to Bill—”Her saltbox house on the coast took her mind off St. Louis,” which ties back to Harkness’s upbringing in the Missouri city and alludes to a more complicated past. Anecdotes of the lavish lives of the Harknesses emerge in lyrics like “losing on card game bets with Dalí.”
This connection is hardly imagined, either: upon Rebekah Harkness’s death, her ashes were put in a $250,000 urn that Salvador Dalí himself designed. Historic reports of Rebekah Harkness’s life align with Swift’s recollection of her as a “misfit widow”—she apparently had a strained relationship with many of her neighbors, who didn’t look fondly on antics like cleaning a pool with champagne or dyeing a neighbor’s cat green, both references in the song and, according to Blue Blood, Craig Unger’s book about Rebekah Harkness, true stories.
In the song, Swift paints Harkness as a misunderstood hero, calling into question the dismissals of her as a “mad woman” and instead questioning the “men with bad habits,” and even aligning herself with Harkness when she changes the chorus from “she had a marvelous time ruining everything” to “I had a marvelous time ruining everything” in the song’s last verse.
Swift was so fascinated with Rebekah that another song on Folklore is titled “Betty,” a clear reference to Rebekah Harkness’s nickname. As for the interiors of Holiday House now that the singer owns it, we imagine it’s similar to the whimsical aesthetic seen in Swift’s many other homes, like her Nashville, Tennessee, house that’s on full display in her Netflix documentary, Miss Americana.