Photo: Isabel Infantes, HO / TNS
If you know anything about Taylor Swift, you probably know that she writes songs about herself: her relationships, her family, her friends, her feuds, her successes, her failures. This autobiographical, highly detailed songwriting style has helped catapult Swift to pop-megastar status while also making her fiercely loyal fan base feel that she’s still just like them.
So it’s rare that Swift steps outside and writes about someone else’s story. However, that’s what she did in several songs on “Folklore,” her eighth studio album that she suddenly released Thursday night, after announcing she had co-written and recorded an entire record — with collaborators Bon Iver, the National’s Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff — in the past four months of quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I found myself not only writing my own stories, but also writing about or from the perspective of people I’ve never met, people I’ve known, or those I wish I hadn’t,” Swift explains in the liner notes. One of these songs is especially noteworthy as it centers on, as Swift writes, “a misfit widow getting gleeful revenge on the town that cast her out.”
This misfit widow is the protagonist of “The Last Great American Dynasty,” which one review already declared “a contender for the best Taylor Swift song ever written.” Swift, who co-wrote the track with Dessner, croons in the opening lyric: “Rebekah rode up on the afternoon train, it was sunny — her saltbox house on the coast took her mind off St. Louis.” This led to a chorus of fans on social media Friday morning demanding to know: Who is Rebekah?!
It turns out she has quite the backstory. The woman is Rebekah West Harkness, a famously wild heiress from St. Louis who once owned the Rhode Island coastal mansion that Swift purchased in 2013 for about $17 million. The details match up:
“Bill was the heir to the Standard Oil name and money, and the town said, ‘How did a middle-class divorcée do it?’” Swift sings. “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.”
Harkness was indeed a divorcée who married William Hale Harkness, whose family founded the Standard Oil company. (He died of a heart attack in 1954.) Multiple newspaper articles chronicle the history of the Rhode Island mansion, nicknamed Holiday House: The Day, a local Connecticut paper, said Howard Hughes used to stop by. The New York Times reported that Harkness infuriated her neighbors when she started a ballet company and constructed a giant dome on the lawn where dancers could practice.
It looks like Swift did the research, as she sings about Harkness’s antics, including how she “filled the pool with champagne”; feuded with a neighbor and dyed his dog “key lime green”; and played cards with Salvador Dalí. Similar anecdotes are found in Craig Unger’s “Blue Blood,” a 1988 book about Harkness’ life. He wrote that she cleaned her pool with Dom Pérignon and once dyed a cat green. When Harkness died in 1982, he said, her ashes were placed in a Dalí-created urn worth $250,000.
Bizarre details aside, “The Last Great American Dynasty” may be the most telling song on Swift’s album. In the chorus, Swift describes the neighbors’ disdainful reaction to Harkness: “And they said, ‘There goes the last great American dynasty … there goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen.’” In the next line, it’s clear why Swift described the song as “gleeful revenge,” singing, “She had a marvelous time ruining everything.”
The lyrics lend some insight into Swift’s state of mind these days, especially with this story of a “mad woman” who “ruined everything” — something tells us this goes deeper than the pop star taking a dig at those Rhode Island locals who complained that her security team was wrecking the beach. Swift has recently opened up about how she used to be desperate to be seen as a “good girl” in the industry and that she never wanted to upset anyone; eventually, she realized that by constantly pivoting to please her critics, she was stunting her own career.
Now, Swift seems determined not to care how others see her, whether that’s speaking up about politics or fighting a contentious battle with her former record label. And if there’s any doubt about how she feels, in the last verse, the song switches into the first person.
“Holiday House sat quietly on that beach, free of women with madness, their men and bad habits; then it was bought by me,” Swift sings. “There goes the loudest woman this town has ever seen — I had a marvelous time ruining everything.”