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THE LAST GREAT AMERICAN DYNASTY: The story of “Rebekah” in Taylor Swift’s ‘Folklore’


In July 2020, Taylor Swift surprised her fans and the world with the release of her eighth studio album: ‘Folklore’. The reason being is the new level of emotional intimacy she was able to reach between herself and us listeners, as well as an unexpected lot of storytelling, never before seen in her previous albums. Taylor, regarded by many as an artist who typically only addresses themes of breakups, boys, and heartbreak in her songs, took to a “new sound”, with the delicate and confessional singing/melodies featured on the album’s songs, which are interlaced with profound, emotionally-wrought narratives. In keeping with the theme of the album, Folklore’s third track: ‘The Last Great American Dynasty’ has a meaning that goes deeper than some might think upon listening to it for the first time. In a song that tells the story of a different woman with quite a reputation, Taylor Swift uses ‘Rebekah’ in “The Last Great American Dynasty” as a jumping-off point to draw a comparison to herself.


The Rebekah in question is the notorious Rebekah Harkness, a philanthropist, composer, sculptor, and patron of the arts born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1915. She married Standard Oil heir William Harkness in 1947, however, he died soon after in 1954 of a heart attack. In her song, Taylor Swift tells the story of Harkness and juxtaposes it with her own. “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 marvellous time ruining everything”. Harkness was known for her rebelliousness throughout her life and career. Her behaviour always kept people at the edge of their seats, wondering: what will she do next? Even though she was one of the elite members of society at the time, her defiant and turbulent reputation, along with her not meeting the requirements of a “proper woman” at the time, made it so that the public viewed her marriage to Bill Harkness terribly, and even blamed the ultimate ending of the Harkness Dynasty on her. “It must have been her fault his heart gave out” Swift sings, referencing the public’s regard for Rebekah as a “mad-woman”, and their shared sentiment that it was precisely her “madness” that caused William’s heart attack.


Now, if there is one thing we know about Taylor Swift, it’s that she works hard. In her documentary, Miss Americana, we get a glimpse of the intense pace of Swift’s life and the similarly intense pressure and scrutiny she is under as a public figure. Rebekah Harkness was no different. Having inherited the fortune of one of the biggest petroleum business companies in America, and consequently being one of the richest women in the country at the time, Rebekah decided to put the money she had towards the arts. Among her greatest achievements, the creation of her own ballet company, Harkness Ballet, brought her even more popularity than before. She not only founded the company, but also reconstructed an entire theatre where she held her ballet performances. The media was fascinated by her and the extravagance she carried with her everywhere she went. That, however, came with its benefits and downfalls. So much attention and obsession at the hands of the media, along with the immense pressure she faced, especially as an older woman who wanted to look and act as young as she once was, deteriorated one of the most influential female figures of the time.


While she and William Harkness were married, they decided to buy a mansion in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, which they nicknamed “Holiday House”. There, Harkness carried out some of her greatest antics. Gigantic parties, the sort of ones that remind you of Gatsby’s in “The Great Gatsby”, were held at the residence. The only difference is, Gatsby kept his identity hidden from those who attended his parties, while Rebekah made sure everyone knew she was the one behind all the extravagance and glamour. As Swift mentions in the song, filling pools with Dom Pérignon, making card-game bets with good friend Salvador Dalí, and blowing through her fortune “on the boys and the ballet”, were all part of Harkness’ unique and spectacular lifestyle. Also, as mentioned in the song, there was one occurrence where a party of Rebekah’s got a bit too loud for a neighbour’s taste. Instead of arguing with the neighbour, she decided to steal their dog and dye it green. Yes, she really did that. Now you may be wondering: what is the connection between this house and Taylor? Well, the singer bought Holiday House in 2013 for a reported $17 million. Swift makes this connection between herself and her property’s previous owner in the final moments of the song: “Holiday house sat quietly on that beach, free of the women with madness, the men and bad habits, and then it was bought by me”.


It’s easy to imagine how thrilled Rebekah would have been to be paid tribute by a woman equally as fabulous as she was. Swift tells the story of Harkness and her incredible house to make sure the stories and memories stored there will never be forgotten. Now, thanks to her, the life of Rebekah Harkness is celebrated through her song ‘The Last Great American Dynasty’, and a new generation can sing along and know her name. Making a final comparison to herself and Rebekah, Taylor sings: Who knows if I never showed up what could've been. There goes the loudest woman this town has ever seen. I had a marvellous time ruinin' everything”.


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