The Real Story Behind Taylor Swift's "The Last Great American Dynasty"
The Folklore track tells the tale of a Rhode Island legend.
Taylor Swift's surprise new album Folklore is full of fantastical stories, some rooted in brutal honesty and others telling fictional but near-fatal fairytales. But it's not as autobiographical as her previous records, as one standout track with a particularly rich history proves. While some of her songs remain pretty personal, most listeners agree that Taylor Swift's "The Last Great American Dynasty" is about Rebekah Harkness, an IRL legend who once upon a time owned what is perhaps Swift's most famous home.
There are many reasons fans believe that "The Last Great American Dynasty" is about Harkness. For one, Swift literally begins the song with the lyrics, "Rebekah rode up on the afternoon train, it was sunny." But, the biggest clue is the song's reference to the singer's Rhode Island home. “Fifty years is a long time / Holiday House sat quietly on that beach,” she sings. “Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits / And then it was bought by me.”
In 2013, the singer bought Harkness' former home — named the Holiday House — in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. Ever since the singer bought the home, it's primarily become known for being the location of her infamous Fourth of July parties, which she stopped throwing in 2017. But decades prior, Harkness, once known as one of the wealthiest women in America, filled the home and her surrounding neighborhood with love and utter chaos, leaving behind a pretty colorful legacy, to say the least.
According to a 1988 New York Times story, as unearthed by Rolling Stone, Harkness was born in 1915 to a "rich, emotionally frigid" family in St. Louis, a city which receives a shout-out on the song. Her (second) husband William Hale Harkness was indeed an heir of Standard Oil, as the song details. They bought Holiday House during their seven-year marriage, and after William died, she really did have a marvelous time ruining everything, as Swift wistfully sings on the revelatory track.
To say that Harkness lived a fabulous yet chaotic life would be an understatement. According to NYT, after being widowed, she renovated Holiday House, adding eight kitchens and 21 bathrooms, as the typical homeowner would. She had a strong admiration for fine art, opening Harkness Ballet, a studio that only lasted for 10 years and lost the 1987 equivalent of $38 million in investment dollars, which Swift also references in the track, singing, "And blew through the money on the boys and the ballet." She reportedly dyed her neighbor's cat green, something also hinted at in Swift's lyrics — "And in a feud with her neighbor / She stole his dog and dyed it key lime green."
Needless to say, Harkness was both revered and despised, often receiving flack for her lavish parties, eccentricity, and family life. But she lived fabulously until the end — even her death was done in style. Her ashes were placed in a $250,000 urn designed by Salvador Dalí, who is also mentioned in "The Last Great American Dynasty." The said urn was then toted around by her daughter in a Gristede's grocery bag (only the finest for a Dalí creation) before finally finding its home at the Harkess Mausoleum.
Of course, "The Last Great American Dynasty" wouldn't be a Swift song if it didn't have some autobiographical elements. On the track, Swift compares Harkness' life to her own, pointing out similarities in the harsh criticism they both received, and possibly referencing the complaints that Swift got from her Watch Hill neighbors after buying the house. “Who knows, if I never showed up, what could’ve been," she sings, slyly switching the track's subject with just one pronoun: "I had a marvelous time ruining everything."
When it was reported that Swift was planning to buy Holiday House, the New London Day questioned if she would like to know about the dark history of its previous owner before she committed. As it turns out, Swift was one step ahead of everyone, as always.