For a time in the 1950s, socialite Rebekah Harkness was true American royalty. Wealthy, elegant, and beautiful, Harkness seemed to have it all—from her oil baron husband to her notoriously raucous parties. But behind her perfect façade lies a chilling history. Discover Rebekah Harkness, the extravagant woman who inspired Taylor Swift's song "the last great American dynasty".
Rebekah Harkness was practically destined to become a spoiled little rich girl. Born in 1915 in St. Louis, Missouri, her father Allen Tarwater was a powerful stockbroker, while her mother, also named Rebekah, was a perfectly turned out trophy wife. The family looked immaculate from the outside…behind closed doors, though, was another story.
Little Betty had a horrific childhood. For one, her "emotionally frigid" parents wanted absolutely nothing to do with raising her. Instead, she was reared by a series of nannies—and that’s not even the worst part. Rebekah’s parents hired one nanny specifically because the woman had worked in an insane asylum before. Aw, how sweet. And the dysfunction didn’t end there.
Rebekah’s parents might not have cared a whit about loving their daughter, but they sure as heck cared about what she looked like. When she was still just a young girl, the Harknesses noticed that their Betty was putting on weight, so they signed the "pudgy" girl up for dance and figure skating lessons to help her shed those unsightly pounds. But Rebekah made the most of it…
Eager to please her emotionally unavailable parents, young Rebekah worked incredibly hard at her dance and ice skating lessons. She applied herself with a rigid, frightening discipline that would become her trademark later in life. Did Mommy and Daddy notice? Not really. Sheesh, it’s not wonder Rebekah turned out to be a nightmare when she grew up.
Harkness started acting out early in her adolescence, and her antics would put any other mean girl to shame. While at her fancy finishing school, Harkness didn’t seem to care that her classmates were people with last names like "Roosevelt". Instead, she scrawled in her scrapbook that she wanted to "do everything bad". Well, she certainly achieved her goal…
While at school, Harkness fell in with a fast crowd of like-minded women—that is, emotionally damaged drama queens looking to get revenge on their parents. If that sounds like a recipe for disaster, it really was. They dubbed themselves the "[W]itch Pack" and, after graduating in 1932, set about trying to wreak havoc on the socialite scene, one gala at a time. Their antics soon became legendary.
The most famous "Pack" story from around this time is when, during one particularly boring and respectable soiree, the group decided to spike a punch bowl with laxatives. But most people don’t know the most chilling part. Harkness pulled this prank at her own sister’s debutante ball. Oh, but they had more tricks up their perfectly-tailored sleeves.
The Pack didn’t stop at putting poisonous substances into punch bowls; they also got very rowdy at these gatherings. At least once, Harkness and her friends got up on a banquet table and performed a strip tease for the distinguished guests around them. Hey, all publicity is good publicity—and Rebekah’s need to be in the spotlight soon grew to disturbing proportions.
One day, Harkness’s antics were so extreme that they got her kicked off a cruise ship. Styling herself as the life of the party, Harkness did things like throw plates at the ship’s Filipino orchestra, swim in her birthday suit in full view of other passengers, and send out strings of swears so loudly that the ocean liner eventually had no choice but to send the beautiful, foul-mouthed socialite off the boat.
When Harkness was 24 years old, she decided it was high time to marry, and she chose Dickson W. Pierce, an upper-class photographer, as her first husband. Pierce was the descendant of Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States, and seemed like a good match for the ambitious girl…except really, he was just a starter husband.
Socialite circles are infamously tight-lipped about their marriages, but there’s almost no doubt that Rebekah’s union with Pierce was a dismal affair—and one day, she made a disturbing confession. Harkness later admitted that she married the poor schmuck because she "had nothing else to do". In fact, Rebekah had a much loftier—and extravagant—destiny in mind for herself.
Rebekah divorced Pierce in 1946 after an excruciating seven-year marriage, and it wasn’t long before she set her sights on William Hale Harkness, the heir to the Standard Oil fortune. If you hear "oil" and think "Russian Oligarch rich," you’d be pretty much right. William was rolling in money, which made him the perfect candidate for Rebekah’s expensive tastes. Still, when you marry for money, you earn every penny…
Although William Harkness came from a well-respected family that was supposed to give Rebekah even more of the status she craved, William himself was…a total fool. The New York Times described him as an "embarrassing sort of man," and his hobbies completely back this up. For example, he liked to vanity-publish nonsensical books that even he admitted were awful. Only his other flaws were far darker than this silly hobby.
Her Father William Lamon Harkness
Friends who knew Rebekah and William said that although the oil tycoon was a bit of an idiot, the new Mrs. Harkness was actually "scared of him"—and for good reason. William, 15 years her senior, saw Rebekah as a "naughty child" in need of a spanking. Much of their marriage dynamic was about his domineering presence setting her on the straight and narrow. Ugh.
William L. Harkness Estate in Glen Cove
Rebekah had always been well-off as a child—as you might guess from the string of nannies who raised her—but marrying William Harkness thrust her into an entirely different tier of high society. By 1956, she had even snagged a photo spread in Vogue, appearing in a neat, black Mainbocher dress with a white satin apron at her back. In a matter of years, her life would go from classy to just plain messy.
From the outside, Rebekah and William Harkness’s marriage looked immaculate. Rebekah had already had two children with her first husband, Allen and Anne "Terry" Pierce, and she then had one more child with William, a daughter named Edith. It was shaping up to be a white-picket fence brood—until, that is, Rebekah proved herself to be an utterly horrific mother.
When Rebekah decided to renovate her Rhode Island mansion, she demanded that it have a whopping eight kitchens and 21 baths. The reason behind this is pure cruelty. Reportedly, she wanted these updates so that she could see as little of her children as possible. All the extra rooms would give the nannies plenty of space to feed and bathe the babies without Rebekah having to know a thing about it. As we’ll see, Rebekah’s "love" only devolved from there.
In 1954, something curious happened to Rebekah Harkness: Her oil tycoon husband passed. Suddenly, Rebekah was a rich widow—one of the wealthiest women in America, in fact. She had a newfound freedom to do whatever she wanted with the piles of money in her bank account. So what did she do? Oh my God, the question here is: What didn’t she do?
Almost as soon as William Harkness kicked the bucket, Rebekah turned into one of the most tasteless, gaudy eccentrics the Western hemisphere had ever seen. Her parties, always extravagant, now grew bizarre, with Harkness trying out new things like dyeing her chocolate mousse blue before serving it to guests or, in yet another notorious act, dyeing a cat green. And she was just getting started.
In 1961, Harkness decided she wanted to become the next great ballet master, so she sponsored actual master Robert Joffrey’s artisanal ballet troupe. Yet while there, Harkness gave new meaning to the word "prima donna". The socialite, fancying herself a dance expert, started writing her own ballets. When Joffrey refused to perform the schlock, Rebekah’s revenge was brutal.
Harkness had no problem dropping Joffrey like a hot potato when he wouldn’t support her dismal vanity projects. She all but fired him from his own company, then twisted the knife by taking most of his dancers with her to form her new, solo Harkness Ballet. Unfortunately for Rebekah, the endeavour ended in national embarrassment and disaster.
This is where Rebekah really started getting a tarnished reputation, and things got so bad that no amount of money could fix her downfall. People already thought she had betrayed Joffrey, but they now watched in horror as she ran her ballet into the ground. Without any real studio space, her dancers often practiced on her front lawn. After that, Rebekah really let it all hang out.
If Harkness’s lovers are anything to go by, she was a wildcat in the bedroom. One of her conquests, producer Bertrand Castelli, described one rendezvous they had in her office as like "two camels in the desert who suddenly know that the only way to make an oasis is to really talk sense". This…actually doesn’t make sense, which probably means it was a really wild night.
Apparently, Harkness liked to reward her boy-toys, because she soon made Castelli the artistic director of her ballet company. While he was under her employ, she would often order him around romantically. She once demanded Castelli to, "Kiss me. The others, they just know how to bite". Wow, I’m getting the sense that these two really liked dirty talk. I want to look away, but I just can’t.
One of Harkness’s signature moves was to use vastly expensive products for everyday, mundane things. She loved to pour Dom Perignon into her pool and let guests swim around in the bubbly. She would also fill her lavish fish tanks with Scotch, even as living goldfish swam in them. Obviously, Rebekah was completely out touch with reality—so her next move makes sense.
Around this time, Harkness fancied herself a composer. Equipped with a ludicrous amount of self-confidence, she did something supremely stupid. See, Rebekah thought that notoriously reclusive writer J.D. Salinger had the perfect stories for her music, so one day she disguised herself as a cleaning lady, knocked on his door, then tried to convince him to let her use his fiction. He was not convinced.
In 1961, Harkness gave love another shot, marrying the prominent celebrity doctor Benjamin Harrison Kean. Yet like so much of Harkness’s life, what seemed beautiful on the outside was rotting on the inside. Though Kean consulted with multiple US presidents, he also had big-time mafia ties. The lovely pair only made it four years before divorcing.
Just after 1966, Harkness became a grandmother when her daughter Terry gave birth to a little girl. Yet this came with great tragedy: The baby, named Angel, was severely brain-damaged. Nonetheless, Harkness actually doted on the babe, and for a time it seemed like she was going to be a better granny than she was a mommy. Surprise, surprise, this phase didn't last long.
According to one story, Harkness’s adoration for her grandchild vanished almost overnight. Her reason was chilling. Reportedly, the baby Angel innocently pulled a ribbon from Harkness’s perfectly coifed hair. With that, Rebekah’s "unconditional" love evaporated. Sadly, the socialite’s seemingly bottomless cruelty would soon hit even greater lows.
To zero people’s surprise, the Harkness family was utterly dysfunctional. Rebekah’s daughter Edith was clinically depressed, often had thoughts of taking her own life (wonder why), and spent scores of years in and out of mental institutions following near fatal attempts at self-harm. The most tragic detail? Edith often used her mother’s many, many pills to perform these attempts—and Rebekah was anything but empathetic.
Faced with Edith’s grim drive to end her life, Harkness was coldly philosophical. Besides taking pills, the poor girl also jumped off a roof on at least one occasion, and in response, Harkness only mused at her daughter's various attempts. "How should she do it?" She wondered. "Is there a chic way to go?" One day, Rebekah would find out that question for herself.
Harkness was jealous to an absolute fault, and even to her own detriment. Though the Harkness Ballet was floundering, there was one brilliant choreographer, Larry Rhodes, who received good press. Reviewers agreed he was one of the company’s only shining lights. Well, Harkness couldn’t bear to be upstaged, so she unceremoniously fired Rhodes and doomed her own precious ballet company in the process.
In 1974, Harkness married again, this time to another doctor named Niels H. Lauersen. She hoped that the fourth time would be the charm, but the socialite had no such luck. The pair was horribly mismatched, with Lauersen a whopping 20 years younger than his bride. The couple divorced in 1977…but Rebekah’s life was about to take a much darker turn.
One of Harkness’s final acts in her role as ballet maestro was also her most embarrassing. She shoved $5 million into building the Harkness Theater, a lavish studio complete with marble staircases and a chandelier, and it was all for nothing: The company collapsed in 1975. As it turned out, this was the beginning of her ignominious end.
For all her money, Harkness did not have good taste. She was notorious along the eastern seaboard for her tacky, campy, "new money" sensibilities, and her Harkness Theater was the epitome of her gaudy aesthetic. While a kinder critic likened it to "a lavish ladies’ powder room," less-generous experts compared it to a "Staten Island beauty parlor". Ouch.
As she aged, Rebekah started to live off of "champagne and injections," including testosterone and an assortment of pain medications. This had devastating consequences. People reported that Harkness’s lavish marble bathrooms were often splattered with blood, and that her muscles had begun to calcify. The train wreck was now chugging along, and it wouldn't stop until Harkness took her last breath.
Though Harkness took those nasty testosterone injections to strengthen her body for dance, the "medicine" actually had the opposite effect. Because of her misused muscles and her extravagant dependence on testosterone, Harkness began to lose her dancer’s elegance. Near the end of her life, one friend noted that she "walked like Frankenstein".
Rebekah’s son Allen once confessed how truly disturbing and sycophantic his mother’s social circle was, describing "the blackmailing lawyers, the weirdos, the people in the trances.'' Harkness also knew how to keep all of her adoring public in competition with each other, with each one of her lackies vying to become the "favorite". Before her passing, she picked up her most dedicated—and most heartless—fan yet.
In the 1960s, Harkness took Bobby Scevers, a dancer who was 25 years her junior, as her lover. Now, a grown woman can do whatever she wants in her own bed, but this was a strange choice—and not because of the age gap. Scevers, as it turned out, was a self-identified gay man, and couldn’t have been in the relationship for romance. Though Harkness didn’t seem to care that he was using her, she probably should have…
Scevers and Harkness brought out the worst in each other. Besides despising Rebekah’s children, Scevers also hated her disabled granddaughter Angel. When Harkness planned to put Angel’s nursery over top of his room, Scevers snapped, "Let the little creature die!" Unfortunately, he was one of the few people still by Harkness’s side when the end came.
By 1980, many of Harkness’s old friends had dropped off, and she was left with only her most sycophantic hangers-on. Her body had been slowly falling into disrepair—those injections hurt far more than they helped—and she started complaining of a mysterious stomach ailment. When she went to the doctor’s office, they found a frightening problem.
Doctors told Harkness that she had one ailment that no amount of money could cure: She was dying of stomach cancer. No matter what she did or who she tried to pay off, the great American heiress had a terrifyingly short time to live. Everyone advised her to get her affairs in order, but as we'll soon see, things didn’t work out so neatly for Rebekah Harkness in the end.
In the art world, the shade "International Klein Blue" is famous, and was custom-mixed by renowned artist Yves Klein in 1960. Well, Rebekah Harkness was not to be outdone by anyone, and she commissioned her own "Harkness Blue," which she used to upholster the velvet Louis XIV-style chairs she had placed in her dance studio.
In addition to her dancing career, Harkness also fancied herself something of a composer, and would often perform her original songs to "polite reception" at famed places like Carnegie Hall in New York. In other words, these pieces didn’t exactly do justice to their surroundings. As her own biographer put it, "The only reason her works were ever played in public was because she subsidized the performances". Harsh, but true.
When she was still desperately clinging to her ballet dreams, Harkness decided to install an enormous, blue plastic Geodesic dome right smack dab in the middle of her front lawn as a formal practice space for her failing dancers. Her wealthy neighbors had other ideas, and scornfully forced her to remove the unsightly object.
When publicizing her ballet, Harkness became notorious for refusing to showcase any of her talented dancers in the promotional photographs. Instead, she put herself front and center, natch, and the pictures were often just of her doing lift after lift and living out her Dirty Dancing dreams. And that wasn’t the only ill-advised thing she did…
Harkness was surprisingly generous when it suited her, but also unpredictably bizarre. She would pay for dancers’ nose jobs at the drop of a hat, and buy office desks for her administrators that cost months’ worth of New York rent, a generosity that often made her middle-class secretaries supremely uncomfortable—not that Harkness noticed.
Harkness definitely wasn’t the most fiscally-responsible business woman, but she does have the distinction of being the strangest girl-boss in history. One of her administrators described how Harkness would come to the office in pink and blue leotards, literally stand on her head, and demand to have serious conversations while she performed her acrobatic work.
By 1982, the end was near for Harkness, yet tragically her son Allen wasn’t there. Why? He was in prison. As yet another troubled member of the family, Allen had gotten into a fight, slain a man, and was eventually sentenced with manslaughter. For what it’s worth, Allen called the years he spent in the clinker—and away from his mother—the "happiest of his life".
The end came swift, fast, and brutal for Harkness. Though her children Edith and Terry rushed to her bedside along with her "lover" Bobby Scevers, the scene was anything but heart-warming. According to Scevers, ''It was complete chaos…everybody running around signing wills and trying on different wigs.'' And when Rebekah actually passed on June 17, 1982, things only got weirder from there.
Harkness had to do everything in style—even when it came to moving on to the next life. Before she passed, the socialite spent $250,000 to commission a bedazzled urn from none other than Salvador Dali. Ironically nicknamed "The Chalice of Life," the morbid monument stood right at the intersection between tacky and lavish, just like Rebekah herself. And when the time came to put Harkness into the Chalice of Life, the plot thickened.
Salvador Dali put one touching—and classically narcissistic—detail into "The Chalice of Life". The urn spun on its base so that Harkness could "always be dancing," even beyond the grave. Uh, how sweet?
Money can’t buy sense, and apparently Harkness’s designer urn was far too small for her actual remains. As Rebekah’s friend said, "Just a leg is in there, or maybe half of her head, and an arm.'' So instead of giving her mother a dignified end, Rebekah’s daughter Terry had to carry the rest of her ashes home, bound up loosely in a humble supermarket bag.
Harkness only left death in her wake wherever she went. Not only did her ballet collapse, her whole family did as well. Not long after Rebekah’s passing, her daughter Edith finally managed to succeed in her attempts. Perhaps most tragically, Rebekah’s little granddaughter Angel had passed just before Rebekah herself; she was just 10 years old. The last great American dynasty, indeed.
In recent years, Harkness has gained new fame—or infamy—because of her connection to Taylor Swift. Swift bought Harkness’s Rhode Island "Holiday House" in 2013 and used the near-palatial estate to throw her own lavish parties, notably her "Taymerica" July 4th bashes. In 2020, Swift then penned the song "the last great american dynasty," which tells Harkness’s twisted story for the world.
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