The barren hill, with its views of three states and its use as a lookout going back before the French and Indian Wars, became known as Watch Hill. But in 1929 the hill was to be changed forever when Mrs. George Grant Snowden of Philadelphia acquired a 5-acre site on the summit of the hill from the estate of Eugene Atwood. Mrs. Snowden wanted the land to build what would be the largest cottage in Watch Hill. It took more than two years to build the mansion that Mrs. Snowden named Holiday House. Now it’s owned by Taylor Swift and she’s written a song about it and its once-famous occupant.
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There’s been a great deal of speculation by Taylor Swift’s fans about her surprise new album, Folklore. The album has garnered rave reviews and was written during the pandemic’s forced isolation. Because the album is partly autobiographical, it has sent Taylor’s legions of fans into a frenzy trying to figure out the hidden meanings in the lyrics.
The third song on the album is The Last Great American Dynasty. It’s based on a story about Rebekah West Pierce Harkness, known as Betty to her friends. Rebekah was a beautiful, talented, divorcee originally from St. Louis, and her husband, William Hale Harkness, was heir to the Standard Oil fortune. William Harkness bought Holiday House in 1948, a year after their marriage. Rebekah was his second wife and it was her second marriage as well.E EIn another connection to Taylor’s album, one of the tracks on the new album is called Betty. Rebekah had summered in Watch Hill at her parent’s cottage all her life so it was natural for her to want her own summer place here.
The biographer Craig Unger describes Holiday House as, “the single most imposing structure in Watch Hill, situated on a bluff, the white clapboard house dominates the area. It is so large and rambling, with more than forty rooms, four chimneys, and half a dozen terraced sundecks, that it’s hard to believe it is a single-family summer dwelling. Near the top deck is a room with windows on three sides from which one can see for miles up and down the coast.”
William Harkness died in 1954, only seven years after their marriage, and Rebekah became one of the wealthiest women in the world. She became a big patron of the arts and started her own ballet company, the Harkness Ballet. But as the years went by Rebekah became more and more eccentric. The lyrics, in Taylor’s song, reference some of Rebekah’s erratic behavior such as cleaning her swimming pool with Don Perignon, her relationship with Spanish artist Salvador Dali, and dyeing a neighbor’s cat lime green. The incident occurred after outraged neighbors complained about an enormous blue plastic geodesic dome she erected so that her ballet dancers could practice outside. The neighbors sued and she was forced to dismantle it.
Taylor’s lyrics describe the story, “Bill was the heir to the Standard Oil name and money. And the town said, ‘How did a middle-class divorcee do it? The wedding was charming if a little gauche. There’s only so far new money goes. They picked out a home called it Holiday House. Their parties were tasteful, if a little loud. The doctor had told them to settle down. It must have been her fault his heart gave out.” Swift sings in the chorus. “There goes the last great American dynasty. Who knows, if she never showed up, what could’ve been? There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen. She had a marvelous time ruining everything.”
Not long after the cat incident, Rebekah left Watch Hill to move closer to New York City and her ballet. She put Holiday House on the market and in 1973 conveyed the property to Watch Hill Associates, a partnership of local Watch Hill residents who’d banded together to protect the property from development. Holiday House was so large the partnership divided it into three lots, the center lot containing the house.
The following year lot 2, with the house, was purchased by Gurdon B. Wattles for a few hundred thousand dollars, a ridiculously low price even for a white elephant. Wattles had to put over a million dollars into a renovation, part of the sale agreement was for the house to be reduced in size and parts of the structure on each side were demolished. The forty room mansion was reduced to 11,000 square feet with 8 bedrooms and 10 baths. Over the next four years, the Wattles family acquired the other two lots and renamed the cottage High Watch.
The Wattles remained at High Watch until 1996 when they sold the property to James and Marlene Benson of Weston, Mass for $3.5 million. The Benson’s never used the property much for the 19 years they owned it and the house sat empty for much of this time. Taylor bought Holiday House in 2013 for more than $17 million cash when she was only 23 years old.
Rebekah died in 1982 at the age of 67. The New York Times, commemorating her death, noted that in addition to being a dance patron, she was a sculptor and composer. In fact, Rebekah was a musician, another connection with Taylor. Rebekah studied under Nadia Boulanger, a celebrated French teacher of composition and at the Mannes College of Music. She had written a number of popular songs before pursuing a career in dance. But in life, as in Taylor’s song, Rebekah’s life was in many ways a tragedy. In “Blue Blood” (1988), author Craig Unger writes that at the time of her death, “her dance empire had been destroyed, she had been humiliated by the press, and most of her fortune had been lost through her capricious behavior.”
In the last verse of the song Taylor sings, “fifty years is a long time Holiday House sat quietly on that beach, Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits, And then it was bought by me, who knows, if I never showed up, what could’ve been, There goes the loudest woman this town has ever seen, I had a marvelous time ruining everything.”
So we are left to ponder, what do the lyrics of The Last Great American Dynasty mean? How much of a connection does Taylor feel with Rebekah and Holiday House? Perhaps Betty’s spirit still wanders the halls of Holiday House. Did her spirit reach out to Taylor inspiring her to write the song?
Here’s the track. See if you can divine the hidden meanings.