The Haunting of Taylor Swift’s High Watch
One of the most historic houses in Watch Hill was built in 1929 by a Mrs. Snowden of Philadelphia. Mrs. Snowden wanted to build what would be the largest house in Watch Hill and she did. The mansion took over two years to build and Mrs. Snowden named it Holiday House.
In 1948 the house was sold to Mr. William Harkness, heir to the Standard Oil Company fortune. When he died in 1954, his wife Rebekah Harkness inherited the house along with his fortune. This made her the richest woman in America. Many older residents in the village of Watch Hill still remember Rebekah and have wondered if her spirit haunts the old mansion.
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In 2013, Taylor Swift bought Holiday House which had been renamed High Watch by the previous owner. She was only 23 years old when she bought the old mansion for over 17 million dollars in cash. It was the most money ever paid for a house in Rhode Island.
Seven years after buying High Watch, in 2020, Taylor Swift released a surprise new album called Folklore. The album garnered rave reviews and was written during Taylor’s pandemic enforced isolation. It earned a reputation as the archetypal quarantine album. The Daily Telegraph called the album “an exquisite, empathetic lockdown triumph”.
NME wrote the album will be remembered as
“the quintessential lockdown album” that “felt like the perfect accompaniment for the weird loneliness of 2020.”
Insider stated that Folklore would be known as “lockdown’s one true masterpiece”. Rolling Stone said the album may go down in history as “the definitive quarantine album” for providing comfort and catharsis “just when we needed it most”. Billboard also proclaimed that Folklore would be cherished as one of Swift’s most influential albums.
Because the album was partly autobiographical, it sent Taylor’s legions of fans into a frenzy! They spent countless hours trying to figure out the hidden meaning of the lyrics. The third song on the album, The Last Great American Dynasty, was about Rebekah Harkness. Another track, called Betty, was the nickname Rebekah’s friends called her.
Rebekah’s tremendous wealth allowed her to become a big patron of the arts – even starting her own ballet company. As the years went by, Rebekah became more and more eccentric.
Taylor’s lyrics reference some of Rebekah’s erratic behavior; such as cleaning her swimming pool with Champagne, her strange relationship with Salvador Dali, and dyeing a neighbor’s cat lime green. The incident occurred after outraged neighbors complained about an enormous blue geodesic dome she had erected so that her ballet dancers could practice outside. The talk in Watch Hill was always about her latest wild party or crazy escapade.
The lyrics of the The Great American Dynasty tell the story of Rebekah’s wedding, picking out Holiday House, her husband’s heart attack, the dynasty, what the town thought of her, and how 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 beloved ballet. She put Holiday House on the market and in 1973 conveyed the property to a partnership of local Watch Hill residents.
The forty room mansion was reduced in size to 11,000 square feet. The last owners never used the house very much for the 19 years they owned it and it sat empty for much of that time until Taylor bought it.
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. Rebekah was also a musician and wrote a number of popular songs, before she pursued a career in dance, another connection with Taylor.
As in Taylor’s song, Rebekah’s life was in many ways a tragedy. Craig Unger wrote 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 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’re left to wonder, what do the lyrics of The Last Great American Dynasty really mean. Is there a deeper connection between Taylor and Rebekah? There are many parallels between the two women, beautiful, talented, wealthy, and creative artists – as well as being owners of the same iconic estate.
Perhaps Rebekah’s spirit still haunts the halls of Holiday House and reached out and inspired Taylor to write her song?
Listen to “The Last Great American Dynasty” and you decide.
Mr. William Harkness was not the only heir to the Standard Oil Company fortune. His cousin Edward Harkness and his wife Mary (who had deep local roots) lived down the coast a short way from Watch Hill at a summer home called Eolia. It’s now Harkness Memorial State Park. Mary and Edward spent their lives giving their money and art away, the latter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They gave to many schools and colleges, including Black colleges, and founded hospitals. Their money continues to fund healthcare initiatives through the Commonwealth Fund. Eolia and it’s surrounding acreage was left to Connecticut by the widowed Mary, but w/o any endowment for the house or many outbuildings. The house was finally restored thanks to the Friends of Harkness. It’s one of the quietest, most beautiful publicly-accessible places on the East Coast.
Wow! Great info thanks for sharing…I love Harkness Memorial
I think “Invisible String” is Iconic and beautiful.
Great song:nice ode to original woman owner.
Love this song – It really shows her talent and how she is such a great storyteller.
After living in the area for 15 years we go back every summer – honestly, can’t stay away! Our daughter was engaged in August right in front of Holiday House on the beach, her favorite place. We had a marvelous time!
What an awesome story I loved it..
Thanks for sharing the history of this beautiful house and the people that owned it and now Taylor Swift how beautiful..thank you I never would have learned this if it wasn’t for you reporting it Greg
I never get tired of reading and watching this piece Greg so thank you.
To me, I feel Rebekah Harkness was just so ahead of her times creatively that she was just misunderstood and was in an environment that wasn’t really in favor of her creative ways (at that time) if you will.. And that is why I feel ultimately she ended up moving closer to New York City to set up her ballet company..
But quite honestly, Rebekah is a person I would have hung around with, she sounded fun, unique eclectic, etc. And of course people, I definitely would have helped her clean her pool out with champagne and taken a few swigs of it in between.. And what a gift to have been able to watch ballet dancers in between, that’s such an amazing gift/art to be that talented..
So a big thank you to Taylor Swift for breathing life back into Rebekah Harkness or I guess I could say and food for thought..did Rebecca Harkness breathe her life into Taylor Swift to help create the Folklore Masterpiece? Either way, It is so well deserved.. And it definitely makes sense as they are both so AMAZINGLY talented people. I am curious, I have not googled Rebekah Harkness songs but I’d be interested to know what type of pop songs Rebecca Harkness did?
Thank you again Greg for another masterpiece