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Taylor Swift is buying into a rich Watch Hill tradition

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published May 05. 2013 4:00AM

It is interesting that a celebrated young entertainer like Taylor Swift, reportedly in contract to pay $17 million for an oceanfront mansion in Watch Hill, would settle on a house once owned by an eccentric heiress known for her patronage of the arts.

Indeed, Holiday House, as the sprawling mansion was called when it was owned by the Harkness family, which was made rich by an original stake in Standard Oil, is one of the most storied houses in the otherwise staid community of Watch Hill.

It was Rebekah Harkness - whose second of four husbands, William H. Harkness, died in August 1954 in The Westerly Hospital after being stricken by a heart attack in the mansion - who patronized the arts, courted artists and put the family name most often in headlines.

William Harkness died just two years after inheriting one half of his mother's $33 million estate, including Holiday House, according to a news account in The Day at the time.

His young widow, 40-year-old Rebekah, went on to spend a lot of it, earning a reputation as an undisciplined spender, one of the richest women in the country, living a lavish lifestyle and generously underwriting the efforts of many emerging artists.

Holiday House, part of which was torn down in the 1970s because it was so big, had 40 rooms and 21 bathrooms in Rebekah Harkness' day. She employed nine people in the household staff in Watch Hill, including three Chinese chefs.

Her most keen interest was in the ballet, and she composed music that was used by the ballet companies she sponsored. She was at first a prominent benefactor of the Joffrey Ballet but then started her own company, Harkness Ballet, which toured around the world.

According to a story about her in New York magazine, Harkness responded to a complaint by New York Times critic Clive Barnes, who wrote that her ballet company was born with a silver spoon in its mouth, by sending him a giant spoon she had painted silver.

Rebekah Harkness bought a mansion in Manhattan for the headquarters of the Harkness Ballet but moved the company in the summer to Watch Hill, where the dancers became prominent visitors, spending their free hours at the beach.

Visitors to Holiday House included famous music composers of the time and talented dancers, including Jose Greco, who reportedly taught guests in Watch Hill flamenco dancing.

Harkness was also friends with Salvador Dali, buying or commissioning many pieces by him, including the famous "Chalice of Life," a $500,000 vessel made of gold, diamond and sapphires. The chalice, which was on display in Watch Hill for a time, had butterflies on the outside and their wings would flutter as it was rotated by a motor.

The chalice eventually became the urn for Rebekah's ashes, after she died in June 1982 at the age of 67.

The Harkness family story includes a lot of heartache, including her long estrangement from her three children. One of them was imprisoned after shooting a stranger on a New York street with a Derringer he pulled from his back pocket.

Another of the Harkness children, who once tried to commit suicide by jumping from the penthouse room of a New York hotel owned by her mother, eventually died of a drug overdose.

The Watch Hill mansion was sold before Rebekah died. Her Long Island estate was also sold, to the Isley Brothers.

Rebekah Harkness consulted psychics and believed in reincarnation.

One might wonder, now that a successful young songwriter and singer, someone born seven years after she died, has bought the house, whether Rebekah Harkness hasn't found a way to come back to Watch Hill.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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