Rebekah Semple West
April 17, 1915
St. Louis, Missouri, United States
|Died||17 June 1982 (aged 67)|
New York City, United States
|Education||John Burroughs School|
|Alma mater||Franklin Pierce College|
|Known for||Harkness Ballet|
Dickson W. Pierce
(m. 1939; div. 1946)
William Hale Harkness
(m. 1947; died 1954)
(m. 1961; div. 1965)
(m. 1974; div. 1977)
Rebekah West Harkness (April 17, 1915 – June 17, 1982) also known as Betty Harkness, was an American composer, sculptor, dance patron, and philanthropist who founded the Harkness Ballet. Her marriage to William Hale "Bill" Harkness, an attorney and heir to the Standard Oil fortune of William L. Harkness, made her one of the wealthiest women in America.
Rebekah Semple West was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1915. She was the second daughter of three children to Allen Tarwater West, a stockbroker and co-founder of G. H. Walker & Co., and Rebekah Cook (née Semple) West. Her grandfather founded the St. Louis Union Trust Company. Raised primarily by nannies, Harkness took up dancing and ice skating to lose weight and was highly disciplined in both endeavors. She attended the Rossman School and John Burroughs School in St. Louis, and then the Fermata School for Girls in Aiken, South Carolina. Harkness was friends with a young Potter Stewart, whom she affectionately called "Potsie," and their relationship was written about by her biographer Craig Unger.
After graduating in 1932, she and a group of female friends formed the Bitch Pack, a sub-culture of local debutantes who enjoyed subverting society events, including lacing punchbowls with mineral oil and performing stripteases on banquet tables.
In the 1960s, Harkness became well known as a philanthropist and patron of the arts. Through the Rebekah Harkness Foundation, Harkness sponsored Jerome Robbins and the Joffrey Ballet. When the Joffrey Ballet refused to rename their company in Harkness' honor, she withdrew funding and hired most of the Joffrey dancers to her new company, the Harkness Ballet. In addition to founding the Harkness Ballet, Harkness launched a ballet school and home for the company called Harkness House, as well as a refurbished 1,250-seat theater, which presented the Harkness Ballet and other dance companies to New York audiences. Through the William Hale Harkness Foundation, she sponsored construction of a medical research building at the New York Hospital and supported a number of medical research projects.
Later in life, she studied in Fontainebleau, France, with Nadia Boulanger, at the Institut Jaques-Dalcroze in Geneva, and the Mannes College of Music, New York. She also studied orchestration with Lee Hoiby and received a Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, New Hampshire, in 1968.
On June 10, 1939, Harkness married Dickson W. Pierce, the son of Thomas M. Pierce and a descendant of Franklin Pierce. Before their divorce in 1946, they had two children; Allen Pierce (b. 1940) and Anne Terry Pierce (b. 1944). Allen shot and killed a man in a brawl and was charged with second-degree murder, while Anne married Anthony McBride in 1966 and had a severely brain-damaged baby who died at age 10.
On October 1, 1947, Harkness married William Hale Harkness (1900–1954), the son of William Lamon Harkness, both Standard Oil heirs. Before his death in August 1954, they had one child together; Edith Hale Harkness (1948–1982). Edith married Kenneth Perry McKinnon in 1971 and was in and out of mental institutions before eventually committing suicide.
In popular culture
Harkness' "Holiday House" in Watch Hill, Rhode Island was acquired in 2013 by American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift. In 2020, Swift wrote the song "The Last Great American Dynasty" for her eighth studio album Folklore (2020), in which she tells Harkness' life story.
- "Anne Pierce, 1962 Debutante, Married to Anthony McBride". The New York Times. 19 July 1966. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
- Dunning, Jennifer (19 June 1982). "Rebekah West Harkness, 67, Patron of Dance and Medicine". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
- Harrison, Barbara Grizzuti (22 May 1988). "'Is There a Chic Way to Go?'". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 July 2017.
- McDonagh, Don (2 November 1967). "Harkness Ballet Takes the Bid Step to Broadway". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
- "Patrician of the Dance; Rebekah West Harkness". The New York Times. 26 August 1966. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
- Barnes, Clive (15 January 1969). "The Dance: Rebekah Harkness Ballet Goes Dutch; Madrigalesco' Given American Premiere 3 Other Works Offered as Troupe Returns". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
- Aderer, Rhoda (19 November 1965). "Harkness House Opened as Home For Ballet Arts; Lynda Johnson Attends -- City s Medal Given To Woman Donor". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
- Warren, Virginia Lee (18 July 1971). "The Humble Beginnings Of an Elegant Mansion". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
- Kisselgoff, Anna (15 March 1997). "Lauding and Forgiving a Patron". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
- Winfrey, Carey (21 June 1977). "Curtain Falls on Harkness Theater". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
- "Debut Here June 21 For Terry Pierce". The New York Times. 18 May 1962. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
- Times, Special To The New York (28 April 1971). "Miss Edith H. Harkness Wed To Kenneth Mckinnon, Lawyer". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
- Lambert, Bruce (September 26, 1993). "Benjamin H. Kean, Shah's Physician, Dies at 81". The New York Times. Retrieved July 20, 2017.
- "Notes on People; Gov. Thomson Asks States to Sue the U.S." The New York Times. 3 January 1975. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
- Hartocollis, Anemona (14 May 2006). "Out of Prison, Doctor Hopes to Regenerate His Lost Fame". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 July 2017.
- The New York Times, 1988
- Collins, David (May 5, 2013). "Taylor Swift is buying into a rich Watch Hill tradition". The Day. Retrieved July 24, 2020.
- Sager, Jessica (July 27, 2020). "Taylor Swift's Folklore Is Here! And We Broke Down All the Easter Eggs So You Don't Have To". Parade. Retrieved August 26, 2020.