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    Sunday, November 27, 2022

    Taylor Swift: A former resident of your house would like to meet you

    I wonder if Taylor Swift might like to hear the story of the time a body washed up on the beach under her Watch Hill mansion. (The product of a boating accident, not foul play.)

    Or maybe she would want to hear about some of the distinguished celebrity guests who visited what was once known as Holiday House, back when it was owned by one of the richest women in America. 

    B.K.S. Iyengar, once considered one of the foremost teachers of yoga in the world, used to stand on his head in the enormous oceanview dance studio at Holiday House. Howard Hughes would stop by when in town.

    Holiday House was owned by Rebekah Harkness, an eccentric patron of the arts and founder of the Harkness Ballet. She inherited the house from her husband of seven years, William Hale Harkness, along with a fortune that began with an original stake in Standard Oil. Her husband died at Westerly Hospital after being stricken in the house by a heart attack.

    I had the good fortune recently to hear some stories of the Harkness era in Taylor Swift's mansion from Allen Pierce, Rebekah Harkness's son, who called me out of the blue after reading a column I wrote a few years ago about his mother.

    Pierce turns out to be an engaging raconteur, and he had a lot of fascinating stories about spending childhood summers in the rambling oceanfront mansion that looms over Watch Hill.

    I wonder if Taylor Swift would be interested in knowing that Pierce once kept a pet raccoon at Holiday House and that the family often arrived in Watch Hill from New York City aboard an 82-foot speed boat known as a commuter.

    Pierce told me he is glad Swift bought the house, that she seems like a bright and talented young woman. He's pleased, too, that she's shored up the hill the mansion sits on, since he remembers when there was almost a flat acre of land at the slope that now falls off to the sea.

    Maybe Swift would like to know the restored Ocean House, a few doors down, was once well known in town for its chicken sandwiches. Pierce says he can still summon up the taste of them by memory.

    Pierce said he would be glad to meet Swift and share some of the stories of her mansion when it was often the summer home of the dancers and choreographers of the acclaimed Harkness Ballet.

    Taylor Swift might also like to know that her bad days in the tabloids would still probably pale next to the bad press Rebekah Harkness once suffered.

    Harkness once sent the New York Times critic Clive Barns a fake silver spoon after he wrote snidely about her checkbook patronage of the arts.

    Indeed there is a lot of tabloid fodder in the Harkness history.

    Pierce was in fact in prison in Florida — a second-degree murder charge was reduced to manslaughter with his self-defense plea — when his mother died in pain of cancer in her Manhattan home.

    Her ashes — at least as much of them as would fit — were placed in a jeweled chalice she bought for $250,000 from her friend Salvador Dali. The chalice was made to turn mechanically, and Harkness liked the idea she would be forever in a pirouette.

    One of Pierce's two sisters later died of a drug overdose, an apparent suicide, perhaps using some of the drugs, her biographer suggested, that she spirited away from her mother's cache.

    Pierce's other sister died in Palm Beach in 2005, though legal wranglings over her considerable estate, including an oceanside mansion, continue. It seems that while she was dying, in hospice care on morphine, an ex-husband arrived at her bedside with an attorney who remarried them. She also then signed a new will leaving it all to the deathbed groom.

    I most enjoyed Pierce's story about the dead body that he and his mother spotted on the beach while they were eating dinner up in the mansion — heated frozen TV dinners.

    Pierce said he went down to investigate and saw that the person was indeed dead. When police arrived, he said, they frisked the body and discovered the wallet still in the pants pocket.

    The Westerly police officer looked over at him, Pierce said, and said something about how he must not have pickpocketed the corpse.

    Pierce then pointed at the mansion up the hill and told the officer he lived there, by way of explaining why he would not need to steal from the dead.

    This is the opinion of David Collins.


    Twitter: @DavidCollinsct

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