Harkness, Rebekah West

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HARKNESS, Rebekah West

(b. 17 April 1915 in St. Louis, Missouri; d. 17 June 1982 in New York City), capricious and exceptionally wealthy philanthropist and patron of the arts who backed the Joffrey Ballet before founding the Harkness Ballet, Harkness Youth Dancers, and Harkness House for Ballet Arts.

Harkness, born Rebekah Semple West, grew up amidst splendor in St. Louis as the third and youngest child of Allen Tarwater West, heir to a banking fortune, and Rebekah Semple, daughter of a wealthy merchant. She attended finishing school at Fermata in Aiken, South Carolina, from 1929 to 1932, before pursuing advanced instruction in harmonic structure and composition while studying piano and dance.

After a very brief career as a model, Harkness married the photographer Charles Dickson Pierce on 10 June 1939; they had two children and then divorced in 1945. Two years later on 1 October 1947, Harkness wed the philanthropist William Hale Harkness; they had one child before her husband died in 1954. After her husband's death, Harkness resumed her interest in the arts, aided by an inheritance of about $27 million. Ambitious, possessing a campy sense of humor, and with a weakness for sycophants, Harkness would eventually squander most of the fortune. She made three semiclassical records in the 1950s, which were self-financed vanity pressings that received good reviews only from society columnists. Harkness had better luck with dance, and her composition Journey to Love had its premiere as a ballet with the Marquis de Cuevas's company at the Brussels World's Fair in 1958.

Enthralled with the reception accorded Journey to Love, Harkness focused on dance. Founding the Rebekah Harkness Foundation in 1959, she chose Jerome Robbins's Ballets: USA as the first beneficiary of her largess and sponsored its three-month European tour of major cities and festivals beginning in June 1961. When Robbins moved to other pursuits, Harkness sponsored a 1962 ethnological dance tour of Africa by Pearl Primus, then became the patron of the Robert Joffrey Ballet. Harkness pushed the Joffrey to use her ballet compositions. Accordingly, it scheduled one of her scores, Dreams of Glory, as the opening number of its 1962 European tour. Attacked by the dancers for being inane, this story of a teenage boy and girl who visit a museum, fall asleep, and dream that they become the president and first lady was yet another vanity production. Looking for any excuse to cancel the piece, Joffrey informed Dance magazine that there were too many problems with the costumes. The ballet was presented only once, in Teheran that year, as a special performance for Harkness and the Shah of Iran.

In 1963, at the invitation of President John F. Kennedy, the Joffrey performed at the White House and included Harkness's medley of vaudeville tunes among its pieces. Set to ballet, the one-act production cost $135,000 (more than the annual budget of the Joffrey before Harkness joined) and received mixed reviews in the United States but raves from the head of the Kirov Ballet when it was performed in Russia. It would be the last Harkness composition used by the company. Determined to assert his artistic integrity, Joffrey refused to return Harkness's phone calls. Her millions had bought new compositions, costumes, scenery, a masseuse, swimming facilities, and medical care for the company, but not control of it. In 1964 Harkness decided to form her own company. Left without prospects, many of the Joffrey dancers joined her. The international dance world, once friendly, now castigated Harkness for building her company upon the bones of the Joffrey.

The Harkness Ballet, a blend of modern dance and classical ballet, began its performing career with a European tour in 1965. Harkness insisted on playing an active role, but the only constant was her changeability, perhaps worsened by an increasing reliance on alcohol and amphetamines. Artistic directors came and went, with major decisions made by Harkness. As it became abundantly clear, she believed that she was the star. Rather than showcase the company's world-renowned dancers (among them, Larry Rhodes, Marjorie Tallchief, Helgi Tomasson, Lone Isaksen, and Erik Bruhn), photos in Paris Match and Time magazine featured Harkness doing lifts. To add further to the embarrassment of the dancers, she had them do her ballet Macumba (1965), in which she performed onstage with the choreographer Alvin Ailey in Barcelona. Demanding better leadership, the Harkness dancers threatened to leave after the 1968 season unless Harkness stepped aside and appointed Rhodes as artistic director. She agreed, and the 1969 season brought excellent reviews.

Having lost control of her company, Harkness founded another one. The Harkness Youth Dancers formed in the summer of 1968 under the direction of the choreographer Ben Stevenson. The company became an outlet for students trained at the Harkness House for Ballet Arts, which had opened in New York City in November 1965. Typically, Harkness spent lavishly upon the school. Each of the house's four dance studios was outfitted with special "springy" floors and eight-foot-high mirrors. The building also contained a music classroom, costume room, locker rooms, a masseur's room, bathing facilities, a laundry, record-listening rooms, a canteen, administrative offices, an art gallery, a reception hall, and a library decorated with some of Harkness's sculptures. The school, with thirty-five dancers, fifty trainees, and a staff of ten, became a serious force in the New York dance world, and the opportunity to study there was coveted by young dancers. By 1970 Harkness had become so involved with the Harkness Youth Dancers that she did not attend the main company's New York premiere. While playing at Monte Carlo on 26 March 1970, the Harkness Ballet's general manager received a telegram. On a whim, Harkness was canceling the remaining engagements and ordering the troupe home. At the same time, the Youth Company, mostly consisting of sixteen-and seventeen-year-old pupils, was granted senior status and accepted the name of the former company. The dancers asked if they could borrow costumes and continue the tour without pay, but were refused.

In subsequent years, Harkness continued her involvement with the arts, opening the Harkness Theater on Broadway 1974. Designed especially for dance, the facility never made a profit. Harkness also provided $2 million for the construction of the William Hale Harkness Medical Research building at New York Hospital. Following a brief marriage to Dr. Benjamin Harrison Kean from 1961 to January 1965, Harkness made her fourth match to Dr. Niels Lauersen, which lasted from 12 October 1974 to 1977. Her final years were plagued by family problems and health woes, and she succumbed to cancer at the age of sixty-seven. Her funeral was held at Saint James Episcopal Church in Manhatten. Harkness was cremated, and her ashes are interred in the Harkness family mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York City.

Harkness's personal papers, including a short interview, are held at the New York Public Library Lincoln Center Branch for the Performing Arts. The gossipy biography Blue Blood (1988), by Carl Unger, paints an unflattering portrait of her. Biographical information is also in Fernaul Hall and Mike Davis, The World of Ballet and Dance (1970). The demise of the Harkness Ballet is discussed in Maria B. Siegel, "The Harkness Ballet in Decline," Los Angeles Times (29 June 1970). An obituary is in the New York Times (19 June 1982).

Caryn E. Neumann

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