Harkness, Rebekah (1915–1982)

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Harkness, Rebekah (1915–1982)

American composer, sculptor, dance patron, and philanthropist who founded the Harkness Ballet. Name variations: Betty Harkness. Born Rebekah Semple West on April 17, 1915, in St. Louis, Missouri; died on June 17, 1982, in New York City, second daughter and one of three children of Allen Tarwater (a stockbroker) and Rebekah Cook (Semple) West; attended Rossman and John Burroughs schools in St. Louis; graduated from Fermata, a finishing school in Aiken, South Carolina, 1932; married Charles Dickson Pierce, on June 10, 1939 (divorced 1946); married William Hale Harkness (an attorney and businessman), on October 1, 1947 (died, August 1954); married Benjamin H. Kean (a physician), in 1961 (divorced 1965); married Niels Lauersen (a physician), in 1974 (divorced 1977); children: (first marriage) Allen Pierce (b. 1940); Anne Terry Pierce (b. 1944); (second marriage) Edith Harkness.

Once one of the wealthiest women in America, Standard Oil heiress Rebekah Harkness was well known during the 1960s as a generous philanthropist and patron of the arts. She created a dance empire that included the 40-member Harkness Ballet, a ballet school and home for the company called Harkness House, and a refurbished 1,250-seat theater which presented the Harkness Ballet as well as other dance companies to New York audiences. Through the William Hale Harkness Foundation, named for her second husband, she also sponsored construction of a medical research building at New York Hospital and supported a number of medical research projects. Harkness was also a complex individual with a decidedly self-destructive edge. In Blue Blood (1988), author Craig Unger claims that the public image of Rebekah Harkness merely scratched the surface. Calling her story "a Rashomon-like affair," in which each of the central people in her life had a different take on her, Unger also maintains that much of what was written about Harkness was false. At the time of her death, he points out, 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. Saddest of all, he believes, were her problems as a mother. All three of the Harkness children led tortured lives. Edith Harkness , her only child with Bill Harkness, was in and out of mental institutions and eventually committed suicide; her other daughter, Terry Pierce , had a severely brain-damaged baby who died in childhood. Harkness' only son, obsessed with upholding the family honor, shot and killed a man in a brawl.

Born into a socially prominent St. Louis family, Rebekah Harkness was an irrepressible and mischievous youngster, an alter ego of her brother Allen, and quite the opposite of her sister Anne West , who was described as demure and sweet, with none of the "wildness" of her siblings. Raised primarily by a series of nannies, Harkness had every advantage money could provide but seemingly lacked warmth and affection. Her father was a tyrant who alternately terrorized and ignored her, and her mother was preoccupied with her own social life. By the time she was 16, Harkness (known to her friends as Betty) had grown from a pudgy, round-faced child into a striking, self-assured woman. She had taken up dancing and ice skating to lose weight and was compulsive and highly disciplined in both endeavors. After graduating from an exclusive Southern finishing school, where she was known for her pranks, she and a group of girlfriends formed the Bitch Pack, a kind of sub-culture of local debutantes who enjoyed subverting society events—lacing punchbowls with mineral oil or performing stripteases on banquet tables. Harkness continued both dance and piano lesson, studying ballet with Victoria Cassau (a student of Anna Pavlova 's), and performing in recitals and various Junior League events. She also had a small role in the chorus of Aïda, the first production in St. Louis' magnificent new Municipal Auditorium. Later, she spent several months at the Ned Wayburn Institute of Dance in Chicago. In 1937, she rounded out her youthful activities with an around-the-world cruise, accompanied by her brother Allen. Her outrageous shipboard antics resulted in an invitation to leave the ship.

In 1939, at 24, Harkness married the first of her four husbands, Charles Dickson Walsh Pierce, a Yale graduate who worked for an advertising firm and was described by friends as a Walter Mitty-like character with his head in the clouds. "As soon as I walked down the aisle," Harkness said later, "I knew that I had made a terrible, terrible mistake." The couple had a son Allen (1940) and a daughter Terry (1944), before divorcing in 1945. Pierce returned to St. Louis, while Harkness, who obtained custody of the children, stayed in Manhattan, where she worked briefly in advertising and studied music composition. In October 1947, she married William Hale Harkness, the handsome heir to the Standard Oil fortune, whom she met at Watch Hill, her parents' summer place in Rhode Island. (Bill's great-uncle, Stephen V. Harkness, had staked John D. Rockefeller in the founding of the company.) The couple wed in a small private ceremony attended by Harkness' parents, her two children, and Bill's daughter from his first marriage to Elizabeth "Buffy" Grant (Montgomery ), who later married actor Robert Montgomery and was the mother of actress Elizabeth Montgomery .

Despite Bill's restrained and aloof personality, and the fact that he was 15 years older than Harkness (he was 46, she 31), the marriage seemed to work. The couple commuted between a 40-room mansion Bill purchased at Watch Hill and a rambling duplex on Park Avenue in New York City. Harkness became the picture of the young society matron. "Bill looked on Betty as a naughty child and set about to reform her," said one friend of the couple. "She was scared of him," said yet another acquaintance. "But she loved him being the dominant figure. She'd never had that before, except possibly with her father, and she always thought he was a clown."

In October 1948, Harkness gave birth to her first child with her second husband, a daughter Edith. Bill adored the child, as he did his stepchildren, whom he treated as if they were his own. Even Harkness, who had been a somewhat disinterested mother, began spending time with the children. "She had been a real rip-roarer, and suddenly she was so prim and proper," said a friend. "She was simply not the same person." In 1953, a year after the death of Harkness' father, Bill suffered a serious heart attack. He had a second one a year later, from which he did not recover. When he died in August 1954, Harkness inherited his vast fortune. Friends worried, however, that without her father or Bill to guide and protect her, she might be headed for trouble.

Immediately following Bill's death, Harkness indulged in luxuries her husband would have frowned upon: a penthouse in Madison Avenue's elegant Westbury Hotel, a chalet in the Swiss ski resort of Gstaad, and a yogi named B.K.S. Iyengar. She launched herself into a world of cultural pursuits, turning the estate at Watch Hill into an artist's colony and purchasing the local firehouse for an Art Center. She became the patron of French sculptor Guitou Knoop and took up sculpting herself, although most of her time was devoted to her music. Having studied composition with Nadia Boulanger and Frederick Werle among others, and written a hundred or so compositions, she was already gaining recognition as a composer. In 1955, her 20-minute tone poem "Safari Suite" (inspired by a trip to Africa with Bill) was performed at Carnegie Hall to a polite reception. Another composition, "Il Palio," was performed in Washington, D.C., in 1957, and an album of her semiclassical pieces, Music With a Heartbeat, was also released that year. There soon followed a recording of a pop song "My Heart." According to Unger, much of Harkness' composing was accomplished with her regular piano teacher in New York, and some was done with the help of a Russian composer-arranger, Nicholas Stein. Unger further claims that she did none of her own copying or orchestrations and that most of her rave reviews came from society columnists, while real music critics, if they discussed her work at all, tended to dismiss it. "The only reason her works were ever played in public was because she subsidized the performances," he writes. "And in truth, she was not under contract to all those record companies at all: Her records were vanity pressings, paid for by her."

In 1957, Harkness was commissioned by her friend Marquis de Cuevas to compose a ballet score for his Grand Ballet, to be performed at the Brussels World's Fair in 1958. The resulting composition, Journey to Love, was extraordinarily well received, turning Harkness' ongoing interest in the dance into a full-blown obsession. Establishing the Rebekah Harkness Foundation in 1959 (later renamed The Harkness Ballet Foundation), she became a dance patron, helping to revive Jerome Robbins' Ballet U.S.A. in 1961, and backing Pearl Primus for a four-month tour of Africa. Harkness began to combine her music studies with personal ballet instruction, hiring Leon Fokine (nephew of the great Russian dancer and choreographer Mikhail Fokine) as her teacher and later recruiting dancer Bobby Scevers as her exclusive dance partner. Their stormy love affair endured for 17 years.

Late in 1961, now married to her third husband, Dr. Benjamin Harrison Kean, whom she had met when he treated her for a parasitic infection, Harkness took the struggling Robert Joffrey ballet company under her wing. Sponsoring a 12-week summer workshop at Watch Hill, the goal of which was to prepare the ballet for an international tour, Harkness hosted the entire roster of dancers along with six choreographers commissioned to create new works for the company. Also included in the undertaking were dance teachers, administrators, lawyers, and, of course, her ever-present extended family of artists and musicians. Harkness went far beyond providing room and board and studio space for the entourage. "If a dancer required a nose job or orthodontics, she paid the bill," writes Unger. "Traveling accommodations for the troupe were always first-class. She showered them with gifts of perfume or scarfs or expensive leather purses." The unprecedented project prompted Walter Terry of the New York Herald Tribune (May 13, 1962) to remark: "The step made by Mrs. Kean, no matter what the result… is to be cherished by the choreographers and cheered by the dance world itself."

For two years, the Harkness Foundation continued to sponsor the Joffrey Ballet, underwriting its tour of the Middle East, Europe, and Russia. At home, the foundation also sponsored dance company tours of the public schools, a season of modern dance at Hunter College, and an open-air dance festival in conjunction with the Shakespeare Festival in Central Park. Harkness' relationship with Joffrey endured numerous artistic squabbles, but ended abruptly when she proposed changing the name of the company to the Harkness Ballet. In April 1964, she took her plan further, forming her own company and endowing it with $2 million from both of her foundations. Although Harkness denied raiding Joffrey's company

or taking over his repertory (which her foundation now owned), she contracted 14 of his dancers for her new company of 26. She admittedly asked Joffrey to stay on as artistic director of the new company, but he was outraged by her actions and refused her offer. The dance world rallied behind him, as did the press. Allen Hughes, in The New York Times, castigated Harkness for building her company "on the ruin of an old one." "The Rebekah Harkness Foundation has paralyzed the Joffrey Ballet for the present and imperiled the company's future," he said. "A moral issue is involved here."

Determined to create something uniquely her own and not merely a carbon copy of the Joffrey Ballet, Harkness launched her company during the summer of 1964, hiring George Skibine, former director of the Paris Opera Ballet, as artistic director. She also recruited some impressive talent—Vera Volkova, Alexandra Danilova , Alvin Ailey, Richard Wagner, and Donald Saddler, among others—to create new works for her company. To provide her dancers with a home in New York City, she purchased the former Thomas J. Watson town house, a five-story, 35-room mansion that she transformed into the Harkness House for Ballet Arts. Completed in November 1965, it was as opulent as any of the European royal dance schools. As her ballet company prepared for its first performance, the press, who had crucified her a few months earlier, eagerly awaited the debut. "The first major cultural event of the new year is the launching of an American ballet company on a scale unprecedented in dance history," reported the New York Morning Telegraph.

Because of the lingering ill will over the Joffrey debacle, the Harkness Ballet did not debut in the United States. Instead it made its first appearance in Cannes, France, on February 19, 1965, followed by a European tour. Clive Barnes, who accompanied the ballet on the tour, called the first performance "shaky," but was generally optimistic about the future of the new company. In September 1965, the Ballet performed at the White House, after which it began a six-week tour of 30 American cities. After the company's first New York season in 1967, reviews were generally positive with regard to the dancers, but still questioned the repertory and the choreography. In the National Observer (November 20, 1967), Douglas M. Davis wrote that the principals "tower above their choreography… which is bland and uninspired for the most part." Doris Harding , in Dance Magazine (January 1968), objected to the dark themes of the company's repertory, commenting that the dances "seemed to hark back to the anti-Victorian, new-Freudian churning of the thirties and early forties."

The "churning" on stage was nothing compared to the rumblings within the company, a result of Harkness' own artistic confusion and administrative naiveté. "It was disorganized and bizarre," recalled Jane Remer , who was made assistant director of the company, but had no clear-cut job description. "I sat at a desk worth more than my apartment! On any given morning when she and I had something to talk about, Rebekah would come down in her pink and blue leotards and literally stand on her head, and we would have the conversation with her standing on her head. It would be all very Proustian and never made too much sense." From 1965, when Harkness replaced original director Skibine with Bertrand Castelli (who later produced the musical Hair), the company began a series of shifts in leadership, although Harkness always retained the upper hand and exercised an iron will. Castelli was eventually replaced by Brian Mac Donald, a Canadian choreographer who, in 1968, was replaced by company soloist Lawrence Rhodes. Although it was unusual for a principal dancer to become an artistic director of a company, Rhodes was embraced by both the dancers and the critics. A year later, finding himself unable to dance major roles as well as direct, Rhodes brought in Benjamin Harkarvy, a founder-director of the Netherlands Dance Theater, to codirect. By the end of that year, Clive Barnes wrote that the Harkness Ballet had survived a difficult rite of passage and was on the road to greatness. "We were a family," said one of the dancers. "Morale was high. We were a real unit. For the first time, we were proud of the repertory."

At the height of the company's success, Harkness apparently lost interest and devoted her time instead to the formation of a second company, the Harkness Youth Dancers. By 1970, she was so involved with the new company that she missed the main company's New York season premiere. In March 1970, quite unexpectedly, she called the company home from midpoint in a European tour, citing financial pressures that would no longer enable her to support two companies. In one devastating blow, Rhodes was fired and the rest of the tour was canceled. "It changed the lives of everybody in the company," said one dancer. "Nobody had any warning." Although 16 of the dancers were offered a place in the new company, all but one refused. A representative of the American Guild of Musical Artists called the situation tragic. "The company was built to a success and then dashed on the rocks. Every other company that's failed has failed for lack of money."

In May 1970, the Youth Dancers, who trained almost exclusively at the Harkness school, became the new Harkness Ballet, under Harkness' artistic direction, with Ben Stevenson as choreographer. "Many members were not even real professionals; they were trainees," writes Unger, "some of them just sixteen and seventeen years old. Within a few months, Clive Barnes wrote in The Times that the Harkness Ballet has 'descended beyond the necessity of serious consideration.' Rebekah's dream was over. Everybody knew it but her."

Unaware of her limitations, however, Harkness undertook her most ambitious project to date, the Harkness Theater. Purchasing the former RKO Colonial movie theater at Broadway and 62nd Street, she put $5 million into a renovation project, most of which was directed by her new love interest Niels Lauersen, a Danish gynecologist whom she would later marry. (Lauersen maintained that the marriage was annulled soon after the wedding. "It was an agreement, really not a marriage," he told Unger, "simply an agreement. The reason was to give her human support.") Inspired by the Kirov Theater in Leningrad, the finished theater facility boasted a 3,500-square-foot stage with absorption units beneath the floor to give it special resiliency. Marble and crystal from Spain lined the foyer and 16 crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Harkness had 1,277 hand-carved Louis XIV chairs made in Spain and upholstered in velvet in her own shade of Harkness blue. She also commissioned Spanish artist Enrique Senis-Oliver to paint a 120-square-yard mural Homage to Terpsichore on the stage's proscenium arch. (Newsweek later called it "the ugliest mural ever painted.") The theater opened with a performance of the Harkness Ballet on April 9, 1974, a gala event that was attended by the most important figures in the dance world, as well as a roster of society swells and assorted royalty. The reviewers, although kind to the dancers, panned the choreography and the theater itself, for which they saved their most savage remarks. New York magazine called it a "garish bordello of a dance theater" and compared it to a "Staten Island beauty parlor." Dance magazine said it looked like "a lavish ladies' powder room."

After a two-week run in the theater, the ballet company embarked on a tour in Europe and the Middle East. Harkness, in the meantime, attempted, without much success, to rent out the theater to other dance companies. By 1974, as a result of the millions spent on the theater, a raging inflation, and the sluggish stock market, Harkness was in serious financial difficulty. Unable to pump enough money into the dance company, she began soliciting funds to save the company. The public, however, was not sympathetic. Clive Barnes echoed popular opinion when he wrote: "The Harkness Ballet is not at present artistically viable. Does any independent, experienced voice in the dance world say it is? So far as the dancers are concerned, Mrs. Harkness has already willfully disbanded a company of dancers far stronger than her present troupe." Within the year, the company had folded. Harkness was fed up. "I really want to go on to something else," she said.

The Harkness School of Ballet at Harkness House was all that remained of Harkness' ballet empire, although Harkness lost interest in it, too. The school had flourished under the direction of David Howard, a highly respected dance teacher, who attracted dancers like Gelsey Kirkland, Natalia Makarova , and Peter Martins to his classes. After he left, the school rapidly lost its edge, and even the building fell into disrepair. To put things right, Harkness recruited Bobby Scevers and named his friend and mentor Nikita Talin, a former dancer turned teacher, director of the operation. Talin's dictatorial leadership and gruff manner made him very unpopular, and the school soon began to lose teachers and students alike. "Harkness House had no bearing on what was happening in the dance world anymore," said a former employee. "The dance world was not enriched by anything that was happening there."

The decade of the 1970s took a personal toll on Harkness as well. Of major concern was her health and a growing dependency on drugs that had begun, according to Unger, in the 1960s, when she had started taking "vitamin injections" from Dr. John Bishop, whose practice at the time boasted such luminaries as Truman Capote, Cecil B. De Mille, Otto Preminger, and Alan Jay Lerner, among others. (Some of Bishop's patients reported that they suffered severe withdrawal symptoms when they were unable to get their injections, leading to speculation that the shots may have included something stronger than vitamins.) During the 1960s, Harkness, who was fascinated by medicine, also began injections of the male hormone testosterone, to strengthen herself as a dancer. She experimented with a variety of other drugs to keep her youthful, including some that were not yet approved for use in the United States. In the early 1970s, when she began to suffer with arthritis and hip problems, she started injections of Talwin, a powerful painkiller that caused physical and psychological dependence in some patients. Perhaps because of her drug problem, Harkness began to exhibit bizarre shifts in behavior, alternately drawing people close then shutting them out, leaving anger and confusion in her wake.

Few suffered more from Harkness' erratic shifts in attention than her three children, who ultimately kept their distance. By the spring of 1980, Harkness had lost most of her old entourage and had moved into a large apartment in a building adjacent to the Carlyle Hotel. Bobby Scevers and Nikita Talin, along with their friends, formed her new circle of admirers. Her health continued to worsen; now, stomach ailments accompanied her painful hip condition. After suffering a severe gastric attack on the way home from the theater one night, Harkness was hospitalized with what was believed to be an intestinal blockage. Surgery, however, revealed widespread stomach cancer from which she never recovered. In the final days of her illness, Harkness took responsibility for the pain she had caused her children. Edith, whose own mental health was fragile, spent a great deal of time with her mother in the days before she died, and Harkness was openly affectionate for the first time in her life. "She was grateful to see Edith every day," said a friend. "At the end she regretted all she had done and was warm and kind, and she was genuine about it." Harkness' daughter Terry also came but did not spend much time at her mother's bedside. Harkness also placed a phone call to her son, Allen, who was serving time in Raiford State Prison in Florida after being convicted of murder. "I want to apologize for making you the black sheep in the family," Harkness told Allen. He replied by telling her it was just as well. "I never had to put up with all the things you did," he said. (Allen's murder sentence was eventually reduced to manslaughter, and he was released from prison after serving eight years.)

Rebekah Harkness succumbed to her illness on June 17, 1982. Three days after her death, a memorial service was held at Harkness House, after which her body was cremated and her ashes placed in the Harkness family mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery. There was controversy over her will, which had undergone some 15 changes through the years and which Allen and Terry later unsuccessfully contested. A tragic footnote to Harkness' death was Edith's suicide just two months later.

In assessing Harkness' legacy, most agree that her contribution to dance was extraordinary, both financially and artistically. Some likened her patronage to that seen only in aristocratic Europe. (Unger conjures up the name of Catherine de Medici when discussing Harkness' powerful will and extravagance.) A former member of the Harkness Ballet maintained "that for everything that went wrong, Mrs. Harkness gave more to dance than anyone since Diaghilev." Her support of the dance continued for years after her death through the Harkness Ballet Foundation and the William Hale Harkness Foundation. On the philanthropic front, Rebekah Harkness quietly donated $2 million to New York Hospital for the construction of the William Hale Harkness Medical Research Building, and also supported medical research on Parkinson's disease and the work of the New York University Medical Center's Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine.


Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1974. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1974.

——. Current Biography 1982. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1982.

Unger, Craig. Blue Blood. NY: William Morrow, 1988.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Harkness, Rebekah (1915–1982)

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